Sylvia Likens was an American teen who was tortured and killed by her caretaker, Gertrude Baniszewski, numerous of Baniszewski’s kids, and many of their neighborhood friends. Before you read further, TRIGGER WARNING: This is an extremely disturbing case. The content is not for viewing of children and those under 18.
Likens suffered from significant injuries and malnutrition for three months until she passed away on October 26, 1965, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Likens’ tormentors subjected her to increasing amounts of neglect, ridicule, sexual humiliation, beatings, starvation, laceration, burning, and dehydration. According to an autopsy, her body had 150 wounds total, including multiple burns, scald scars, and deteriorated skin.
Her younger sister, Jenny, was periodically coerced into taking part in her abuse through intimidation. Her death was officially ruled to result from homicide brought on by a subdural hematoma, shock, and acute starvation.
Paula, her oldest daughter, Gertrude Baniszewski, her son John, Coy Hubbard, and Richard Hobbs, two neighborhood kids, were all prosecuted and found guilty in May 1966 of neglecting, abusing, and killing Likens.
Gertrude’s defense attorney, William C. Erbecker, testified that Likens had been subjected to acts of “degradation that you wouldn’t commit on a dog” before her death. Deputy prosecutor Leroy New called the case “the most diabolical case to ever come before a court or jury” during the defendants’ trial.
The jury concluded that Gertrude Baniszewski was guilty of first-degree murder after eight hours of deliberation. Despite receiving a life sentence, she was granted parole in 1985.
Hobbs, Hubbard, and John were found guilty of manslaughter and served less than two years in the Indiana Reformatory before being granted freedom on February 27, 1968. Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder and was freed in 1972.
A senior investigator with the Indianapolis Police Department described Sylvia Likens’ torture and murder as the “most sadistic” case he had looked into in his 35 years with the Indianapolis Police. Indiana residents widely regard Sylvia Likens’ torture and murder as the worst crime ever committed in their state.
Gertrude Baniszewski’s History
Hugh Marcus Van Fossan Sr. and Molly Myrtle (née Oakley), both of Illinois ancestry and of American and Dutch lineage, were the parents of Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski (née Van Fossan; September 19, 1928 – June 16, 1990). The third of six children, Baniszewski came from a working-class household.
Baniszewski witnessed her 50-year-old father’s unexpected heart attack death on October 5, 1939. Six years later, at the age of 16, she dropped out of high school to marry John Stephan Baniszewski (1926–2007), a Polish-born man from Youngsville, Pennsylvania, with whom she had four children.
Despite having a violent temper and occasionally hitting his wife, John Baniszewski and his wife remained married for ten years before filing for their initial divorce.
Baniszewski married Edward Guthrie after getting divorced. Before divorcing, this couple’s marriage had only been together for three months. Baniszewski remarried her first husband soon after, and they went on to have two more kids. In 1963, the couple went through their second divorce.
Baniszewski started dating Dennis Lee Wright, a 20-year-old welder, a few weeks after her third divorce. Wright also physically attacked Baniszewski. Dennis Lee Wright Jr. is the only child she had with Wright. Wright left Baniszewski soon after the birth of their son in May 1964.
Shortly after, Baniszewski filed a paternity lawsuit against Wright, even though Wright hardly ever helped with their son’s upkeep, seeking financial assistance for their child.
By 1965, Paula (17), Stephanie (15), John (12), Marie (11), Shirley (10), James (8), and Dennis Lee Wright Jr. resided with Baniszewski alone (1). She was described as a “haggard, underweight asthmatic” chain smoker who was 36 years old, 5 feet 6 inches (168 cm), and suffering from clinical depression due to the stress of three failed marriages, a failed relationship, and a recent miscarriage.
She also weighed only 100 pounds (45 kg), despite being a chain smoker and asthmatic. Baniszewski occasionally worked odd tasks for neighbors and acquaintances, such as sewing or cleaning, to supplement the intermittent checks she occasionally received from her first husband, a former Indianapolis policeman, whom she mostly relied on financially to maintain her children.
At 3850 East New York Street in Indianapolis, where Baniszewski lived, the rent was $65 per month.
Who was Sylvia Likens?
Lester Cecil Likens (1926-2013) and his wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Frances (née Grimes; 1927-1998), were carnival employees. Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was the third of their five children.
She was born between two sets of fraternal twins: Benny and Jenny and Daniel and Dianna, who are two years older than her (one year younger). Since Jenny Likens had polio, one of her legs was weaker than the other. She had to wear a steel brace on one leg and had a noticeable limp.
Lester and Elizabeth’s marriage was troubled; they frequently moved, struggled with money, and sold candy, beer, and soda at carnival stands all across Indiana during the summer.
The Likenses’ sons frequently accompanied them on business trips, but Sylvia and Jenny were kept from going along since it would jeopardize their safety and education. Because of this, both sisters regularly stayed with family members, frequently their grandma.
When she was a teen, Sylvia Likens periodically worked as a babysitter, errand runner, or ironer for friends and neighbors, giving her mother a portion of her earnings frequently. She was characterized as a warm, outgoing, and vivacious young woman with long, light brown hair that fell beyond her shoulders and was affectionately referred to by her friends as “Cookie.”
Despite her exuberance, Likens seldom smiled openly due to a missing front tooth she had knocked out during a game with one of her brothers as a young child.
She also enjoyed listening to music, especially The Beatles, and she was fiercely protective of her younger sister, who was noticeably timid and more uncertain. The two sisters would frequently go to a local skating rink where Sylvia would hold Jenny’s hand and help her skate while Jenny used her unaffected foot.
Sylvia and Jenny Likens Move in With Gertrude Baniszewski
Jenny and Sylvia Likens lived in Indianapolis with their parents by June 1965. Their mother was detained and imprisoned for shoplifting on July 3. Shortly after, Lester Likens arranged for his daughters to reside with Gertrude Baniszewski, the mother of Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski, two girls the sisters had recently gotten to know while attending Arsenal Technical High School.
Gertrude promised Lester at the time of this boarding arrangement that she would look after his daughters till his return as if they were her own children.
After the Fourth of July, the sisters moved into 3850 East New York Street with the understanding that Gertrude would be paid $20 per week in boarding fees to look after their daughters until their parents returned to pick up Sylvia and Jenny in November of that year. This was done so that their father and, later, their mother could travel to the East Coast with the carnival.
The first few weeks Sylvia and Jenny lived at the Baniszewski home saw almost any punishment or mistreatment for the sisters. Likens regularly joined Stephanie in singing along to pop songs and happily helped out around the Baniszewski home.
The pastor praised Sylvia’s piety as both daughters routinely attended Sunday school with the Baniszewski kids.
What Happened to Sylvia Likens?
Lester Likens had promised to pay Gertrude Baniszewski $20 a week in exchange for her taking care of his girls. Still, after about two weeks, these payments ceased to be delivered on time consistently, occasionally being sent one or two days late.
Gertrude responded by beating the sisters’ naked buttocks with various objects, such as a one-quarter-inch-thick (6.4 mm) paddle, and yelling things like, “Well, I took care of you two little bitches for a week for nothing!” as she did so.
One time, in late August, both girls were given the aforementioned paddle beatings on their backs about 15 times after Paula had accused them of overindulging at a church lunch the family’s children had attended.
By the middle of August, Gertrude Baniszewski had started to abuse Sylvia almost entirely; her main motivation was probably jealousy of the girl’s youth, good looks, respectability, and potential. Subsequent trial testimony established that Sylvia was the first victim of this assault, which occurred on weekends and after she and Jenny arrived home from Arsenal Technical High School.
Likens were initially maltreated by being starved and subjected to beatings while being made to eat spoiled or leftover food from trash cans. Likens was once accused of stealing chocolates that she had genuinely bought.
When Likens claimed to have a lover in Long Beach whom she had met in the spring of 1965 while her family was living in California, she was humiliated on another occasion in late August. Gertrude enquired if Sylvia had “ever done anything with a male,” to which Likens replied, “I guess so,” not understanding what she meant, and went on to say that she had gone skating with boys there and once visited a park on the seaside with them.
Sylvia stated that she had once cuddled up with her partner in bed as they continued their talk with Jenny and Stephanie. When Gertrude heard this, she questioned Sylvia, “Why did you do that?” I’m not sure, Likens said with a shrug.
A few days later, Gertrude brought up the subject once more with Likens and said, “Sylvia, you are unquestionably gaining stomach size. It appears that you are going to become a parent.” Likens remarked that she believed Gertrude was joking with her “Yes, it certainly is expanding. Just going to have to start eating healthier.”
Gertrude then told her and the other girls in the house that if they “did anything” with a boy, they would undoubtedly have a child. Then she gave Likens a genital kick.
Paula joined the assault on Likens, knocking her off her chair and onto the kitchen floor while yelling, “You ain’t fit to sit in a chair!” Paula was also three months pregnant and envious of Likens’ physical beauty.
Another time, as the family was eating dinner, Gertrude, Paula, and a lad from the neighborhood called Randy Gordon Lepper forced-fed Likens a hot dog that was dripping with mustard, ketchup, and spices. Likens threw up as a result, and she was afterward made to eat what she had vomited.
Likens is accused of spreading a rumor at Arsenal Technical High School about Stephanie and Paula Baniszewski being prostitutes as her only act of revenge after the home singled her out for similar accusations.
Stephanie was playfully approached by a boy at school who claimed that Likens had originated the story about her. When Stephanie asked Likens about the rumor when she got home that day, she acknowledged inventing it.
Likens apologized to her in tears after Stephanie punched her in retaliation, at which point Stephanie started crying as well. But when Coy Randolph Hubbard, Stephanie’s 15-year-old boyfriend, learned about the gossip, he viciously beat Likens, hitting her and throwing her back into the floor.
When Gertrude learned, she beat Likens with a paddle.
Another time, Paula used such power to strike Likens in the face that she shattered her wrist. She had mainly targeted his teeth and eyes with her punches. Later, Paula continued to defeat Likens while wearing the cast off her wrist.
Gertrude screaming about the filthiness of prostitutes and women in general constantly falsely accused Likens of promiscuity and prostitution. Later, Gertrude would occasionally coerce Jenny into hitting her own sister and punish Jenny if she didn’t.
Coy Hubbard and several of his classmates sometimes went to the Baniszewski home to torture Likens verbally and physically, frequently working with Gertrude Baniszewski and her kids.
These neighborhood kids often beat Likens with Gertrude’s active encouragement, occasionally using her as a practice target in rough judo matches, lacerating her body, burning her skin with lighted cigarettes more than a hundred times, and seriously damaging her genitalia.
Likens was once forced to strip naked in the family living room and masturbate in front of Gertrude and her adolescent accomplices to entertain them, with Gertrude telling everyone in the room that this act of humiliation was for Sylvia to “show to Jenny what kind of a girl you are.”
After Likens admitted to stealing a gym suit from the school because Gertrude had refused to buy the clothing for her, Gertrude eventually barred Likens from going to school. Gertrude beat Likens with a three-inch (7.6 cm) wide police belt for this theft.
After talking about the “evils” of premarital sex, Gertrude repeatedly kicked Likens in the genitalia while Stephanie yelled in support of Likens, “She didn’t do anything!” Then Gertrude continued to lash Likens after burning her fingertips with matches. A few days later, Jenny allegedly stole one tennis shoe from the school to wear on her strong foot, and Gertrude mercilessly beat her with the police belt for it.
How Was Sylvia Likens Tortured?
Likens gradually developed incontinence as the frequency and ferocity of the torture and mistreatment she was exposed to increased. She was forced to wet herself since she was denied access to the restroom.
On October 6, Likens was thrown into the basement and restrained by Gertrude as a sort of retribution for her incontinence. Likens were frequently kept naked, infrequently fed, and frequently denied access to water here. On rare occasions, she was restrained to the stair railing in the basement with her feet barely on the floor.
Before putting Likens in the basement, Gertrude constantly tortured and abused him. She occasionally made up stories to the kids in her home that she, she, or one of them had been insulted directly by Likens in the hopes that it would make them bully or assault her.
Likens once said that she did not know how to fight when Gertrude dared her to “fight me back” while holding a knife in the air. In retaliation, Gertrude lightly scourged Likens’ leg.
The Baniszewskis’ physical and psychological suffering would periodically cease while they watched their favorite television programs. Additionally, on occasion, five cents per person was charged to the neighborhood kids to ridicule, beat, scald, burn, and ultimately mutilate Likens’ body as a “show.”
Gertrude routinely restrained and gagged Likens while she was imprisoned in the basement, with the help of her kids and kids from the neighborhood, before putting her in a bathtub of hot water and starting to massage the salt into her wounds.
On one occasion, Gertrude and her 12-year-old son, John Jr., put feces and urine from Gertrude’s one-year-old son’s diaper in Likens’ mouth before giving her a cup half-filled with water and telling her the water was all she would get for the rest of the day.
On October 22, John Baniszewski Jr. tortured Likens by promising to let her eat a bowl of soup with her fingers and then hurriedly took away the bowl when she attempted to eat the meal, although at this point, suffering from extreme malnourishment.
Likens was eventually permitted to sleep upstairs by Gertrude Baniszewski on the condition that she learned to control her bladder. Jenny heard Sylvia tell her to sneak a glass of water to her before bed that night.
Likens had peed on herself, Gertrude realized the next morning. Before being sent to the basement by Gertrude, Likens was made to squish an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina in front of the Baniszewski kids.
“Gertrude called [Sylvia] to the kitchen from upstairs. Eventually, the topic of tattooing came up in conversation. When Sylvia was questioned about tattoos by Gertrude, she responded, “You branded my children, so now I’m going to brand you.”
—Richard Hobbs, describing how Gertrude Baniszewski chose to criticize Likens on October 23, 1965, when she was testifying.
As soon as Likens left the kitchen, Gertrude yelled for her to come back and told her to get nude before telling her, “You have branded my girls; now I am going to mark you.” She started using a hot needle for etching the words “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT” onto Likens’ stomach.
When Gertrude could not complete the branding, she gave the order to Richard Dean Hobbs, 14, one of the neighborhood kids there, to complete the branding while she escorted Jenny to a neighboring food store.
As she gritted her teeth and whimpered, Hobbs continued to etch the words into Likens’ abdomen in what he would later describe as “short, light” etchings.
After leading Likens down the basement, Hobbs and 10-year-old Shirley Baniszewski each used an anchor bolt to try to burn the letter “S” beneath Likens’ left breast, but they applied one piece of the loop in the wrong direction so that this deep burn scar would resemble the number 3.
Later, Gertrude teased Likens by saying that because of the words engraved on her tummy, she would never be able to find love “What are you going to do, Sylvia? You cannot wed at this time. How will you proceed?” Likens said in tears, “I guess there’s nothing I can do.”
Later that day, Likens was compelled to show the sculpture to little children in the area, and Gertrude claimed to have acquired the inscription at a sex party.
Sylvia confessed to her sister that evening: “Jenny, I understand that you don’t want me to pass away, but I will. I’m able to tell.”
The next morning, Likens was made to compose a letter that Gertrude Baniszewski dictated while she was awakened. The letter’s purpose was to deceive Likens’ parents into thinking their daughter had escaped from the Baniszewski home.
This letter’s purpose was to blame a gang of unidentified local guys for severely torturing and dismembering Likens after she accepted to have sex with them before they inflicted severe abuse and torture on her body.
Gertrude completed her plan to have John Jr. and Jenny blindfold Sylvia, then take her to a nearby forested region known as Jimmy’s Forest and abandon her there to perish after Likens had finished writing this letter.
Likens was again bound to the stair railing after finishing the letter, but this time she was given crackers to eat instead, which she declined, saying, “Give it to the dog; I don’t want it.”
Gertrude responded by forcing the crackers into Likens’ mouth before beating her—especially in the stomach—along with John Baniszewski.
The Last Days of Sylvia Likens
On October 25, Likens attempted to flee the basement after overhearing a conversation between John Baniszewski Jr. and Gertrude about the family’s intention to leave her to perish. She tried to go out the front door, but Gertrude caught her before she could leave the house because of her severe wounds and general weakness.
Likens was subsequently given crackers to eat, but she could not do so because of how severely dehydrated she was. After forcing the crackers into her mouth, Gertrude struck her face repeatedly with a curtain rod until it was bent into right angles.
After that, Coy Hubbard seized Gertrude’s curtain rod and struck Likens again, knocking her out. Then Gertrude pulled Likens down to the cellar.
That nightfall, Likens screamed for help and pounded on the basement walls with a spade in an effort to wake the neighbors.
One of the Baniszewskis’ close neighbors would later tell authorities that she had heard the frantic commotion and had located its source coming from the basement of 3850 East New York Street, but that since the noise had abruptly stopped at around 3 a.m., she had opted not to call the police.
The Death of Sylvia Likens
By the morning of October 26, Likens was unable to talk clearly or control her limb movements properly. Likens was taken into the kitchen, where Gertrude tried to feed her a doughnut and a glass of milk while supporting her back against a wall.
When Likens failed to successfully get the glass of milk to her lips, she became enraged and tossed her to the ground. She was then brought back to the cellar.
Likens quickly went into delirium and started babbling and moaning constantly. Likens could not repeat the English alphabet after the first four letters when Paula requested her to do so.
She was also unable to stand up. Paula replied vocally, threatening to make a long jump on her if she didn’t get up. Then Gertrude commanded Likens to wipe herself up after she had defecated.
Several of Likens’ other tormentors gathered in the basement that afternoon. Likens jerkily moved her arms in an apparent attempt to point at the tormentors’ features that she could identify, saying things such as, “You’re Gertie,” and “You’re… Ricky,” before Gertrude abruptly yelled, “Shut it! You recognize me!”
Likens claimed she could feel the looseness in her teeth as she made an unsuccessful attempt to bite into a rotten pear she had been given to eat a few minutes later. When Jenny heard this, she responded: “Sylvia, don’t you remember? When you were seven years old, your front tooth was broken.”
Jenny later left Sylvia in the basement to do gardening work for neighbors in an effort to make some more cash.
John Baniszewski Jr., laughing, doused Likens with a garden hose that Randy Lepper had brought to the house that afternoon at Gertrude’s request. Likens frantically tried to leave the cellar again, but she passed out before getting to the steps.
Gertrude stomped on Likens’ head in return, then stood and glared at her for several seconds. Richard Hobbs arrived at the Baniszewski home just after 5:30 p.m. and went straight to the basement. After Stephanie had been sent by her mother to clean Sylvia, he slid on the wet basement stairs.
He fell heavily to the floor, coming face to face with Stephanie sobbing and hugging Likens’ malnourished, lacerated body.
Afterward, Richard and Stephanie changed Likens’ clothes and gave her a warm, soapy bath. Then, as Sylvia mumbled her dying hope that her “daddy was here” and Stephanie would take her home, they lay her on a mattress in one of the bedrooms.
After that, Stephanie turned to face Shirley, her younger sister, and exclaimed, “Oh! She will be OK!”
Gertrude continually yelled at the house’s kids, “Likens is faking her death,” while Stephanie tried to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after realizing Likens wasn’t breathing. At age 16, Likens finally passed away from her wounds.
The String of Arrests
During the original arrest, Gertrude Baniszewski battered Likens’ corpse with a book while yelling “Faker! Faker!” to rouse her. She quickly became frightened, though, and told Richard Hobbs to use a nearby payphone to call the police.
When the police showed up at Gertrude’s house at around 6:30 p.m., she brought the cops to Likens’ malnourished, severely beaten, and mangled body lying on a filthy mattress before delivering them the letter she had earlier compelled Likens to write using her dictation.
She further asserted that she had been “doctoring” Likens for an hour or more before she passed away and had tried in vain to administer first aid by rubbing alcohol on her wounds. She continued, saying that Likens had fled her residence with a group of teenage lads before returning that afternoon, bare-breasted and carrying the note.
Paula Baniszewski, who was holding a Bible, calmly said, “If you want to live with us, Jenny, we’ll love you like our own sister,” after telling everyone in the house that Likens’ death was “meant to happen.”
Jenny Likens recited to police the scripted account of what happened that resulted in Likens’ death, as told by Gertrude, before muttering to the policemen, “You get me out of here, and I’ll tell you everything.”
Within hours after the body’s discovery, police detained Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, and John Baniszewski Jr. on suspicion of Likens’ murder due to the formal statement Jenny Likens delivered. Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs were detained and accused of the same crimes on the same day.
The younger Baniszewski children and Richard Hobbs were held in the Indianapolis Children’s Guardians Home. In contrast, the three oldest Baniszewski children, together with Coy Hubbard, were given into the custody of a close-by juvenile detention facility. All were detained without bail while awaiting trial.
At first, Gertrude denied having any part in Likens’ death. Still, by October 27, she had admitted to knowing “the kids,” in particular her daughter Paula and Coy Hubbard, had physically and psychologically abused Likens, saying: “Paula did most of the damage” and “Coy Hubbard did a lot of the beating.”
Gertrude additionally acknowledged that she had made Likens sleep in the basement around three times after she had wet the bed. When an officer suggested that Likens’ emotional anguish and kidney damage were the most likely causes of her incontinence, she became evasive.
Paula signed a statement admitting to committing numerous acts of savagery, including pushing Likens “two or three times,” giving her a black eye and repeatedly hitting Likens in the behind with her mother’s police belt.
She also admitted to fracturing her wrist on Likens’ jaw. John Jr. acknowledged hitting Sylvia once, saying, “most of the time, I used my fists” to mistreat her. He acknowledged burning Sylvia multiple times with matches and added that his mother had burned the girl numerous times with cigarettes.
By October 29, five additional neighborhood kids who had assisted Gertrude in abusing the child had also been detained: Michael Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe. All were accused of causing bodily harm and were subsequently released into the care of their parents on a summons to testify in the impending trial.
Autopsy of Sylvia Likens
Likens was found to have more than 150 different wounds on her body, and an autopsy indicated that she was also dangerously underweight when she passed away. The actual wounds themselves differed in terms of their type, location, severity, and healing progress. She suffered serious bruises, burns, and major muscle and nerve damage. Her vaginal canal had nearly closed up.
The child’s face, breasts, neck, and right knee also had most of the exterior layers of skin peeled or receded, and all of Likens’ fingernails were broken backward. Likens had evidently bit through her lips in her final moments, removing some of them from her face.
Coroner Dr. Arthur Kebel determined that Likens’ subdural hematoma from a serious hit to her right temple was the cause of death. Both the acute malnutrition and the shock she had principally experienced as a result of the significant and sustained damage done to her skin and subcutaneous tissues were listed as contributing factors to her death.
Although Dr. Kebel noted that Likens had just been bathed—possibly after death—and that this act could have quickened the onset of rigor mortis, as it had fully developed at the time of the finding of her body, indicating Likens may have been dead for up to eight hours before she was found.
Convictions in the Sylvia Likens Murder
The jury deliberated for 17 days throughout the five defendants’ trial before adjourning to discuss its decision. After eight hours of deliberation on May 19, 1966, the jury of eight men and four women convicted Gertrude Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder and recommended a life sentence.
Hobbs, Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were found guilty of manslaughter, while Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder. Gertrude and her children sobbed and tried to comfort one other after hearing Judge Rabb announce the verdicts, while Hobbs and Hubbard showed no emotion.
Paula and Gertrude Baniszewski received their official life sentences on May 25. Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were all given sentences of two to twenty-one years to serve in the Indiana Reformatory on the same day.
The Indiana Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski in September 1970 on the grounds that Judge Saul Isaac Rabb had repeatedly rejected applications for a change of venue and separate trials made by the defendants’ defense at their initial trial.
According to this decision, neither of the appellants had a chance of having a fair trial because of the circumstances surrounding the biased basement generated during their initial trial due to the widespread news media coverage of the case.
In 1971, the two were attempted again. For her role in the torture and death of Likens, Paula Baniszewski chose to admit guilt to voluntary manslaughter rather than stand trial. She was given a sentence of two to twenty years in jail.
She was released in December 1972 despite making two unsuccessful attempts to elude capture in 1971. However, Gertrude Baniszewski was found guilty of first-degree murder once more and given a life sentence.
At the Indiana Women’s Prison, Gertrude Baniszewski earned a reputation as a role model inmate over the course of the next 14 years. She was a sewing shop employee who served as a sort of “den mother” to younger female prisoners, earning her the moniker “Mom” among some inmates.
When Gertrude received her final parole in 1985, she had legally changed her identity to Nadine Van Fossan (a combination of her middle name and maiden name), and she identified as a devout Christian.
Gertrude Baniszewski’s upcoming parole hearing sparked a commotion across Indiana. Jenny Likens and other members of Likens’ close family adamantly opposed the idea of her release. Two anti-crime organizations sent representatives to Indiana in order to openly protest Baniszewski’s parole and support the Likens family.
Both parties’ members started a sidewalk picketing campaign. These organizations gathered more than 40,000 signatures from Indiana residents over the course of two months, including those upset people who were too young to remember the incident at the time.
Gertrude Baniszewski’s lifelong incarceration was requested by every signature collected.
Baniszewski said during her parole hearing that she wished Likens’ death could “be undone,” even though she downplayed any blame for her conduct, saying: “I’m not sure what involvement I had in [Likens’ death] because I was high. I don’t think I ever really got to know her, and I accept full responsibility for Sylvia’s misfortune.”
The parole board narrowly decided to release Gertrude from jail due to her good prison behavior. On December 4, 1985, she was allowed to leave prison.
What Happened to the Murderers of Sylvia Likens?
After being released from prison in 1985, Gertrude Baniszewski moved to Iowa. She insisted that she could not precisely recollect any of her acts throughout the months that Likens was subjected to lengthy and increasing abuse and suffering inside her home.
She never took full responsibility for the long-term torment and death of the girl. She mainly attributed her behavior to the asthma medicine she had been taking. Gertrude Baniszewski, who was 61 years old when she passed away from lung cancer on June 16, 1990, lived a relatively quiet life in Laurel, Iowa.
John Dean, a former reporter for The Indianapolis Star who had extensively covered the case, said in 2015 about Gertrude Baniszewski’s passing and the questions about her sanity at both of her trials: “I never believed she was crazy. She appeared to me to be a resentful, cruel lady.”
Although Dean has maintained that Likens’ increasing physical and mental abuse was not the result of “children going crazy; it was children doing what they were told,” he has compared the situation to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies.
In 2014, attorney Forrest Bowman offered the following assessment of Baniszewski’s true motivation for torturing and ultimately killing Likens: “Her life was horrible. This, in my opinion, was ultimately about jealousy.”
Paula Baniszewski adopted a new identity following her release from prison in 1972. She changed her name to Paula Pace and lied about her criminal history when applying for the job as an assistant to a school counselor at the Beaman-Conrad-Liscomb-Union-Whitten Community School in Conrad, Iowa, where she worked for 14 years.
In 2012, after the school learned of her real identity, she was sacked. Paula married, giving birth to two kids. She gave birth to a daughter in 1966 while she was awaiting trial, and she named her after her mother. The child was later adopted.
After she agreed to turn state’s evidence against the other defendants, the murder charges first brought against Gertrude Baniszewski’s second-eldest daughter, 15-year-old Stephanie, were ultimately withdrawn.
On May 26, 1966, prosecutors did re-present their case against Stephanie before a grand jury, but the plan to subsequently charge her in a different trial has yet to come to pass. Stephanie Baniszewski adopted a new identity and started teaching. Later on, she got married and had several kids. Her latest known address was in Florida.
Stephanie said, “I’m just here in the hope I can help anyone,” when questioned about her motivation for tampering with the state’s evidence during the trial. William Erbecker, the lawyer for her mother, responded, “Including yourself?”
Marie, Shirley, and James Baniszewski were put in separate foster homes by the Marion County Department of Public Welfare soon after their mother was detained. After their father regained custody of them in the late 1960s, all three of the kids had their last names officially changed to Blake.
Marie got married later. At the age of 62, Marie Shelton passed away on June 8, 2017, from natural causes. Later on, Dennis Lee Wright Jr. was adopted. Denny Lee White was given to him as an adoptive child. On February 5, 2012, he passed away at age 47.
Before being granted parole on February 27, 1968, Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. had all spent less than two years in the Indiana Reformatory.
Less than four years after leaving the Indiana Reformatory, Richard Hobbs passed away from lung cancer on January 2, 1972, at the age of 21. It is known that he experienced at least one nervous breakdown between the time he was released from the Indiana Reformatory and the time of his death.
Coy Hubbard remained in Indiana after being released from the Indiana Reformatory in 1968 and never tried to change his identity. Throughout his adult life, Hubbard was jailed numerous times for various crimes.
On one occasion, he was accused of killing two young men in 1977; however, he was exonerated of this charge largely because the key witness at his trial was a convicted criminal acquaintance of Hubbard who admitted to having been in his company at the time of the killings.
Hubbard lost his employment soon after the crime drama film An American Crime’s January 2007 premiere. On June 23 of that year, in Shelbyville, Indiana, he suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 56.
Under the name John Blake, John Stephan Baniszewski Jr. had a relatively quiet life. He transitioned to being a lay minister and regularly hosted counseling sessions for kids of divorced parents. John Baniszewski Jr. released a statement several decades after he was released from the Indiana Reformatory.
He acknowledged that he and his co-defendants should have received a more severe punishment term, adding that young offenders are not beyond rehabilitation, and detailed how he had become a contributing member of society.
At the age of 52, he passed away from diabetes on May 19, 2005, at the Lancaster General Hospital. Before his passing, he had also periodically discussed his history in public, freely stating that the attention Likens’ murder had garnered him had made him feel good and asserting that he had “only ever hit Sylvia once.”
The charges of injury to the person against the other young people (Anna Ruth Siscoe, Judy Darlene Duke, Michael John Monroe, Darlene McGuire, and Randy Gordon Lepper), who are known to have aggressively physically, mentally, and emotionally harassed Likens, were eventually dropped.
On October 23, 1996, Siscoe passed away at the age of 44 and was a grandma. On November 14, 2010, Lepper, who had smirked as he admitted to hitting Likens up to 40 times, passed away at the age of 56.
Later, Jenny Likens wed Leonard Rece Wade, a native of Indianapolis. Despite the couple having two children, she was still scarred by the torture she had been made to see her sister experience. Jenny was dependent on her anxiety medicine for the rest of her life. On June 23, 2004, she suffered a heart attack and passed away in Beech Grove, Indiana, at the age of 54.
Jenny Likens Wade read Gertrude Baniszewski’s obituary in a newspaper fourteen years before her own passing. She cut the article and mailed it to her mother with the following note: “some positive news Oh no, Gertrude passed away. Aw, shucks! That makes me pleased.”
Lester Likens passed away in 2013; Elizabeth died in 1998. Jenny Likens Wade emphasized over and over again in the years leading up to her own death that neither of her parents should be held accountable for leaving Sylvia and her in Gertrude Baniszewski’s care because all they had done was blindly trust Gertrude to look after her sisters until they returned to Indiana with the traveling carnival.
After Likens’ death and the capture of her tormentors, the home at 3850 East New York Street, where she had been tortured and murdered, remained empty for a long time. The property deteriorated over time.
Although there were talks about buying the house, fixing it up, and turning the place into a women’s shelter, the money needed to finish this project was never raised. The actual home was torn down on April 23, 2009. Church parking is now available on the site.
RIP Sylvia Likens.
Next, read about the Winchester Mansion: The Castle of the Ghosts and afterward, about the Infamous Salem Witch Trials!
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