Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski is responsible for what's considered the "single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana's history".
Gertrude Nadine Van Fossan was born on September 19th, 1929 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Mollie Myrtle (née Oakley) and Hugh Marcus Van Fossan Sr., both of whom were originally from Illinois and were of Polish and Dutch descent. Gertrude was the third of six children. Little is known about her childhood, except that she shared an extremely close bond with her father but had a frigid relationship with her mother. A further wedge was driven between Gertrude and her mother when Baniszewski's father died in 1940; the 11 year old Baniszewski watched her father die of a sudden heart attack.
Five years later, Baniszewski dropped out of school at the age of 16 to marry 18 year old deputy John Baniszewski, by whom she had 4 children. John Baniszewski had a volatile temper, often beating his wife for "annoying him." The two stayed together for 10 years before eventually divorcing; Gertrude Baniszewski was granted custody of their children.
Around this time, the then 37 year old Gertrude Baniszewski began an affair and moved in with a 23 year old named Dennis Lee Wright, who further abused her. She became pregnant by him twice, suffering one miscarriage (possibly as the result of an assault by Wright) and giving birth to one child. This child - Dennis Jr. - would be Baniszewski's last child; in all, she had 7 children and suffered 6 miscarriages.
Shortly after Dennis Jr.'s birth, Dennis Wright Sr. abandoned Baniszewski and disappeared. She was left essentially destitute, as Wright had been supporting her financially; she was now forced to support herself and 7 children on occasional child support payments from the unreliable John Baniszewski, and by performing odd jobs around town such as babysitting and doing other people's laundry for them. Financial problems were quickly exacerbated when Baniszewski discovered that her 17 year old daughter, Paula, was 3 months pregnant after a fling with a middle aged, married man.
Around this time Baniszewski's health declined considerably; she was chronically ill with a number of unidentified illnesses, ceased practicing proper hygiene, and barely ate; eventually, these factors began to affect her outward appearance, resulting in a receded hairline, sunken eyes, and an overall skeletal appearance. Baniszewski began to present herself as "Mrs. Wright", claiming that she had in fact married Dennis before he abandoned her, which allowed her to keep up a veneer of respectability.
In July 1965, Paula Baniszewski met up with a friend of hers, Darlene McGuire, who introduced her to two new neighbourhood girls, Sylvia Marie Likens, 16, and Sylvia's younger sister, Jenny, 15, who was required to walk with braces due to polio. Paula took the girls back home to 3850 East New York Street, where they drank soda and listened to records. The Likens' girls mother, Betty, was at the time in county jail after having been arrested for shoplifting, which left Sylvia to care for her sister; Betty had abandoned Sylvia's father, Lester, and effectively kidnapped their two daughters. When Paula heard of the girls' circumstances, she offered to let Sylvia and Jenny spend the night.
No one alive knows whether Baniszewski or Lester suggested that she board the girls; eventually, Lester agreed to leave the children in Baniszewski's care for $20 a week. Lester did not inspect the home before leaving; had he have done so, he would have discovered that Gertrude's home had no stove or microwave; that there were only enough beds for half the people in the house; that the only things Gertrude kept in her pantry were bread and crackers; that most of the surfaces in the home were caked with thick layers of dirt; and only enough plates and eating utensils for 3 people.
The first week of Sylvia and Jenny's lives at the Baniszewski home went relatively well. They attended high school and attended teenage social functions with the Baniszewski children as well as church with Gertrude Baniszewski on Sunday. When Lester's $20 payment failed to arrive, though, Baniszewski threw a temper tantrum, screaming at the girls, "I took care of you two bitches for nothing!" before forcing them to lie across her bed with their skirts and underwear around their ankles while Baniszewski beat their buttocks. Shortly thereafter, Lester and Betty Likens came into town to check on the girls; neither of them made any reference to the beatings, presumably under threat from Baniszewski.
The next week, Sylvia and Jenny went through the neighborhood garbage, collecting old Coca Cola bottles to sell in order to get money for candy. When they came home with the candy, Baniszewski accused them of stealing; when Sylvia explained how she had gotten the candy, Baniszewski accused her of lying and made her bend over her bed as before while she beat her across the buttocks with a paddle. Shortly thereafter, the Baniszewski children came to Gertrude Baniszewski after a church social and told her that they were disgusted with the amount of food they had seen Sylvia eating.
Baniszewski told Sylvia that she was angry that Sylvia would do something to ruin her physical appearance, and forced the girl to eat a hot dog piled with condiments; when Sylvia vomited, Baniszewski forced her to scoop the vomit up and devour it. Soon afterwards, Lester and Betty Likens again came into town to check on the girls; per Baniszewski's instructions, Sylvia made no reference to the vomit eating incident.
The incident which appears to have either precipitated, triggered, or coincided with the sharp decline of Baniszewski's mental stability occurred in August of 1965 when she overheard Sylvia remark that she had once allowed a boy to feel her up. Baniszewski inexplicably burst into a fit of obscenities, accused Sylvia of being a prostitute, and informed the rest of the house that Sylvia was pregnant because she had let a boy touch her vagina. Baniszewski then attacked Sylvia, repeatedly kicking her in the crotch. When Sylvia attempted to sit down afterwards, Paula threw her out of the chair and informed her, "You ain't fit to sit in chairs."
From there on, Baniszewski only allowed Sylvia to sit in a chair with permission. Around this time, Baniszewski also began allowing her older children to use Sylvia as a sort of living "play-thing", with the "games" ranging from beatings to being pushed down the stairs. Why Sylvia's story so enraged Baniszewski is still uncertain. It has been theorized that she saw in Sylvia the beauty and opportunity for happiness that had long ago escaped her, and so encouraged and participated in Sylvia's degradation and torture as an act of self loathing.
Others have theorized that Baniszewski's hard life and current living conditions resulted in a mental break. Still others have theorized that the violence against Likens was an extreme form of domestic abuse, in which Baniszewski directed her rage onto Sylvia. Whatever the case, Baniszewski manifested this rage by justifying her attacks by accusing Likens of being a prostitute, and delivering bizarre "sermons" to her children and Sylvia about the filthiness of prostitutes and women in general.
The day after Baniszewski kicked Sylvia in the crotch, according to Jenny, as an act of vengeance, Sylvia and Jenny told their classmates that they had seen Paula and Stephanie (Baniszewski's second oldest daughter) having sex with boys in exchange for money. When Stephanie's fifteen-year-old boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, discovered what Sylvia and Jenny had said, he came to the Baniszewski home and beat Sylvia. From then on, Hubbard, encouraged by Baniszewski, made frequent visits to the Baniszewski home, during which she would instruct the boy to practice his judo on Sylvia.
Also around this time, Baniszewski got Sylvia's best friend, a thirteen year old named Anna Sisco, alone long enough to convince her that Sylvia had been telling boys at school that Anna's mother was a whore. When Baniszewski took Anna to see Sylvia, she directed Anna in a violent attack on the girl. Soon after, Baniszewski told one of Paula's friends, a girl named Judy Duke, that Sylvia had been spreading rumors about her mother, and pitted the girls against each other in a fist-fight. During the fight, Baniszewski instructed Jenny to punch Sylvia. When Jenny refused, Gertrude began to beat her in the face with her fists, until Jenny finally agreed to punch Sylvia.
In August of 1965, the vacant house next door to the Baniszewski residence was purchased by a middle-aged couple named Phyllis and Raymond Vermillion. Phyllis, seeing the number of children Baniszewski cared for, believed that Baniszewski would make a good babysitter for her two young children, and that she would also be helping Baniszewski out by paying her for her services.
Two months later, Phyllis went to the Baniszewski home to borrow something. Over the course of the few minutes she was there, she noticed Sylvia wandering around as in a daze with swollen lips and a black eye that had swollen shut. To demonstrate how this had happened, Paula took her belt off and began to beat Sylvia with it in front of Phyllis. Phyllis again neglected to report anything to the authorities.
Around the time that Phyllis Vermillion witnessed Paula beat Sylvia, Sylvia came home from school and told Baniszewski that she needed a sweat suit for gym class. When Baniszewski told Sylvia that they could not afford one, Sylvia stole one from the school. Baniszewski questioned Sylvia about her new gym outfit, eventually coercing Sylvia into confession.
Baniszewski inexplicably segued from the topic of Sylvia stealing into the topic of Sylvia being a prostitute, and threw Sylvia onto the ground, where she repeatedly kicked her in the crotch before once more returning to the topic of theft; to "cure" Sylvia of her "sticky fingers," Baniszewski burned the tips of each of Sylvia's fingers with a lit cigarette.
Afterwards, she made Sylvia bend over while she whipped her with a belt. After this incident, the smokers in the Baniszewski home began arbitrarily putting their cigarettes out on Sylvia's body as a reminder for her not to steal. Sometime later, Likens went out again to sell old soda bottles for money. When she returned home, Baniszewski accused her of prostitution. Baniszewski took her into the living room of her home and forced Sylvia to strip naked in front of her sons and several neighbourhood boys, on the threat of beating Jenny. Once Sylvia was fully naked, Baniszewski handed her a glass Coca Cola bottle, and forced Sylvia to masturbate with it for the boys.
During this period Baniszewski took on 14 year old Ricky Hobbs, a neighborhood boy, as her "personal assistant" when dealing with Sylvia. Hobbs, an honour student from a middle class family with no previous legal trouble, experienced a sudden shift in personality upon becoming Baniszewski's assistant, blindly following whatever orders she gave him; crime reporters have since speculated that Hobbs was Baniszewski's lover, and that she had seduced the boy into becoming her henchman.
Baniszewski's children turned Sylvia into a money-making opportunity, charging neighbourhood children a nickel to gawk at the nude Sylvia or to push her down the stairs to the basement, where she was now kept when not being bathed or put on display. She was kept constantly naked and rarely fed; when she was allowed to eat, it was in some bizarre fashion (such as the instance in which Baniszewski insisted that she eat soup with her fingers). Often, Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son John Jr. would make Sylvia "clean" the basement by "allowing" her to eat her own feces, and gave Sylvia a container in which she could collect her urine, which she was then made to drink.
Sometime around this period, Jenny managed to send contact to her and Sylvia's older sister, Diana, who was married and had a family of her own. Jenny outlined the horrors that she and Sylvia were experiencing, and instructed Diana to contact the police to come rescue them. Diana ignored the letter, believing that Jenny was simply displeased with being punished and that she was making up stories so that she could come live with her. Also around this time, one of the neighbourhood children who had been by to see Sylvia, a twelve year old named Judy Duke, went home and told her mother "they were beating and kicking Sylvia." The girl's mother replied that was what happened when someone was punished.
Shortly thereafter, the Baniszewski's reverend, Roy Julian, visited them as part of a program he had set up to see each of his parishioners at their homes. While he and Baniszewski drank coffee, she complained to him that Sylvia had been an intense burden on her, claiming that the girl was a prostitute who had been servicing married men and had gotten pregnant. Although at the time Paula Baniszewski was several months pregnant, Gertrude Baniszewski insisted that her daughter was a virgin and that Sylvia was attempting to pass off her own misdeeds onto the pure Paula.
Baniszewski and the reverend prayed for Sylvia's salvation before the reverend left. When the reverend returned again a few weeks later, Paula told the reverend during prayers that she had "hatred in her heart" for Sylvia, to which Baniszewski interjected that the opposite was true. Shortly after this, Diana came by to visit her sisters. Baniszewski refused to allow her into the home, at first telling her that Lester had contacted her and instructed her not to allow Diana into the home. When Diana questioned this, Baniszewski threatened to call the police and have her arrested for trespassing. Diana hid nearby the house until she spotted Jenny outside, and then approached her. Jenny told her older sister that she was not allowed to talk to her and then ran away.
Concerned, Diana contacted social services. When a social worker arrived at the home, Baniszewski informed her that she had kicked Sylvia out of the house for being physically unclean and a prostitute, and that Sylvia had since run away. Baniszewski then managed to get Jenny alone long enough to inform her that if she told the social worker the truth, Jenny would join her sister naked in the basement. Jenny then told the social worker that Sylvia had indeed run away. The social worker returned to her office, where she filed a report stating that no more calls needed to be made to the Baniszewski home.
On October 20th, Gertrude called the police to come arrest a boy at her home. Robert Bruce Hanlon was a local youth who claimed that the Baniszewski children had stolen things from his basement. He had come to the home earlier in the evening demanding that Baniszewski return his things; when she refused, he attempted to sneak into the home to take them back. Phyllis Vermillion witnessed Hanlon being put into the back of a squad car and approached the police to speak on his behalf, as she had earlier overheard the argument between Baniszewski and Hanlon over the stolen goods. Vermillion made no mention of Sylvia during her conversation with the police.
On October 21st, Baniszewski instructed John Jr. Coy, and Stephanie to bring Sylvia up from the basement and tie her to a bed, telling Sylvia that if she could hold her bladder through the night, she would be permitted to sleep upstairs again. When Baniszewski checked Sylvia the next morning and discovered she had wet the bed, Baniszewski made her dress, then took her into the living area, where she was once again forced to perform a striptease for her sons and the neighborhood boys, again climaxed by Baniszewski forcing Sylvia to masturbate with a Coca Cola bottle.
Satisfied, Baniszewski left the room, leaving Sylvia tied, gagged, and naked. At this point, Ricky, Paula, and Baniszewski's ten year old daughter Shirley decided to give Sylvia another tattoo, an "S" in the middle of her chest; the three would later become confused as to whether they had intended the "S" to stand for "Sylvia" or "Slave," though the latter explanation was the one which was leaned towards as being correct. Ricky burned the bottom curve of the "S" into Sylvia; he then either choked, or changed his mind, because he then ordered Jenny to come over and carve the top half. Although threatened, Jenny refused; Ricky relented, and ordered Shirley to finish the tattoo. The eleven year old choked and accidentally carved the curve backwards, so that the numeral "3" appeared on Likens' chest.
Baniszewski re-entered the room at this point to address the still bound and gagged Sylvia:
"What are you going to do now, Sylvia? You can't get married now, you can't undress in front of anyone... What are you going to do now?"
Sylvia was un-gagged to address Baniszewski. She replied:
"I guess there's nothing I can do. It's on there."
Hubbard then took Sylvia back to the basement, where he used her for judo practice for a period before returning home. In the middle of the night, Jenny Likens sneaked into the basement to visit her sister, where Sylvia told her:
"I'm going to die. I can tell."
Shortly after Jenny's visit, Baniszewski inexplicably went into the basement and brought Sylvia upstairs, and allowed her to sleep in one of the beds. She was allowed to sleep until noon of the next day, October 23, when Baniszewski woke her; once Sylvia was awake, Baniszewski and Stephanie took her into the bathroom and gave her a warm, soapy bath.
After the bath, Baniszewski and Paula dressed Sylvia, and then dictated a letter to her, intended to look like a runaway letter to her parents. For reasons unknown, Baniszewski dictated that Sylvia open the letter "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Likens." The words which Baniszewski dictated were:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me if I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted... and when they got finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.
And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.
I have done just about everything that I could do just to make Gertie mad and cause Gertie more money than she's got. I've tore up a new mattress and peaed on it. I have also cost Gertie doctor bills that she really can't pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids.
Just as strangely as Baniszewski's insistence on the formal salutation, she instructed Sylvia not to sign it.
After Sylvia finished the letter, Baniszewski began formulating a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny take Sylvia to a nearby garbage dump and leave her there to die. When Sylvia overheard this, she ran for the front door, but in her emaciated and mutilated state moved so slowly that Baniszewski was able to grab her just as she reached the front door and drag her back into the house. Once Baniszewski settled Sylvia down, she took her into the kitchen and made her some toast. Sylvia attempted to eat it but then said she couldn't swallow; Baniszewski took down the curtain rod in the kitchen and beat Sylvia in the mouth with it. John then took Sylvia into the basement and tied her up while Baniszewski prepared a plate of crackers for Sylvia. When she offered the crackers to Sylvia, Sylvia replied, "Feed it to the dog. It's hungrier than I am." Baniszewski repeatedly punched Sylvia in the stomach before leaving her in the basement.
On the next day, October 24th, Baniszewski came into the basement and, attempted to bludgeon Sylvia; first she tried to hit her with a chair, but missed and broke it against the wall. Next she tried to beat her over the head with a paddle, but swung in such a wide arc that it came back against her own face, blacking her eye. To stop the strange show, Hubbard stepped in and beat Sylvia unconscious with a broomstick. Over the course of that night, and into the morning hours of October 25th, Sylvia beat the basement floor with the scoop portion of an iron shovel. Nextdoor neighbours would later report considering calling the police, but chose not to.
On October 26th, Baniszewski voiced her intentions to give Sylvia a warm bath. Stephanie and Ricky brought Sylvia upstairs and laid her in the tub fully clothed; they took her out shortly thereafter when they realized she was not breathing. Stephanie gave Sylvia CPR, but by this time, Sylvia was already dead. Baniszewski instructed her children to take Sylvia's body to the basement and strip it naked. She then told Hobbs to go to a nearby payphone and call the police (her house having no working telephone).
When the police arrived, Baniszewski gave them the letter she'd made Sylvia dictate; in the midst of the commotion, Jenny Likens whispered to one of the police, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything." This statement, combined with the police's discovery of Sylvia's body in the basement, prompted the officers to arrest Baniszewski, Paula, Stephanie, John, Hobbs, and Hubbard for murder. Other neighbourhood children present at the time - Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Duke, and Siscoe - were arrested for "injury to a person."
Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials. Charges against Siscoe, Duke, Monroe, and Lepper were dismissed. Stephanie's lawyer got her a separate trial; before it was able to begin, the district attorney dropped the murder charges. Meanwhile, an autopsy of Sylvia Likens turned up over 100 cigarette burns on her body, in addition to various second and third degree burns, severe bruising, and muscle and nerve damage. In her death throes, Sylvia bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, largely discrediting - along with a lack of any ripping or tearing to the rectum - Gertrude's assertions that Sylvia was a prostitute and completely disproving her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock.
The case of the State of Indiana v. Gertrude Baniszewski, John Baniszewski, Paula Baniszewski, Ricky Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard commenced in May of 1966; the prosecution sought the death penalty for all involved, including John and Hobbs, who were thirteen and fourteen at the time, respectively. Paula's time in court was interrupted when she was rushed to the hospital to give birth to the child that she and her mother had insisted she wasn't carrying; in a show of solidarity, Paula named the child Gertrude.
Baniszewski and the children's cases were exacerbated by the fact that they were being represented by four different attorneys - one for Baniszewski, one for Paula, one for Hobbs, and one for Coy and John - all of whom worked against each other and attempted to shift blame against the other defendants, even though they were all being tried together.
During the highly publicized trial, Baniszewski denied responsibility for the death, pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. She claimed that she was too distracted by her ill health and depression to control her children. The children's attorneys attempted to shift blame onto Baniszewski and the other children.
Some of the most damaging testimony against Baniszewski was due to her own self-incrimination; she recounted bizarre tales of Sylvia Likens being a neighbourhood prostitute and of her trysts with middle aged, married men, as well as accusing her of frequently starting fights in the home. To corroborate Baniszewski's testimony, eleven-year-old Marie was was called to the stand.
Initially, Marie backed up everything her mother had said, until, during cross examination, she suddenly screamed "God help me!" before admitting everything she'd said was a lie, and went on to recount in graphic, blunt detail how her mother and siblings had tortured and murdered Sylvia.
In his closing statement, Baniszewski's lawyer said:
"I condemn her for being a murderess... but I say she's not responsible because she's not all here!"
and tapped his head to make a point about Baniszewski's state of mind.
The young girl's shocking turn against her own family was largely responsible for the eventual verdict: Baniszewski was found guilty of murder in the first degree. To the shock of the citizens of Indianapolis, she did not receive the death penalty, but rather life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Paula Baniszewski was convicted of second degree murder; she appealed and was granted a new trial, but before it began, she struck a plea bargain and plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She served three years in prison and was then paroled.
Baniszewski appealed, was granted a new trial, and was again found guilty, though this time she was sentenced to eighteen years to life. Over the course of the next eighteen years, Baniszewski became a model prisoner, working in the sewing shop and becoming a den-mother to younger female inmates; by the time she came up for parole in 1985, she had earned the prison nickname "Mom."
The news of Baniszewski's parole hearing sent shockwaves through the Indiana community. Jenny Likens and her family appeared on television to speak out against Baniszewski; the members of two anti-crime groups, Protect the Innocent and Society's League Against Molestation, travelled to Indiana to oppose Baniszewski's parole and support the Likens family, beginning a sidewalk picket campaign.
Over the course of two months, the groups collected 4500 signatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Baniszewski be kept behind bars. In spite of all this, Baniszewski was granted parole. During the hearing, she gave the following confession:
"I'm not sure what role I had in it... because I was on drugs. I never really knew her... I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia."
The fates of Baniszewski's children remains largely unknown. Paula Baniszewski assumed a new identity, the baby daughter Gertrude that she bore while incarcerated was later adopted. Paula unsuccessfully attempted to escape twice from prison in 1971 and 1972. She eventually married and has two children; she lives in a small town in Iowa today. Baniszewski worked as an aide to a school counselor for 14 years at the Beaman-Conrad-Liscomb-Union-Whitten (BCLUW) school district in Iowa, having changed her name to Paula Pace and lied to the school district when applying for the job. She was fired in 2012 when the school discovered her deception.
John Baniszewki changed his name to John Blake and worked as a truck driver before becoming a real estate agent and lay minister; he was never arrested again. He married and had three children, and has lived in anonymity, only surfacing briefly in 1998 in the wake of the Jonesboro Massacre to speak for the first time about the Likens murder, saying that he took full responsibility for his role in the murder and that a harsher sentence would have been more just. He died at the General Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania following a lengthy illness with diabetes on May 19, 2005, at the age of 52.
The house at 3850 East New York Street in which Sylvia Likens was tortured and murdered stood vacant and rundown for much of the 44 years after the murder. While there was some discussion of purchasing the house for renovation into a women's shelter, the necessary funds were never raised. The house was demolished on April 23, 2009. The property became a church parking lot.
The murder charge against Gertrude’s second-oldest daughter Stephanie (15) was dropped after she turned state's evidence against the others. She assumed a new name and became a schoolteacher; she also married and had several children. Coy Hubbard, Stephanie Baniszewski’s boyfriend who beat Sylvia and practiced his judo flips on her, had been in and out of prison since his release and was later charged and acquitted of the murder of two men. He died of a heart attack on June 23, 2007, at the age of 56 in Shelbyville, Indiana. He had a wife and five children, 17 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
The injury-to-person charges against the younger juveniles Anna Ruth Siscoe, Judy Darlene Duke, Michael John (Mike) Monroe, Darlene McGuire, and Randy Gordon Lepper were dropped as well. Siscoe married and had children and grandchildren; she died on October 23, 1996. Lepper died November 14, 2010 in Indianapolis at the age of 56.
In 2001 a A 6-foot granite plaque commemorating the crime was placed in the Willard Park to remember victimized children. Likens older sister, Diana Knusen attended the memorial unveiling and said:
"It might help some child somewhere, you know? I'm so happy that it took place in the park, where children will be playing,"
The case has since been the subject of numerous fictional and non-fictional adaptations.
"What are you going to do now, Sylvia?" - Gertrude Baniszewski
If you want to watch a documentary on Gertrude Baniszewski then just check out the video below: