Looking Back On Indiana’s Most Infamous Crime, 50 Years Later
It was called the most terrible crime ever committed in Indiana, and half a century later, that title still holds. On October 26, 1965, police found Sylvia Likens’s emaciated corpse—covered with more than 150 wounds ranging from burns to cuts—sprawled on a filthy mattress in the Indianapolis home of 37-year-old Gertrude Baniszewski, mother of seven and the architect of the girl’s gruesome death.
The details of her demise, revealed at the 1966 trial, defy belief. Sylvia’s carnival-worker parents boarded her and her sister Jenny with Baniszewski for $20 a week. But when one of their checks arrived late, Baniszewski took out her frustration by beating the girls. Weeks of escalating horror followed. The attacks, focused almost exclusively on Sylvia, grew ever more violent and sadistic. Several of Baniszewski’s children and a gaggle of neighborhood kids, some as young as 10, watched or joined in. None reported what they saw.
“A lot of people have compared this to Lord of the Flies,” says attorney Natty Bumppo, a former Indianapolis Star reporter who covered the case. “But that was just a bunch of uncontrolled children. In this case, they had an adult supervising what they were doing. It wasn’t children going wild. It was children doing what they were told.”
What’s even more mind-boggling is that the crime’s perpetrators all eventually walked free—some after absurdly short prison sentences. Here’s what happened to this tragedy’s principal players.
TIME SERVED: 20 YEARS
Originally found guilty of first-degree murder, Gertrude (or Gertie, as she was sometimes called) was sentenced to life in prison—a judgment confirmed by a 1971 retrial. During her years at the Indiana Women’s Prison, she was considered a model prisoner and earned the nickname of “Mom.” In spite of widespread public outcry, she was paroled in 1985. She moved to Iowa, changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan, and died of lung cancer on June 16, 1990. She never took responsibility for her crimes, claiming she “couldn’t remember” her actions. “I never thought she was insane,” Bumppo says. “I thought she was a downtrodden, mean woman.”
TIME SERVED: 7 YEARS
When Gertrude, a sickly asthmatic, didn’t feel up to “disciplining” Sylvia, she relied on her oldest child, Paula, to help out. Which she did, enthusiastically. She was 17 at the time, and it was rumored that she and Sylvia disliked each other from the start. In 1966, Paula was convicted of second-degree murder, but when her conviction was overturned in 1971 on a technicality, she pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter rather than face a retrial. She got 2-to-21 years but, in spite of attempting a prison break, was paroled in March 1972 and released completely in March 1974. She changed her name to Paula Pace and wasn’t heard from again until 2012, when she was discovered living in the small Iowa hamlet of Marshalltown and working for the school system in the neighboring town of Conrad. Pace/Baniszewski, the mother of two grown sons, wasn’t charged with any additional crimes but was fired from her job for providing false information on her employee application. Since then, she has once more slipped off the grid.
TIME SERVED: NONE
The second-oldest of the Baniszewski children, Stephanie was 15 at the time of the crime. Though she admitted to participating to some degree in Sylvia’s abuse, she was granted a special trial and then all charges against her were dropped, likely because she agreed to turn state’s evidence against her family. She reportedly changed her name, married, had children, worked as a teacher, and now lives in Florida.
TIME SERVED: 2 YEARS
The third-oldest of the Baniszewski children and an active participant in Sylvia’s torture, John was 12 when she died. Convicted of manslaughter, he became the Indiana State Reformatory’s youngest inmate, serving just two years before being released. He changed his name to John Blake and drifted aimlessly before experiencing a religious epiphany that, he said, helped him see the error of his ways. Allegedly the only member of the Baniszewski clan to show public remorse for his deeds, he made no attempt to hide his past and even spoke about it publicly on occasion. Reportedly a lay minister and real-estate agent with a wife and three children, he died of cancer in 2005 at age 52. In a masterpiece of understatement, he once told a reporter that “My mom was a very selfish, self-centered woman.”
TIME SERVED: NONE
Fourth-oldest of the Baniszewski children, Marie was 11 when the torture took place. No charges were brought against her. She testified during the trial, becoming the sole member of the Baniszewski family to cry on the stand during questioning. She reportedly still lives in Indiana.
TIME SERVED: NONE
Fifth-oldest of the Baniszewski children, Shirley was the youngest of the family to actively participate in Sylvia’s torture. Although the 10-year-old heated a needle that was used to burn the victim, she was never charged with any crime. Her whereabouts today are unknown.
TIME SERVED: NONE
Because he was only 8 at the time, James was not arrested nor called to testify, although some reports suggested he played a role in the crime. Of all the Baniszewski offspring, the least is known about him.
Dennis Lee Wright Jr.
The youngest of the Baniszewski children, Dennis was a newborn when Sylvia met her fate. He was the son of Gertrude’s lover, Dennis Lee Wright Sr., who abandoned the family shortly after his namesake’s birth. Supposedly, he was placed in foster care and was later adopted by the White family, who changed his name to Denny Lee White. He died in 2012 in California.
TIME SERVED: 2 YEARS
A neighborhood kid and Stephanie Baniszewski’s boyfriend, Hubbard was a full participant in Sylvia’s torture. His “contributions” included using her as a practice dummy for judo flips and punches and shoving her down the basement stairs. Convicted of manslaughter, he served only two years before being released. His attorney, Forrest Bowman Jr., remembers running into him in the early 1970s when he stopped at a near-downtown gas station where Hubbard happened to work. “He was very effusive and said, ‘Come inside, I want to introduce you to my boss,’” Bowman recalls. “I said sure. That was the last contact I had with him.” Oddly, Hubbard never changed his name and reportedly remained in the Indianapolis area most of his adult life. He was tried for another murder in 1982 but acquitted. He also reportedly lost his job in 2007 when the movie An American Crime, about the Sylvia Likens case, debuted. He died in June of that year in Shelbyville.
TIME SERVED: 2 YEARS
Another neighborhood kid who tortured Sylvia, Hobbs performed the infamous act of helping to carve the words “I am a prostitute and proud of it” into her stomach with a large needle. The macabre task was begun by Gertrude, but when she became too fatigued to finish, Hobbs stepped in. Convicted of manslaughter, he served a short sentence and died of cancer in 1972 at age 21.
Lester C. Likens
Sylvia’s father was a carnival worker who decided to leave his kids with a third party while he and his wife, Betty, were on the road. His only “crime” was that he didn’t vet the Baniszewski home more thoroughly before leaving two of his daughters in Gertrude’s custody. “We [he and Gertrude] got to talking, and she said she would take care of the children and treat them like her own,” he recalled at the trial. Lester apparently believed her, because during several subsequent trips to the house—the last on October 5, just weeks before his daughter’s death—he noticed nothing out of order. Not that there was much to see, considering the only portions of the Baniszewski abode he ever entered were the living room and, once, the kitchen. He reportedly died in February 2013 at the age of 86 in Fontana, California.
Visibly devastated, Sylvia’s mother gave only short responses on the witness stand at the trial. She divorced Lester in 1967, remarried, and died on May 29, 1998, at age 71. She was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, where she shares a headstone with her brother.
In the midst of the ordeal, Sylvia’s sister Jenny—who was also boarded at the Baniszewskis’—reportedly called their older sister Dianna for help. Believing that the girls were simply grumbling, Dianna initially ignored the plea. But her suspicions were raised when Gertrude wouldn’t let her in the house for a visit. She then spotted Jenny, who said she wasn’t allowed to talk to her and ran away. Dianna contacted social services, but when a worker showed up at the Baniszewski residence, Jenny told her (on threat of punishment from Gertrude) that Sylvia had run away. No further action was taken. Dianna made headlines recently when she and her husband, Cecil “Paul” Knutson, both diabetics, got lost in the California backcountry and were stranded in their car for two weeks with nothing to sustain them but rainwater, a pie, and some oranges. Knutson didn’t survive the ordeal, dying of a heart attack after the first week. Dianna, near death, was discovered and rescued by off-roaders.
Perhaps because she was crippled by polio, Jenny didn’t suffer nearly as much abuse as her sister Sylvia did. From the beginning, she had opportunities to tell neighbors what was going on, but she didn’t because she feared she would make things worse. Indeed, one of the enduring mysteries of the case is why neither she nor Sylvia sought help before things escalated. “I speculate that there was never any experience in Sylvia’s life, up to the time she went into Gertie’s house, when she learned that people would come to her aid,” says Bowman, Hubbard’s attorney. “She wasn’t conditioned to believe that anyone would help her.” Sylvia finally succumbed to her injuries after months of torture. Hobbs, the neighborhood kid, contacted the police to report the death. When the police arrived to collect her sister’s body, Jenny reportedly told them, “You get me out of here, and I’ll tell you everything.” A Beech Grove resident, she died in 2004 at the age of 54.
This article appeared in the October 2015 Issue.