Sylvia Likens was a 16-year-old from Indianapolis, Indiana who was brutally and unthinkably tortured by her caregiver, her children, and other kids in the neighborhood, until she finally died of her injuries on October 26, 1965.
Her caretaker, her daughter, her son, and 2 neighborhood youths were tried and convicted of neglect, torture, and murder. The deputy prosecutor described the case as "the most diabolical case to ever come before a court of jury". The crime is widely recognized as one of the worst crimes ever committed in the state of Indiana.
Sylvia Likens was born on January 3, 1949, the 3rd of 5 children to Lester and Elizabeth, 2 carnival workers. She was born between 2 sets of twins, her older siblings Daniel and Dianna, and her younger siblings Benny and Jenny.
Lester and Elizabeth had a very unstable marriage. They took to selling beer and candy at carnival stands throughout Indiana during the summer, and they moved frequently. Unfortunately, the carnival candy sales weren't enough to financially keep the family afloat, and they often struggled with money. Their sons would travel with them, but the daughters would stay behind with relatives.
Once she hit her teen years, Sylvia began making money through babysitting, running errands, or doing chores in the neighborhood. She was a friendly, confident, and lively girl, and very pretty to boot. She always smiled with her mouth closed to hide a tooth injury from colliding with one of her brothers during a childhood game.
She was a loving older sister who was very protective of her more timid and insecure younger sister, Jenny. She loved music - the Beatles were her favorite.
Gertrude Baniszewski was born on September 19, 1928 in Indianapolis. She was the 3rd of 6 children in a working class family. She witnessed her father, only 50 years old, die of a heart attack when she was only 10 years old. She dropped out of high school at age 16 to marry 18-year-old John. They had 4 children together, despite the fact that he had a horrific temper and beat her.
They ultimately divorced after 10 years together, and Gertrude married Edward Guthrie, though it lasted only 3 months. Then, she got back with her abusive husband and they had 2 more children. Then, they divorced again in 1963.
Weeks after her 3rd divorce, she started a new relationship, this time with 22-year-old Dennis Lee Wright who, surprise, also abused her. They had one child together, but he abandoned her after their son was born.
By 1965, and the events of this case, Gertrude lived alone with her 7 children: Paula, 17; Stephanie, 15; John, 12; Marie, 11; Shirley, 10; James, 8; and Dennis Lee Wright Jr., 1. (Also, I typically call the bad guys by their last name, but her last name is way too many letters so she is going to be Gertrude.)
Gertrude was a haggard, underweight asthmatic woman at 36, was a chain smoker, and suffered from depression due to her relationship failures and a recent miscarriage. Sporadic checks from her first husband were her primary form of income.
On July 3, 1965, Sylvia's mother was arrested and put in jail for shoplifting. Unable to support his children alone, Lester arranged for his daughters to live with Gertrude, a neighborhood woman with daughters who his children had recently become friends with at high school. Gertrude promised she would care for the girls like they were her own. And so, shortly after, they moved into Gertrude's home, already filled to the brim with 7 children. He promised her $20 a week for caring for Sylvia and Jenny, and he promised he would collect them in November.
The first weeks were great. Sylvia sang along to pop songs with Stephanie, and helped out with housework. They attended Sunday school with the Baniszewski children, and overall, things were going well.
This is going to get... horrific. Just as a warning.
So, Lester didn't lie when he said he would pay Gertrude $20/week, but given that it was 1965, sometimes mail was not super reliable and often the checks would arrive a few days late. Gertrude became frustrated, and started taking her rage out on Sylvia and Jenny. She would beat their bare buttocks with a paddle and calling them "bitches". They were beaten when Paula, the oldest, accused them of eating too much at a church supper that night.
By August, Sylvia was bearing the brunt of the abuse. Gertrude was jealous of her looks and potential in life. She beat her. She refused to feed her, meaning she often ate spoiled leftovers or out of the garbage. One time, she confused and humiliated Sylvia when asking if she had "done anything with a boy" and then told her her stomach was getting big, and she was probably pregnant. Sylvia believed she was joking, but then she began kicking her in the vagina. Paula, pregnant and also jealous of Sylvia, began to attack her as well, throwing her onto the kitchen floor.
One night, when the family ate dinner, Paula and a neighborhood boy, Randy Gordon Lepper, force fed Sylvia a hot dog overloaded with condiments. She vomited as a result, and they forced her to eat it.
Becoming extremely frustrated with the abuse, Sylvia started a rumor at school that Stephanie and Paula were prostitutes. When Stephanie found out, she punched Sylvia, But then, the 2 girls apologized to one another and both began to cry. But when Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, found out about the rumor, he brutally attacked her, banging her head on the floor. When Gertrude found out, she paddle beat her. Once, Paula hit Sylvia so hard she broke her wrist. She began using the cast to continue to assault her.
Horrifically, Gertrude began forcing Jenny to hit her sister, and would beat Jenny if she didn't comply.
Oftentimes, Hubbard and classmates would visit the house to torment Sylvia as if it was some sort of game. With encouragement from the adults in the house, they would use her as a practice dummy in violent judo sessions, lacerate her, or burn her skin with cigarettes. For entertainment, Gertrude forced her to strip naked and insert a coke bottle inside of herself in front of people.
The sisters were terrified about telling their family, or adults at their school, of what was going in. Sylvia was eventually forbidden from going to school. In July and August, Lester and Elizabeth visited their daughters a few times, but neither girl exhibited visible signs of abuse.
One time, at the park, the girls saw their older sister, Dianna, and told her about the abuse. However, Dianna believed that perhaps they were exaggerating their claims about the abuse they were experiencing.
Once, for eating a sandwich, she was accused of "gluttony" and she was choked and bludgeoned by Gertrude and Paula. Then they put her in a scalding bath to "cleans her" of her sin, banging her head against the bath until she fainted, and then reviving her when she did to do it again.
Once, a father of a neighborhood boy reported to the school that it appeared a child was being abused in Gertrude's home. However, when police went to the home to investigate, they told police that she was a bad influence on her children and she had run away. Even though she had been out of school for days, the school made no further investigation.
Additional adult failure came from Gertrude's neighbors, the Vermillion's. They had twice witnessed Sylvia being abused in the home, even referring to her as "zombified" the second time they saw her, but they never reported the mistreatment to the authorities.
If you can believe it, that is all just the initial abuse. There is an entire other section on the Wikipedia page called "escalation". It gets worse. So much worse. I'll try to just rattle it off and not go into too much detail.
Sylvia was abused so badly she became incontinent, and was denied access to the bathroom. She was forced to wet herself, and then was punished for it. Because of this, she was given a new room: the basement. She was tied up downstairs, kept naked, unfed, with little water.
Neighborhood children were charged 5 cents to humiliate, beat, scald, burn, and mutilate Sylvia. She would be held down in a scalding bathtub and salt was rubbed into her open wounds. They would put a gag in her mouth while she screamed. More than once, Gertrude and her 12-year-old son would rub her 1-year-old son's dirty diapers in her mouth.
She was mentally tortured, too. John would give her soup to eat, and when she went to eat it, he would pull it away. Gertrude allowed her to sleep in the bed if she promised not to wet herself, which she had no control over. As a punishment, she had to insert another glass bottle into her vagina.
She branded Sylvia with a scalding needle "I AM A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on her stomach. Hobbs (14) finished the branding when Gertrude ran out of time. They teased her, saying no one would marry her now. Later, she was forced to display her stomach to the children in the neighborhood. That night, she told Jenny she wanted to die.
The next day, she was forced to write a letter that would make it seem like the neighborhood kids mutilated her, and that she ran away. After finishing the letter, Gertrude forced crackers into her mouth before John began beating her in the branded stomach.
Understanding Gertrude wanted to dispose of her, Sylvia tried to escape, but she was so weak she couldn't go without getting caught. She beat her with a curtain rod until the rod was bent at 90 degree angles. Hubbard hit her until she was unconscious. That night, Sylvia desperately tried to alert neighbors of her situation, but no one heard. Well, one neighbor did, but decided not to tell police.
On the morning of October 26, Sylvia was unable to speak or move her body. Gertrude tried to feed her, but when she couldn't she threw her onto the floor and then took her back to the basement. She became delirious, moaning and mumbling. Paula verbally threatened her to speak or else she would jump on her body. When Sylvia defecated, Gertrude ordered her to clean it herself.
Several of the neighborhood tormenters came to watch her in this state. John (remember guys. JOHN IS 12) sprayed her with a garden hose at his mom's request. She tried to leave the basement, but fell. Gertrude stomped on her.
Stephanie, once her friend, planned to give Sylvia a warm, soapy bath. But she stopped breathing before she could get her out of the basement. She tried to revive her by mouth to mouth, but failed. Gertrude said that she was probably faking her death.
I'll go quick here, because this story isn't about these monstrous people. Gertrude believed Sylvia was faking her and continued beating her even in death.
Police arrived and at first, Gertrude and Paula's plan was going to work. They forced Jenny to give a false version of events to the police. But when she got the police alone, she said, "if you get me out of here, I'll tell you everything." Jenny's statement led to the arrests of Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, John, Hobbs, and Hubbard.
Gertrude initially denied any involvement. She slowly began admitting to more and more, and police were pretty sure she was the mastermind. Paula showed no remorse, nor did John. 5 other neighborhood tormenters were arrested in relation to the crime.
Sylvia's autopsy revealed that she had 150 separate wounds, in addition to being entirely emaciated at the time of her death. She had: burns, bruising, muscle and nerve damage, her vagina was swollen shut, her fingernails were all broken, her skin on her face, breasts and neck had been peeled. She officially died from a subdural hematoma due to a blow to her head, but all of the trauma was considered a contributing factor to her death. It was believed she was dead for 8 hours before anyone called the police.
Stephanie ultimately didn't go to trial. Gertrude, Paula, John, Hobbs and Hubbard went to trial on April 18, 1966. Jenny testified against all 5 defendants, sharing the extensive abuse they put her sister through. One of the neighborhood abusers, Randy Lepper, corroborated Jenny's testimony, but also smirked and smiled when he confessed to beating Sylvia between 10-40 times.
Gertrude claimed her own children and the neighborhood children must have committed the acts when she wasn't in her house, and she was too preoccupied to control them. Hobbs denied this, saying that Gertrude had begun branding her until he finished. Marie, Gertrude's 11-year-old, broke down on the stand and testified to a lot of the abuse Sylvia endured. She said her mother and sister were the primary abusers, and that her mother forced her to live in the basement until she died.
The trial lasted only 17 days before the jury returned a verdict. Gertrude was convicted of first-degree murder, Paula of second-degree murder, Hobbs, Hubbard and John convicted of manslaughter. Gertrude and Paula were sentenced to life, while the 3 boys were sentenced to 2-21 years.
Both Gertrude and Paula were given retrials in 1971. Paula plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and was released in 1972. Gertrude was found guilty of first degree murder again. Gertrude was released on parole on December 4, 1985.
Paula worked as a school counselor for 14 years under a new identity until her true identity was discovered and she was fired. She reportedly lives in a small Iowa town and is married with 2 children.
Gertrude blamed her actions on drugs forever, and lived pretty much under the radar until she died of lung cancer in 1990 at the age of 61. Jenny clipped the obituary and sent it to her mom, saying, "Some good news. Damn old Gertrude died. Ha ha ha! I am happy about that."
Stephanie was never formally charged. She now lives in Florida and is a married teacher with several children.
Richard Hobbs served less than 2 years, but died of lung cancer at the age of 21 in 1972. Coy Hubbard was also released after less than 2 years, and spent most of his adult life committing crimes. He died of a heart attack at the age of 56.
John Banizsweski lived under a different name and became a lay minister. Decades after his release, he acknowledged he and the other 2 boys should have been sentenced to more severe punishment. However, he claimed he had only ever hit Sylvia once. He died at the age of 52 of diabetes.
A lot of the other kids who abused her died in their 40s and 50s, so too bad for them to be honest.
Jenny Likens married and had 2 children, but she died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 54.
Sylvia's mother died in 1998, and her father in 2013. Jenny always maintained no blame should be placed on her parents for putting them in the care of Gertrude.
This case will always be one of the most horrific ones I have ever read. To abuse someone that much as a 16-year-old kid is unthinkable. Sylvia was probably happier in death than in life. It shouldn't have been that way, though.
Rest in peace, Sylvia. And rest in hell to all of those who abused her who likely reside there now.