Indiana’s Most Terrible Crime: The Case Of Sylvia Likens

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MENTIONS HORRIFIC TORTURE AND BOTH EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL ABUSE!

The Baniszewski house, where the torture took place

This is most likely one of the most disturbing cases I’ve researched so far. I don’t have a witty opening because I don’t even know what to say. Watching documentaries and reading about this case made me sick to my stomach. Please be advised that this article will go into detail about the torture and abuse (physical and emotional) of a minor. If this is something that might bother you, I do not advise that you read this. You can always check out my other articles though. Okay, I guess there’s nothing left to do but get into it.

Sylvia Marie Likens was born on January 3, 1949. She was the third of five children born to carnival workers Lester and Betty Likens. She was born in between two sets of fraternal twins. Daniel and Dianna who were two years older than her and Benny and Jenny who were one year younger than her. Jenny Likens suffered from polio, causing one of her legs to be weaker than the other. She had a pronounced limp and have to wear a brace on one leg. Lester and Betty’s marriage was very unstable. They would often sell candy, beer, and soda and carnival stands around Indiana and moved the family frequently. The Liken’s sons would regularly travel with the parents to help them at the stand, but Sylvia and Jenny were discouraged from doing the same. As a result both sisters frequently stayed with relatives.

When she became a teenager, Sylvia would occasionally earn money by babysitting, running errands, or taking care of chores for friends and neighbors. She would often give her mom part of her earnings. She has been described as a friendly, confident, and lively girl who was known as “Cookie” to her friends. Although outgoing Sylvia would keep her mouth closed when smiling due to a missing front tooth, which she lost while roughhousing with one of her brothers during a childhood game. She had a fondness for music and loved The Beatles. She was notably protective of her timid younger sister. The two sisters would visit a local skating rink, where Sylvia would help Jenny skate by holding her hand.

Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski was born on September 19, 1928, in Indianapolis, Indian, to Molly Myrtle and Hugh Van Fossan Sr. She was the third of six children and grew up in an average working-class family. On October 5, 1939, Baniszewski witnessed her father die from a massive heart attack. At sixteen years old she dropped out of high school to marry eighteen-year-old John Baniszewski. The couple had four children together before divorcing ten years later due to John’s volatile temper. After her divorce, Gertrude married Edward Guthrie. Their marriage only lasted three months and the couple divorced. She would go on to remarry her first husband, and the couple had two more kids before divorcing again in 1963. Weeks after her third divorce, Baniszewski started seeing twenty-two-year-old Dennis Wright. They had one child together and shortly after the birth of their son Wright abandoned Baniszewski.

By 1965, Baniszewski lived alone with her seven children: Paula (17), Stephanie (15), John (12), Marie (11), Shirley (10), James (8), and Dennis Jr. (1). Years of poverty and abuse had worn Baniszewski down and although she was thirty-six years old, she weighed only 100 pounds. She was described as being haggard, underweight, and asthmatic. She was a chain smoker who suffered from depression due to the weight of her three failed marriages (isn’t it technically two marriages?), a failed relationship, and a recent miscarriage. She would sporadically receive checks from her husband and relied on odd jobs to help her stay afloat. She would sew, clean, and iron for neighbors and acquaintances. She still struggled to support her family and pay her $55.00 each month.

In June 1965, Sylvia and Jenny Likens lived with their parents in Indianapolis. On July 3rd, their mother was arrested and jailed for shoplifting, and shortly after, her dad and brothers had to head back on the road for the carnival. He arranged for his daughters to board with Gertrude Baniszewski, the mom of the sister’s high school friends. Likens and Baniszewski agreed on $20.00 a week as payment and she promised she would care for his daughters as if they were her own children. At the time all she asked for was the first $20.00 upfront which Lester Likens happily paid. Shortly after July 4th, the Likens sisters moved into Baniszewski’s house. During the initial weeks of their stay, Sylvia and Jenny were subjected to very little discipline or abuse. The older Likens sister regularly sang along to pop records with Stephanie, and willingly helped with the housework. Both girls regularly attended Sunday school with the Baniszewski children.

Although Lester Likens had agreed to pay Gertrude Baniszewski $20.00 a week in exchange for her care, the payments failed to consistently arrive on time. This infuriated Gertrude and she would take out her anger on the sisters by beating their bare bottoms with different instruments, such as a paddle, and making statements like, “Well, I took care of you two little bitches for a week for nothing!”. On one occasion, Sylvia and Jenny were beaten approximately fifteen times on the back with the aforementioned paddle, after Paula accused the sisters of eating too much food at the church supper all the children attended. By mid-August 1965, Baniszewski had started to focus almost all of her abuse on Sylvia. People believed Gertrude was jealous of the teenager’s physical appearance, virtue, and potential in life. The abuse was typically inflicted after the girls returned home from school and on the weekends. This initial abuse included subjecting Sylvia to beatings and starvation, as well as forcing her to eat leftovers or spoiled food out of the trash can. I’m warning everyone that it only gets worse from here.

In late August, Likens was subjected to humiliation when she claimed to have a boyfriend in Long Beach, whom she met in the spring of 1965 when her family took a trip to California. Gertrude asked Sylvia if had “ever done anything with a boy.” Confused by the meaning of the question Likens responded “I guess so” and explained that she had gone skating with boys and once went to the park and beach with them. While continuing the conversation with Stephanie Baniszewski and Jenny, Sylvia mentioned that she once laid under the covers with her boyfriend. When Gertrude caught wind of the conversation she asked, “Why did you do that Sylvia?”. The teenager replied, “I don’t know” and shrugged casually. A few days later Gertrude circled back to the conversation telling Likens, “You’re certainly getting big in the stomach, Sylvia. It looks like you’re going to have a baby.” Liken assumed that Baniszewski was joking with her and said, “Yeah, it sure is getting big. I’m going to have to go on as diet.” However, Gertrude then informed her, and the other girls in the house that whenever they “did something” with a boy, they would be sure to have a baby. She then kicked Likens in her private area. Paula Baniszewski who was already overweight, three months pregnant, and also jealous of Liken’s physical appearance began participating in the attack. She shoved her off her chair and when Sylvia fell onto the kitchen floor Paula shouted, “You ain’t fit to sit in a chair!”

One evening, as the family ate dinner, Gertrude, Paula, and a neighborhood boy named Randy Lepper, force-fed Likens a hot dog overloaded with condiments, including mustard, ketchup, and spices. Likens threw up as a result and was later forced to consume her vomit. Damn, I should have warned my mom before she got to this sentence. Just the thought of throwing up makes her sick. Sorry, mom! In what was Sylvia is alleged to have spread rumors at Arsenal Technical High School as an act of retaliation. The rumors supposedly stated that Stephanie and Paula Baniszewski were prostitutes. Syliva was supposedly upset with the household for singling her out of similar accusations and went to school with the attention of slandering the girls’ names. While at school, Stephanie was jokingly propositioned by a boy who told her that Likens had shared a rumor with him. When she got home that day Stephanie questioned Sylvia about the rumors and she admitted to starting it. Stephanie punched her, but Likens apologized while in tears, and soon Stephanie began crying too. But when Stephanie’s boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Coy Hubbard, heard of the rumor, he viciously attacked Likens; slapping her, banging her head against a wall, and flipping her backward onto the floor. When Gertrude found out about the rumors, she beat Likens with a paddle.

After having another run-in with Sylvia, Paula beat her about the face with such strong force that she broke her wrist. She primarily focused on punching Liken’s teeth and eyes. Later, Paula used the cast on her wrist to further beat Sylvia. Gertrude Baniszewski would regularly accuse Likens of being promiscuous and a prostitute. She would rant to Likens about the filthiness of prostitution and women in general. Occasionally Gertrude would force Jenny to hit her sister, beating her if she did not comply. Coy Hubbard and several classmates frequently visited the Baniszewski residence to physically and verbally abuse Sylvia, often working with the Baniszewski children and Gertrude herself. With encouragement from Gertrude, these neighborhood kids routinely beat Likens, sometimes using her a practice dummy in judo sessions, cutting her body, burning her skin with cigarettes over 100 times, and severely injuring her genital area. One evening to entertain Gertrude and her teenage accomplices, Likens was forced to strip naked in the living room and masturbate with a Cola bottle as they looked on. Gertrude would state to everyone in the room that his act of humiliations was for Sylvia to “prove to Jenny what kind of a girl you are.”.

Gertrude eventually banned Sylvia from attending school after she confessed to having stolen a gym outfit from another student since Gertrude refused to purchase any of the clothing for her. Sylvia was also whipped with a three-inch-wide belt for her act of theft. Gertrude then began to rant about the “evils” of premarital sex (I have no idea what that had to with anything) before repeatedly kicking Likens in the genitals while Stephanie jumped to her defense, shouting, “She didn’t do anything!”. After that attack, Gertrude proceeded to burn Sylvia’s fingertips with matches. A few days later, Gertrude whipped Jenny with the same belt after she reportedly stole one tennis shoe from the school to wear on her strong foot.

The Likens siblings were scared of notifying either family members or staff at their school of the growing incidents of abuse and neglect. Both were afraid that reporting it would only worsen their current situation. However, Jenny had to fight her strong urge to notify family members, as she had been threatened by Gertrude that she herself would be tortured to the same extent as her sister if she talked. Jenny was also subjected to bullying by girls in her neighborhood, and was occasionally ridiculed or beaten whenever she tried to speak about Sylvia’s situation. Throughout August, both Lester and Betty Likens would occasionally return to Indianapolis to visit their daughters, whenever their scheduled provided the opportunity. Their last visit was in Late August. During this trip, neither girl showed any visible of distress of mistreatment to their parents. Most likely because Gertrude and her children were present during the meeting. As soon as Lester and Betty left the Baniszewski household after their final visit, Gertrude told Sylvia: “What are you going to do now, Sylvia? Now they’re gone?” 

While out on a walk in September, the Liken girls bumped into their older sister, Dianna Shoemaker, at a local park. Both Jenny and Sylvia told Dianna about the abuse that went on in the Baniszewski home at the hands of their caregiver. They explained that most of the physical abuse was almost always reserved for Sylvia and was carried out in retaliation for things Sylvia had never said or done. Neither sister told Dianna the address they were residing at, and, at first, Dianna believed that they were exaggerating their claims. Several weeks before this, Sylvia and Jenny encountered Dianna in the same park, while walking with eleven-year-old Marie Baniszewski. During this time Sylvia had been given a sandwich to eat when she mentioned to her older sister that she was hungry. Both Likens’s sisters remained silent about the abuse and Marie later told her family about the run-in. Gertrude accused Likens of engaging in gluttony before she and Paul began to choke and bludgeon her. The mother and daughter then forced Sylvia into a scalding bath to “cleanse her of sin”, with Gertrude grabbing her by the hair, and repeatedly banging her head against the bathroom tile to wake her up whenever she fainted from the pain.

Shortly after the scolding bath incident, the father of a neighborhood boy named Michael Monroe called Arsenal Technical High School to report that a girl with open sores across her entire body was living at the Baniszewski’s residence. Since Sylvia Likens had not attended school for several days, a school nurse visited the home to investigate these claims. Gertrude told the nurse that Likens had run away from home the previous week and that she didn’t know where she was, adding that Likens was “out of control”, and that her open sores were a result of her refusal to maintain decent personal hygiene. Baniszewski further claimed that Likens was a bad influence on both her own children and her sister. The school made no further investigations into the claims. The Baniszewski’s neighbors Raymond and Phyllis Vermillion initially thought Gertrude was an ideal caregiver for the sisters, but quickly changed their minds when they witnessed Paula physically abusing Sylvia while visiting the home on two separate occasions. They described the older Likens sister as appearing extremely meek and somewhat zombie-like. The Vermillions would never report Likens’ obvious mistreatment to the police. Around October 1, 1965, Dianna Shoemakers discovered that her sisters were temporarily living at the Baniszewski residence. She stopped by the home in an attempt to initiate regular contact with her younger sisters. Gertrude refused Dianna entrance to the home, stating that she had “received permission” from their parents not to allow either of the girls to see her. By chance, approximately two weeks later, Dianna encountered Jenny close to the home and asked about Sylvia’s welfare. Jenny responded, “I can’t tell you, or I’ll get into trouble.”.

Due to the increase in the frequency and brutality of the torture and mistreatment Sylvia was subjected to, she slowly became incontinent. She was denied access to the bathroom, being forced to wet herself. Gertrude threw Likens into the basement and tied her up as punishment for her incontinence. She was kept naked, rarely fed, and often deprived of water. At times Sylvia was tied to the railing of the basement stairs, her feet barely touching the ground. In the weeks leading up to Sylvia being tossed in the basement, Gertrude increasingly abused and tormented her. She would tell her children that one of them had been receiving direct insults from Likens, hoping to provoke them into attacking her. On one occasion Gertrude held a knife in the air and challenged Sylvia to fight her back. Likens simply replied that she didn’t know how to fight. In response, Gertrude scoured Likens’ leg. Sylvia’s physical and emotional torture would occasionally stop so the family could watch their favorite television shows. Neighborhood kids were also occasionally charged five cents apiece to look at Likens’ body and to humiliate, beat, scald, burn, and mutilate her. With the help of the neighborhood children, Gertrude would restrain and gag Sylvia before forcing her into a bathtub with scalding water and rub salt into her wounds.

This part is pretty disgusting/disturbing. If you have a weak stomach, I suggest you jump ahead to the next paragraph. One time, Gertrude and her twelve-year-old son, John Jr., rubbed urine and feces from Gertrude’s one-year-old son’s diaper into Liken’s mouth before giving her a half-filled cup of water and telling her that was all the water she would get for the rest of the day. On October 22nd, John Jr. Tormented Likens by offering to allow her to eat a bowl of soup with her fingers and would snatch the bowl away when she attempted to eat the food. Sylvia was eventually allowed to sleep upstairs again, on the condition that she learned not to wet herself. The night she was moved upstairs she asked Jenny to sneak her a glass of water before falling asleep. The next morning, Gertrude discovered that Likens had urinated on herself. As punishment, Sylvia was forced to insert an empty Cola bottle into her vagina in the presence of the Baniszewski kids before Gertrude sent her back to the basement.

Shortly after this, Gertrude shouted for Likens to come back to the kitchen. She ordered her to strip naked before telling Sylvia: “You have branded my daughters; now I am going to brand you.” Baniszewski began carving the words “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT” into Sylvia’s stomach with a heated sewing needle. When Gertrude was not able to finish the branding, she told one of the neighborhood children, fourteen-year-old Richard Hobbs, to finish while she took Jenny to a grocery store. In what Hobbs would later describe as “short, light” etchings, he continued to brand the words into Liken’s stomach as she clenched her teach and cried out in pain. Once done, Hobbs and ten-year-old Shirley Baniszewski took Likens to the basement where each used an anchor bold in an attempt to burn the letter “S” under Likens’ left breast.

Gertrude later taunted Likens by claiming she would never be able to get married due to the words cut into her stomach, telling her: “Sylvia, what are you going to do now? You can’t get married now. What are you going to do?” Likens replied, “I guess there’s nothing I can do.” Later that day, Sylvia was forced to show off the carving in her flesh to the neighborhood children, while Gertrude told them she had received the writing at a sexy party. In the evening, Likens spoke to her sister, telling her: “Jenny, I know you don’t want me to die, but I’m going to die. I can tell it.” That is heartbreaking. The next day, Baniszewski woke Likens and forced her to write a letter as she dictated what it would say. The letter was intended to make Likens’ parents believe that she had run off with a group of anonymous local boys and after they got what they wanted from her (sex) they abused, tortured, and mutilated her. After she was done writing the letter, Sylvia was again tied to the stair railing and offered crackers to eat. She refused them saying: “Give it to the dog, I don’t want it.” Gertrude then forced the crackers into Likens’ mouth before she and John Jr. beat her.

On October 25, 1965, after overhearing a conversation between Gertrude and John Jr. about a plan to take her to the woods and abandon her to die Sylvia attempted to escape from the house. She tried to make it to the front door but due to her injuries and weakness, Gertrude caught up to her. She was given toast to eat but was unable to consume the food because of her extreme state of dehydration. Gertrude forced the toast into her mouth before beating her in the face with a curtain rod. Coy Hubbard took the curtain rod from Baniszewski and hit Sylvia one more time, rendering her unconscious. Hubbard then dragged Likens back to the basement. That night, Likens attempted to alert neighbors by screaming for help and hitting the walls of the basement with a spade. One neighborhood heard the noise and believed it to be coming from the Baniszewski’s house but the noise suddenly stopped at three in the morning so she decided not to call the police.

By the next morning (October 26th), Likens was unable to speak intelligibly or properly coordinate the movement of her limbs. Gertrude moved Likens into the kitchen, propped her back against a wall, and attempted to feed her a doughnut and glass of milk. She pushed Likens to the floor when she was unable to bring the glass of milk to her lips. Sylvia was then sent back down to the basement. Shortly after the doughnut incident, Likens became delirious, moaning and mumbling over and over again. When Paula Baniszewski asked her to sing the alphabet, Sylvia was unable to recite anything past the first four letters. Paul grew frustrated and threatened that she would jump on Sylvia if she couldn’t stand up. Liken then defecated on herself and Gertrude ordered her to clean up the mess. That afternoon, a group of the tormentors gathered in the basement and watched as Likens jerked her arms around, trying to point at them. She began making statements such as, “You’re…Ricky” and “You’re Gertie” before Gertrude shouted at her to “Shut up! You know who I am!”.

Minutes later, Likens attempted to bite into a rotten pear she had been given to eat but her teeth were loose and she was unsuccessful. Sylvia then mentioned to the group that she could feel the looseness in her teeth. Upon hearing this, Jenny said: “Don’t you remember, Sylvia? Your front tooth was knocked out when you were seven.” Jenny then left the basement to perform gardening chores for neighbors in hope of earning extra spending money. Seems like a weird time to try and make money but okay. A laughing John Baniszewski Jr. sprayed Sylvia with a garden hose in an attempt to wash her off. The hose had been brought to the house by Randy Lepper at Gertrude’s request. Likens desperately tried to escape the basement again but collapsed before she could even get to the stairs. For her effort, Gertrude stomped on her head before staring at her for several moments. A little after five-thirty that afternoon, Richard Hobbs returned to the Baniszewski residence and immediately went to the basement. There he found Stephanie Baniszewski crying and holding Sylvia’s emaciated and wound-covered body after she had been ordered by her mother to finish washing her. Richard then decided to help Stephanie give Likens a warm bath, and dress her in new clothing. They laid Likens gently on a mattress in one of the bedrooms as she muttered her last words, wishing that her dad was there with her. When Stephanie realized that Sylvia had stopped breathing, she attempted to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Gertrude shouted that Likens was faking her death. Sylvia Likens succumbed to her injuries on October 26, 1965. She was only sixteen years old.

Gertrude Baniszewski started to beat Likens’ body with a book, shouting “Faker! Faker!” in an attempt to wake her. When that didn’t work, she panicked and instructed Richard Hobbs to call the police from a nearby payphone. Wow, that’s something you don’t see anymore. Those are like ancient artifacts. Policed arrived at the house at approximately six-thirty that evening. Gertrude led the officers to Likens’ corpse and handed them the letter she forced Likens’ to write. She also claimed that she had been attempting to “doctor” the child for an hour or more before her death. She told authorities the story about the gang of boys and claimed that Sylvia had returned to the home earlier that afternoon, bare-breasted and clutching the letter. Paula Baniszewski held a bible and stated that Likens’ death was “meant to happen” she then turned to the younger Likens sister and said: “If you want to live with us, Jenny, we’ll treat you like our own sister.” As previously instructed by Gertrude, Jenny Likens recited the rehearsed version of events that lead to Likens’s death, before whispering to officers: “You get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.”

After Jenny provided officers with a formal statement they arrested Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, and John Jr. Baniszewski on suspicion of murders within hours of Sylvia’s death. The same day, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs were also arrested and charged with the same offenses. Initially, Gertrude denied any involvement in Likens’ death, but by October 27th she had cracked and confessed to have known that “the kids” had physically and emotionally abused Liken, stating: “Paula did most of the damage,” and “Coy Hubbard did a lot of the beating.”. She further confessed to making Sylvia sleep in the basement on approximately three separate occasions when she had wet the bed. Beniszewski became evasive when one of the officers stated that Sylvia was likely incontinent due to mental distress and injury to her kidneys. Without showing a single sign of remorse, Paula signed a statement admitting to having repeatedly beaten Sylvia Likens with her mom’s belt, once breaking her wrist on Likens’ jaw, and inflecting other acts of torture on her. John Jr. Admitted to having “spanked” Likens on one occasion, stating that: “most of the time, I used my fists to abuse her.”. He further admitted to having burned Sylvia with matches on multiple occasions, adding that his mom had reportedly burned her with cigarettes. Five other neighborhood children Michael Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe were arrested by October 29th. All five were charged with causing injury to a person and each was released to the custody of their parents under subpoena to appear as witnesses at the upcoming trial.

Sylvia Likens’s autopsy revealed that she had suffered more than 150 separate wounds across her entire body, she was also extremely emaciated at the time of her death. The wounds varied in location, nature, severity, and stages of healing. Her injuries included burns, severe bruising, and extensive muscle and nerve damage. The autopsy also determined that her vaginal cavity was almost swollen shut. All of Likens’ fingernails were broken and most of the skin on her face, breasts, neck, and right knee had peeled or receded. Coroner, Dr. Arthur Kebel, listed Likens’ official cause of death to be subdural hematoma caused by blows she received to her right temple. Severe malnutrition, the damage inflicted to her subcutaneous tissues, and shock were listed as contributory factors. By the time Likens body was discovered it had been in the final stages of rigor mortis, indicating that she may have been deceased for up to eight hours prior to her being found. Sylvia’s funeral was held on the afternoon of October 29, 1965, at Russell & Hitch Funeral Home and had more than 100 mourners in attendance. A picture of Sylvia taken before July 1965 adorned her open casket. She was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lebanon, Indiana. Her headstone simply reads “Our Darling Daughter.”

On December 30, 1965, the Marion County grand jury issued first-degree murder indictments against Gertrude Baniszewski, Paul Baniszewski, and John Jr. Baniszewski. Roy Hobbs and Coy Hubbard were also indicted on charges of first-degree murder. All were said to have repeatedly struck, beaten, kicked, inflicted a culmination of fatal injuries to Sylvia Likens with premeditated malice. Stephanie Baniszewski was released from custody after her attorneys successfully argued that the state had insufficient evidence to support any murder charges against her. Stephanie waived her immunity from any potential impending charges and agreed to testify against her family. At a pretrial hearing held on March 16, 1966, several psychiatrists as to their conclusion regarding psychiatric evaluations they conducted on three individuals indicted on the murder charges. On April 16th, Prosecutors Leroy K. New and Marjorie Wessner announced that they intended to seek the death penalty for all five defendants. All of them found that the three were mentally fit to stand trial. Gertrude Baniszewski, Paula Baniszewski, John Jr. Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard’s trial started on April 18, 1966. They were tried together before Judge Saul Rabb at the Indianapolis’ City-County Building. Initial jury selection began on the same day and continued for several days after.

Each prospective juror was questioned by counsels for both the prosecution and the defense in relation to their opinion on capital punishment. Jurors who expressed any opposition to the death penalty were excused by the prosecution. Any jurors who worked with children who expressed being against an insanity defense or showed disgust regarding the nature of Likens’ death were excused by the defense. The attorneys for Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, Paula, and John Banisewski claimed they had been pressured into partaking in Likens’ torment, abuse, and torture by Gertrude Baniszewski. Gertrude pled not guilty by reason of insanity.

The first witness to testify on behalf of the prosecution was deputy coroner Charles Ellis. On April 29, 1966, he testified about the intense pain Likens had suffered. He told the courtroom that her fingernails were broken backward, numerous deep cuts and punctures covered most of her body, and that her lips were “essentially shreds” due to her having bitten and chewed on them. He further testified that Sylvia had been in an acute state of shock for the two to three days leading up to her death and was in an advanced state of shock during her final hours. He spoke about the swelling inside and around her vagina but stated that Likens’ body showed no signs of direct sexual molestation. On May 2nd and 3rd, Jenny Likens took the stand and testified against all five defendants. She gave a tearful testimony explaining that each of them had repeatedly and extensively, both physically and emotionally abused her sister. She added that Likens had done nothing to provoke the assaults and she was consistently being accused of doing things she hadn’t. She told the jury that she suffered abuse as well but to a much lesser degree and that it started approximately two weeks after moving into the Baniszewski home. She burst into tears as she recalled how her sister said to her: “Jenny, I know you don’t want me to die, but I am going to die. I can tell it!”.

Many parts of Jenny Likens’ testimony were corroborated by Randy Lepper, who stated that he had once seen Sylvia cry but that she had shed no actual tears due to her intense state of dehydration. He also testified to having witnesses Stephanie Benszewski strike Likens “real hard” and her mom ordered her to remove Sylvia’s clothes while he watched. Lepper visibly smirked as he confessed to having beaten Likens on approximately ten to forty separate occasions. He showed no signs of remorse during his time on the stand. On May 10, 1966, Baptist Minister, Roy Julian, testified to having known about a teenage girl being abused in the Baniszewski household, but he failed to report this information to authorities, having believed Gertrude claims that Likens had “mad advances to men for money.” That same day, thirteen-year-old Judy Duke also testified. She admitted to having witnessed Likens once endure salt being rubbed into the sores on her legs until she cried out in pain. She also said that on one occasion she saw ten-year-old Shirley Baniszewski rip open Likens’ blouse, to which Richards Hobbs remarked, “Everybody’s having fun with Sylvia.”

The next day, Gertrude Baniszewski took the stand in her defense. She denied any responsibility for Likens’ prolonged abuse, torment, or ultimate death. She claimed her children, and other children within her neighborhood must have committed the acts within her home without her knowledge since her household was “such a madhouse.” She also claimed to have been preoccupied with her ill health and depression at the time. Gertrude admitted that on one occasion she had “started to spank” Likens but she was emotionally unable to finish the act and had not hit her on any further occasions. Two days later, Richard Hobbs took the stand to testify on his behalf. He described how Gertrude had called Likens to the kitchen on October 23, 1965, and stated: “You have branded my children so now I’m going to brand you.” He told the courtroom that he witnessed carving insults into Likens’ abdomen before asking him to finish the task. He said that although the etching brought blook to the surface of Sylvia’s flesh and that she begged him to stop, he insisted that the section of branding he had inflicted had been light. He further testified that he believed Likens would not be at the Baniszewski house on October 26th, since Gertrude had told him that she intended to “get rid of” her the day prior.

When Marie Baniszewski took the stand on behalf of the defense, she broke down and admitted that she had heated the needle Hobbs used to brand Likens’ skin. Marie testified that Likens showed obvious distress in relation to the physical and mental abuse she suffered and that Gertrude had full knowledge of the situation. She stated that on one occasion, Gertrude sat in a chair and crocheted as she watched a neighborhood girl attack, Sylvia. She added that although all five defendants took part in the acts of torture her mom and sister did most of it. Grace Sargent, a witness for the prosecution, stated how she had sat near Paula on a church bus and heard her openly brag about breaking her wrist due to the beating she inflicted on Likens’ face. She said she heard Paul boast to a friend: “I tried to kill her!” On May 16th, a court-appointed doctor, Dwight Schuster, testified on behalf of the prosecution. When asked about the interviews and assessments he had conducted with Gertrude, Dr. Schuster stated that she had been evasive and uncooperative the whole time. He further testified that he believed Gertrude to be sane and in full control of her actions. Dr. Schuster sat through over two hours of intense cross-examination by the defense but remained steadfast that Gertrude was not had never been psychotic.

Deputy Prosecutor Marjorie Wessner delivered the state’s closing arguments on behalf of the prosecution. Each defendant, except Richard Hobbs, remained impassive as Wessner recounted the continuous mistreatment Likens had endured before her death. She emphasized that at no point had Sylvia provoked any of the defendants nor received proper medical care for her injuries. Wessner went into detail about the different forms and means of abuse and neglect at the defendant’s hands. She described the abuse as “as stomach-wrenching”. Wessner told the jury that the nature of Likens’ death had been premeditated stating: “Gertrude knew on October 24th (the day she made Sylvia write the letter) she was going to hold these notes until she and the rest of the defendants had completed the murder of Sylvia. She finished her argument by holding up a picture of Sylvia saying: “I wish she were here today, with eyes as in this picture——full of hope and anticipation.”

William Erbecker was the first defense attorney to give his closing argument. He attempted to portray Gertrude as being insane and unable to realize the severity or criminality of her actions, stating: “I condemn her for being a murderess, that’s what I do, but I say she’s not responsible because she’s not all here!” He tapped his head to emphasize his reference to her state of mind, before adding: “If this woman is sane, put her in the electric chair. She committed acts of degradation that you wouldn’t commit on a dog… She has to be crazy, or she wouldn’t have permitted that. You’ll have to live with your conscience the rest of your life if you send an insane woman to the electric chair.” Erbecker held up a photograph from Likens autopsy and cried out: “Look at the lips on that girl! How sadistic can a person get? The woman is stark mad!” He then referred to the earlier testimony of a psychiatrist who had called into question Gertrude’s sanity before resting his case. Another defense attorney, Forrest Bowman”, critically began his closing arguments, attacking the decision of the prosecution to seek the death penalty for juveniles, stating: “I would like to have an hour of the jury’s time to explain why sixteen-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds should not be put to death.” He refrained from acknowledging the catalog of atrocities each had inflicted upon Likens, Bowman emphasized his clients’ age, multiple times and mentioned that each of the defendants was only guilty of assault and battery before pleading for a not guilty verdict for all of the youths.

A third defense attorney, George Rice, began his closing argument by criticizing the fact that Paula Baniszewski and the other defendants had been tried jointly. He side-stepped the multiple instances of testimony given at the trial that mentioned that Paula and her mom were the most enthusiastic participants in Likens’ physical abuse. Rice claimed the evidence presented against his client did not allude to her actually being guilty of murder. He ended his argument with a plea for the jury to return a verdict of not guilty on a girl who had “gone through the indignity of being tried in an open court.” The final defense attorney, James Nedder, began his closing arguments in defense of Richard Hobbs by mentioning the loss of Likens, stating: “She had a right to live. In my own heart, I cannot remember a girl so much sinned against and abused.” He referred to Hobbs’ courage in choosing to testify in his own defense and the “savage and relentless cross-examination” he had to go through. Nedder portrayed his client as having a follower-type personality and had only acted under the control of Gertrude Baniszewski. He mentioned Jenny’s overall failure to notify authorities of her sister’s abuse until she had already died, describing her as a “sister who could limp three-and-a-half miles to a park but couldn’t take two or three steps out into New York Street to beg for help!” He ended his argument by requesting a verdict of not guilty, telling the jury that Hobbs was: “guilty of immaturity and gross lack of judgment” but not of murder.

The trial lasted a total of seventeen days before the jury retired to consider its verdict. On May 19, 1966, after deliberating for eight hours, the panel of eight men and four women found Gertrude Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder, recommending a sentence of life imprisonment. Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder, and Hobbs, Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were found guilty of manslaughter. Upon hearing the verdicts, Gertrude and her children burst into tears and attempted to console each other, as Hobbs and Hubbard remained impassive. On May 25th, Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were formally sentenced to life imprisonment. On the same day, Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. Each received a sentence of two to twenty-one years.

In September 1970, the Indiana Supreme court reversed the convictions of Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski on the basis that Jude Saul Rabb denied multiple submitted motions by their defense counsel at the original trial, for both a change of venue and separate trials. The pair were retried in 1971. This time Paula Baniszewski opted to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter rather than face a new trial. She was sentenced to serve between two to twenty-one years imprisonment. Despite trying to escape from prison twice, she was released in December 1972. Gertrude Baniszewski was again convicted of first-degree murder and sentence to life in prison. Over fourteen years, Gertrude became known as a model prisoner at Indiana Women’s Prison. She worked in the sewing shop and was as somewhat of a “den mother”. By the time of her parole in 1985 Baniszewski had changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan, and described herself as a devout Christian. During her parole hearing, Baniszewski stated that she wished Likens’ death could “be undone”, although she minized her responsibility for any of her actions, stating: “I’m not sure what role I had in Likens’ death because I was on drugs. I never really knew her… I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia.” Gertrude Baniszewski was granted parole from prison on December 4, 1985.

Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. Each served less than two years in the Indiana Reformatory before being granted parole on February 27, 1968. Hobbs died of lung cancer on January 2, 1972, at the age of twenty-one. Karma is a mother f*, isn’t it? Following his release, Coy Hubbard remained in Indiana, and never attempted to change his name. Throughout his adult life, he was repeatedly imprisoned for various criminal offenses, and in 1977 he was charged with the murders of two young men. He would eventually be acquitted of both charges and move on with his life. Hubbard died of a heart attack on January 23 that same year at the age of fifty-six. Damn, karma is taking them out one by one. John Baniszewski Jr. Lived in obscurity under the name John Blake. Several years are the release he issued a statement in which he acknowledged the fact that he and his co-defendants should have been sentenced to a more severe term of punishment. He died of diabetes on May 19, 2005. At the age of fifty-two. Another one bites the dust. The injury-to-person charges brought against the other juveniles known to have actively physically, mentally, and emotionally tormented Likens: Anna Siscoe, Judy Duke, Michael Monroe, Darlene McGuire, and Randy Lepper, were later dropped. Siscoe died on October 23, 1996, at the age of forty-four. Lepper died on November 14, 2010, at the age of fifty-six. They are just dropping like flies, aren’t they?

The murder charges initially filed against Stephanie Baniszewski were ultimately dropped after she agreed to turn state’s evidence against the other defendants. She assumed a new name and became a school teacher. She later married and had several children. After her 1972 parole, Paul Baniszewski assumed a new identity. She worked as an aide to a school counselor for fourteen years. She was fired in 2012 when the school finally discovered her true identity. She is now married and has two children. Following her release in 1985, Gertrude Baniszewski relocated to Iowa and never accepted full responsibility for Likens’ prolonged torment and death. She primarily blamed her actions upon the medication she had been prescribed to treat her asthma. She died of lung cancer on June 16, 1990, at the age of sixty-one. Jenny Likens later married a man named Leonard Wade. The couple had two children, although she remained traumatized by the abuse, she had been forced to watch her sister endure. For the remainder of her life, Jenny was dependent upon anxiety medication. You and me both, girl. She died of a heart attack on June 23, 2004, at the age of fifty-four. Poor Jenny. That’s so sad.

The house at 3850 East New York Street in which Likens was tortured and murdered stood vacant for many years after her death. The home gradually became dilapidated. Discussions were held about purchasing the property and converting it into a women’s shelter, but the necessary funds needed to complete the project were never raised. The house was demolished on April 23, 2003, and is now a church parking lot.

Wow, I know that is a lot of information to digest. When I started researching this case, I intended to condense everything into a shorter article but the further I got into the research and the more detailed and complicated the situation became I just knew that wouldn’t be possible. Sylvia Likens’ abuse, torture, and death should never have happened. It was done to a poor girl who had done nothing but good while she was on this earth. It will forever go down in history as one of Indiana’s most horrific crimes. This one is going to stick with me for a while.

Gertrude Baniszewski in 1986 and Sylvia Likens in 1964

Sources:

“Murdered: Sylvia Likens” – Crime Junkies Podcast

“Deadly Women” – Investigation Discovery

“The Murder of Sylvia Likens” – Wikipedia

“Gertrude Baniszewski” – Murderpedia

“The Girl Next Door” – Movie

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