The case of

Sylvia Likens

sylvia_likens
Victim

Sylvia Likens

Victim Race

Caucasian

Victim Date of Birth

1949-01-03

Victim Age

16

Date Reported

1965-10-26

Date of Death

1965-10-26

Case Status

Closed

Incident Location

Boon County, Indiana, United States

Body Location

Boon County, Indiana, United States

Date of Conviction

1966-05-19

Body Discovered Date

1965-10-26

Murderer

Sylvia Likens was brutally beaten and burned with scalding hot water and cigarettes; she was also molested and raped with different objects like glass bottles on repeated occasions. Sylvia’s abusers did these things to her every day and for several months until they finally killed her. Months of pure torment and hell. Sylvia’s story would become one of the most horrible cases of torture and murder in the United States of America and the whole world.

Sylvia Likens

The Likens Family

16-year-old Sylvia Likens was part of a large family of seven in southern Boon County, Indiana, in the United States. She had four siblings: The two older twins: Diane and Danny, Sylvia was born after them, and the younger twins; Jenny and Benny. Their parents were Lester and Elizabeth Likens, married on March 22, 1944. They both were not so lucky with money, bringing the family to poverty.

Lester had made some financial mistakes, including buying a restaurant from a sketchy person who didn’t own it. After losing money, he was forced to work in factories, and Elizabeth would do housekeeping work. Things would not get any easier after Elizabeth got a severe health condition and had to remain in the hospital. Since Lester needed to continue working, the couple decided to ask friends for help to take care of the kids.

Even after Elizabeth fully recovered, this became a habit because they started working in Carnivals selling food and sodas from a concession cart. Sometimes they would work in the Carnivals as a whole family, and sometimes the two girls, Sylvia and Jenny, would stay somewhere else. 

Sylvia Likens

Sylvia Likens was described as an intelligent, pretty girl who tried not to smile too much because she had a missing tooth. She was an excellent obedient daughter, always trying to support her parents. Sylvia Likens was also a great sister, always caring for Jenny, her disabled younger sister. Jenny had a severe limping problem due to suffering from Polio. They would hang out since Sylvia’s family was constantly moving around in different carnivals. She attended several public schools, making it hard for her to keep up, and she started falling behind, even when she was very smart.

The Likens Meet Gertrude Baniszewski

On the first week of July 1965, and thanks to a friend of Sylvia’s Mom, Darlene McGuire, Sylvia and Jenny Likens had recently met a girl named Paula Baniszewski, who was 17 years old. Paula and the girls spent time drinking soda and listening to records at Paula’s. So when the time for Sylvia’s parents to leave on their way to the Carnival was close, Lester Likens met the single mother of seven, Gertrude Baniszewski, who offered to take care of the girls as if they were her own while they were gone for a month or two.

Lester Likens would pay her 20 dollars a week for the favor until they were back at the end of August. When he told his wife, Elizabeth, she wasn’t sure that was a good idea, but after Lester’s assurance that they would be safe spending time with other kids, Elizabeth said she would accept only after meeting Gertrude. They set up an appointment and met the woman and her seven kids Paula, Stephanie, John Jr, Marie, Shirley, James, and Dennis. It all seemed to be alright, so the agreement was made; Lester and Elizabeth Likens had decided Sylvia and Jenny would stay with the Baniszewski family. 

Things for Sylvia and Jenny Likens living with Gertrude and her kids were pretty normal initially. Even with the discomfort, that meant being nine people in the house and having beds only for four. The Baniszewski residence was filthy. It didn’t have a working stove or even a complete set of plates for everybody living there. How is it that Lester and Betty Likens didn’t notice this when they visited? Nobody knows. Still, Sylvia and Jenny managed to have a great first week. 

Things would change in the second week when Lester Likens didn’t send the 20 dollars payment on time. This made Gertrude so stressed she said she had taken care of them for nothing and referred to the girls as bitches.

Punishment Begins

Ultimately, Gertrude decided the girls needed to be punished for their father’s mistake, so she forced Sylvia Likens and Jenny to bend over the bed, pull their skirts up and their underwear down, and spank them hard with a paddle. This would be the first of many punishments the girls would endure living there.

Usually, Lester would pay the money in advance; he would send or hand the twenty dollars whenever they visited the kids; he would also leave Gertrude extra money to pay for Sylvia and Jenny’s school expenses like gym clothes or shoes. Of course, the girls never saw any of these things; Gertrude would keep the money for herself. She continued to abuse both girls physically and emotionally.

One incident that changed things for the worse was when Jenny and Sylvia had grabbed coke bottles from the street and sold them to make a little bit of money and buy themselves some candy. When Gertrude saw them with the candy, she chose to believe that the girls had stolen the candy. Since Sylvia was the one talking for both sisters, Gertrude punished her in front of the whole family with a paddle, having the rest of the kids normalize this abuse towards Sylvia. It wouldn’t take long until Paula, Stephanie, and John, Gertrude’s older kids, felt they also had the right to beat Sylvia whenever they wanted.

Punishment Becomes Torture

Eventually, more people would be involved in this hell. Gertrude’s daughter Stephanie would give her boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, permission also to beat Sylvia. Hubbard would use her as an object to practice karate. He would go to the Baniszewski every other day and enjoy beating Sylvia up in front of everybody. Gertrude would also have a neighborhood boy named Richard Hobbs actively participating in the abuse of Sylvia. Up to this point, the beatings were already pretty bad, but there was no sexual abuse. Yet.

Sylvia and Jenny met their older sister Diane in Willard park one day. They told her about everything, how Gertrude and her family were beating, choking, molesting, and torturing Silvia. Still, Diane thought they were talking out of dislike for a bit of discipline, and she did nothing to help them. Sylvia and Jenny were terrified to tell anybody about the physical abuse; they thought Gertrude would kill them if they opened their mouth, even when Lester and Betty Likens would go back to Boone County to visit them. Up to this point, Sylvia Likens was still going to school.

Gertrude once heard Sylvia Likens telling her sister she’d had a boyfriend she had kissed in the past. After hearing this, Gertrude started calling Sylvia a filthy prostitute in front of the family and proceeded to punish her by kicking her in the genitals several times. Sylvia was a sinner to the Baniszewskis, so degradation was in place. Sylvia lost her right to take showers, wash her clothes, and even sit on the furniture. If anybody ever asked why Sylvia would sometimes have a black eye or swollen lips, Paula Baniszewski would say that Sylvia was a troubled girl acting out and deserved all the beating. Apparently, such abuse was acceptable to “correct” a kid.

As impossible as it sounds, the events would be even darker when Gertrude once gathered her son John and other boys in the neighborhood and had Sylvia taking off her clothes in front of them. Then Gertrude handled Sylvia a glass bottle of coke and forced her to put the bottle inside her genitals. Gertrude believed this was a good show for the boys. One of the boys was Richard-Ricky- Hobbs, a neighborhood boy who, from that day on, became Gertrude’s puppy dog, following her around all the time and spending every day at the Baniszewski’s house.

The practice of forcing Sylvia Likens to put objects inside her genitals became a habit, and Sylvia started developing urinary incontinence; this would make her wet the bed. So Gertrude told her that if she wanted to behave like a dog, she would be treated like one; Sylvia would then be locked up in the basement where she slept on the floor, starved, and had to pee and defecate sitting there.

It was impossible for Sylvia not to stink and get dirty. Gertrude’s horrific remedy for this was to tie Sylvia’s wrists and ankles and throw her inside a bathtub filled with scalding hot water, burning her so bad and causing her such pain Sylvia would pass out on many occasions. Gertrude then would hit Sylvia’s head against the bathroom wall until she recovered consciousness; this would happen every day and more than once a day. Sylvia was also forced to drink her urine and eat her fesses.

Things for Sylvia Likens would get even worse when Gertrude started charging 5 cents to the neighborhood children for having a chance to see and hurt Sylvia too. Besides the beating and sexual abuse, Sylvia Marie Likens now had these monsters putting out their cigarettes on Sylvia’s body.

Not having enough fun with all these atrocities, once Gertrude had her fifth oldest kid, Shirley Baniszewski, only ten years old, heating a needle to brand Sylvia in her stomach with the words: “I’m a prostitute, and I’m proud of it.” The kid would enjoy this process all along, and she took turns with her siblings, Gertrude, Coy, and Ricky, to finish the task. Paula and Stephanie had the idea of also burning the letter S for slave on Sylvia’s body and had the boys and ten-year-old Shirley burn and carve Sylvia’s chest. Once they were done, Sylvia was taken to the basement where Coy could again practice his karate on her.

More Torture Only Led to Death

Around October 23, 1965, Sylvia was in terrible shape and very weak. Not only because of the torture itself but because she wasn’t eating at all. Gertrude could probably see that Sylvia’s death was coming because she had Sylvia writing a letter to her parents. The letter said Sylvia had gone with a gang of boys in the middle of the night to have sex with them in exchange for money and that these boys had beaten her up pretty bad. In the letter, Sylvia was forced to say that these boys marked her in her stomach with the words, ¨I’m a prostitute, and I’m proud of it¨, Sylvia would also say how she made Gertrude miserable by making her spend a lot more money than she had.

On October 25, 1965, Sylvia heard Gertrude talking about her plans to take Sylvia to a local trash point and throw Sylvia there to let her die independently. So that night, with the bit of strength she had, Sylvia tried to escape by screaming for help to see if maybe a neighbor would hear her, but it wouldn’t be long until Gertrude found out and punished Sylvia by beating her in the head so bad, Sylvia blacked out and seem to have stopped breathing. 

On the morning of October 26, Sylvia was found dead. The Baniszewskis called the police from a public phone and tried to make it seem like Sylvia was dead due to going out with boys late at night. In the beginning, Gertrude told the kids that Sylvia was probably faking it, but after Stephanie tried mouth-to-mouth attempts to bring Sylvia back, it was a fact; she was dead. It wouldn’t take long until Jenny Likens could get a word to tell the investigators about the abuse Sylvia had to suffer in that house. Gertrude, Paula, John, Stephanie, Coy, and Ricky would be taken into custody for murder. Four other neighborhood children were arrested that same day for battery.

The autopsy revealed Sylvia had over 150 wounds all over her body. She had second and third-degree burns, cuts, bruises, and severe muscle damage. Sylvia’s genitals had severe injuries and were nearly swollen shut, all her fingernails had been bent backward, and she was missing the top layer of skin on her face, neck, chest, and knees. There were also clear signs of malnourishment. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock. 

Gertrude Baniszewski and Five Other Suspects

Gertrude Baniszewski’s life started rocky and never really got better. Trying to escape from her bad relationship with her mother when he was 16, Gertrude married a police officer named John Baniszewski. She dropped out of school and left home. Their marriage was another rocky experience full of violence; John would hit his wife for just any reason. Still, the couple managed to have six kids; Paula, Stephanie, James, Marie, Shirley, and John Baniszewski.

She had been pregnant another five times, but they were all miscarriages. Gertrude and John would eventually get a divorce, then remarry to just divorce again. Gertrude later met another man named Dennis Lee Wright, 14 years younger than her. The relationship would also be harmful, and Gertrude would get pregnant twice, again having one miscarriage and a baby named Dennis after his father. Dennis Lee Wright didn’t want to be responsible for Gertrude’s six other kids, so he left. Gertrude Baniszewski was now a single mother of seven.

The other suspects were 17-year-old Paula Baniszewski, 15-year-old Stephanie Baniszewski, 11-year-old John Baniszewski, 14-year-old Ricky Hobbs, and 15-year-old Coy Hubber. Four younger neighborhood boys were accused of battery but left free after a while. 

Not Much to Investigate

For the police investigators, the problem wasn’t to prove that Sylvia Likens had gone through horrible abuse and torture; the tricky part was to prove who the suspects were and to what degree they had involvement in the horrific crimes. Jenny Likens and Gertrude’s younger kids were the key witnesses.

Gertrude would be charged with first-degree murder together with her daughter Paula. Stephanie, John, Coy, and Ricky were charged with second-degree murder. 

Trial

In May 1966, Gertrude, Paula, John, Coy, and Ricky went to trial. They all had different lawyers blaming each other.

Gertrude had her attorney shift all the blame to her kids, claiming that she was too old and sick to notice what was going on under her roof and that Sylvia Likens was known to be the neighborhood’s prostitute. Gertrude said that Sylvia would engage in sexual relationships with older boys and a married man. But Gertrude’s stories would have short legs when her daughter Marie Baniszewski was called to testify and told the jury everything about Gertrude’s involvement in the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens.

Stephanie Baniszewski was granted a separate trial.

Verdict and Second Trials

Gertrude was found guilty of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, instead of the death penalty, which back then was the Electric chair. Every citizen in the United States was surprised by this. Gertrude would eventually be granted a second trial in 1971, due to a ¨Prejudicial atmosphere¨, being found guilty again but given the possibility of parole since apparently, she was a ¨model¨ inmate. Gertrude only ended up serving time only until December 4, 1985. After getting out, she changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and moved to Iowa. She died five years later from lung cancer. 

Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. She was eventually granted a second trial and took a plea bargain by pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She only served six years of jail time. Paula would subsequently change her name and find a job as a teacher and custodian for kids with special needs. After a while, she would be fired when people from school found her police records.

John Baniszewski, Coy Hubbard, and Ricky hubs were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in juvenile prison. After being released, John told everyone that he participated in Sylvia’s abuse because he was going through abuse himself. John also said that he for sure deserved a harsher sentence. After his release, Ricky Hubbs had a mental breakdown and became a heavy smoker; he died from lung cancer at 21. Coy Hubbard was released to have a regular family life and be a working dad. Coy lost his job in 2007 when the movie ¨An American Crime¨, a film based on the Silvia Likens case, was released.

Stephanie Baniszewski was acquitted. She also moved to Iowa and started a family.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happened to Jenny Likens?

After the trials were over, Jenny Likens would grow up to get married and have a family. She married Leonard Wade and had two kids named Tammy and Bob. Jenny passed away of a heart attack on June 23, 2004. 

What happened to Sylvia Likens’s parents?

Betty and Lester Likens got divorced on May 29, 1967. Elizabeth then remarried and died on May 29, 1998. There are not many details as to what happened to Lester. It’s only known he died on February 22, 2013.

Is there a film about the Sylvia Likens case?

Yes, the movie ¨An American crime¨ was based on Sylvia Likens’ story; it was released in 2007, and even when it has an excellent casting, people who know the case think too many details were left out was too much horror for a Hollywood screen. 

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