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Indy’s 10 Most Notorious Crimes of All Time
Scoundrels and Scandals: These are the shocking, headline-grabbing crimes from the 10 most notable killers, kidnappers, and thieves ever to prowl the underbelly of Indianapolis.
1. 16-Year-Old Sylvia Likens Tortured, Killed by Caregiver
In 1965, Gertrude Baniszewski was hired to look after sisters Sylvia and Jenny Likens, ages 16 and 15. Baniszewski and her daughter Paula (right), along with some neighborhood kids, took a pathological dislike to Sylvia, harassing and locking her in the basement of their eastside home, where they tortured her until she died on October 26, 1965. The condition of the girl’s frail body—“I’m a prostitute” was etched into her stomach—and horrific courtroom testimony might have won the Baniszewskis a trip to death row. Instead, they got “life.” Gertrude left prison in 1985. Paula wound up in Iowa with a new name, working as a teacher’s aide.
2. Angry Landowner Holds Mortgage Broker Hostage
Small-time businessman Tony Kiritsis convinced himself that Richard O. Hall, an executive at Indianapolis-based Meridian Mortgage Company, had cheated him in a land deal. So on February 8, 1977, he burst into Meridian’s downtown offices, wired a shotgun to Hall’s neck, and staged a 63-hour hostage standoff, much of it broadcast on live TV. He gave up after being told that he’d get an apology, immunity from prosecution, and a large sum of money. (He only received the apology.) Kiritsis was acquitted by reason of insanity, spent a decade in a mental institution, and was back on the street in 1998. He died a free man in 2005. [See “The End of the Line” for a full account of Kiritsis’s crime.]
3. Bodies Unearthed on Property of Westfield Businessman
It seemed Herb Baumeister was a respectable citizen and family man. But it was a cover for his other identity: serial killer. The Sav-A-Lot owner liked to cruise gay bars, take men back to his palatial Hamilton County home, murder them, and then hide the corpses on the property’s 18 wooded acres. Acting on a tip from a man claiming to have escaped Baumeister’s home unscathed, police searched the grounds in 1996 and discovered the skeletal remains of 11 males. Only four of the men have ever been identified. Baumeister drove to Canada and shot himself before the authorities could prosecute him.
4. Heavyweight Champ Convicted of Raping Beauty-Pageant Contestant
Fearsome boxer Mike Tyson got coldcocked by justice after he was accused, in 1991, of raping a Miss Black America hopeful in his downtown Canterbury Hotel suite. The highly publicized trial resulted in a sentence of six years for three counts: one for rape and two for criminal deviant conduct. A model prisoner, Tyson served only three years total (in accommodations far more spartan than the Canterbury).
5. Powerful Klan Leader Outed as Sex Offender
In the early 1920s, D.C. Stephenson was the law in Indiana. Leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan network, he helped elect dozens of politicians, including Governor Edward L. Jackson. It all came apart in 1925, when Stephenson was charged with abducting, raping, and causing the death of a young woman who’d poisoned herself while the two were at a hotel in Hammond—and whom a Stephenson associate, on boss’s orders, dropped off at her Irvington home without medical care. Stephenson (pictured at the top of this article) got a life sentence, and when the governor wouldn’t grant a pardon, the convict spilled his guts about backroom dealings, effectively destroying the state Klan and several political careers.
6. Deadly Love Triangle Ensnares Eli Lilly Exec
Husband, father, and Eli Lilly vice president Forrest Teel appeared to be the very model of 1950s propriety. That is, until his mistress, former company employee Connie Nicholas, discovered that Teel was cheating on her as well. In 1958, Nicholas surprised him in his car outside the second mistress’s apartment on East 38th Street and pumped a few slugs into him. In a splashy trial that was covered in Life magazine, the jury found Nicholas (pictured at the top of this article) guilty of only voluntary manslaughter after buying her assertion that the gun went off accidentally. Four times.
7. Millionairess Robbed and Killed in Northside Home
Eccentric northside widow Marjorie Jackson, whose late husband had been heir to the former Standard Grocery chain, stashed a considerable fortune around her house on Spring Mill Road. When word of the pile got out, a cast of unsavory characters lined up to make some unauthorized withdrawals. The first heist nabbed close to $2 million, and then, on May 7, 1977, bandits took Jackson’s life as well as her loot, shooting her dead in the kitchen and running off with approximately $3 million more. The killer, Howard “Billy Joe” Willard, and his accomplice, Manuel Lee Robinson, were quickly apprehended by the authorities. But it is thought that several million dollars of Jackson’s riches remain unaccounted for to this day.
8. Four Dead in Burger Chef Murders
On November 18, 1978, the four-person night staff at a Burger Chef in Speedway simply vanished. Days later, their bodies turned up in Johnson County. Two had been shot, one stabbed, and the other beaten until he choked on his own blood. More than three decades have passed, yet the perpetrators are still unknown. The restaurant was relieved of a paltry $581, but some theorize the motive was more than robbery. Only the killers know. And they aren’t talking.
9. Grocer’s Wife Suspected in Bizarre Double Homicide
In September 1868, the bodies of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young were discovered along White River, riddled with gunshots. A tangled investigation fingered Nancy Clem, an unassuming grocer’s wife allegedly involved in loan-sharking. Despite evidence placing her at the scene of the “Cold Spring murders” (and prosecution by future president Benjamin Harrison), Clem weathered five trials and got only four years in jail—for perjury and forgery
10. Serial Killer Spreads Murder Spree to Irvington
When the World’s Fair came to Chicago in 1893, Herman W. Mudgett—alias H.H. Holmes—built a “hotel” near the grounds. It was, in fact, a murder factory, with secret rooms, gas lines for asphyxiating victims, and basement furnaces for burning bodies. When neighbors grew concerned, Holmes went on the lam to an Irvington cottage, where he killed again—a boy whose mother entrusted him to Holmes’s “care” after he promised to enroll the child in a good school. A detective from Philadelphia, where Holmes had once been jailed for fraud, later found the remains. Holmes confessed to 27 murders. Now known as “America’s First Serial Killer,” he was hanged in 1896.
Dishonorable Mention: High-Flying “Financier” Bilks Thousands
Tim Durham liked to throw money around. Big parties. Lavish homes. Hefty donations to Indiana GOP candidates. But the money the Indianapolis con man spent wasn’t his. Durham’s leveraged-buyout firm, Obsidian Enterprises, located on Monument Circle, and its subsidiary, Ohio-based Fair Finance, were in fact an elaborate Ponzi scheme that relieved roughly 5,000 investors of more than $200 million. The party—believed to be the largest case of corporate fraud in Indiana history—ended on November 24, 2009, with an FBI raid. The 50-year-old Durham got 50 years in the pokey on November 30, 2012.
Stephenson, Baniszewski, and Tyson photos courtesy Indiana State Archives; Nicholas photo by Michael Rougier/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; Durham photo by Tony Valainis.
This article appeared in the March 2013 issue.