I’m starting off this post by stating this case makes me so sad, and it disgusts me that human beings can do this to other human beings. Please read this with caution, as it is a case/story that can be hard to handle.
As parents who work, we have to sometimes rely on people to care for our children. They may be family, close friends, daycares, or even neighbors. We trust these people to care for our children as we would, but what happens when the person you have watching your children, doesn’t care for them, but instead uses them for the most vile of abuse?
For three months, Sylvia Likens was incrementally abused before succumbing to her extensive wounds and passing away on October 26, 1965. She was sixteen years old, and was staying with a neighbor Gertrude Baniszewski and her children. Sylvia’s sister Jenny was also staying with Gertrude but was not abused like Sylvia was. In fact Jenny was forced to inflict some of the abuse onto Sylvia. Citizens in the state of Indiana, claim this to be the worst case ever committed in their state and the senior investigator claimed this was the most sadistic case of his 35 year career.
Sylvia was a beautiful girl. The third of five children born to her parents; Lester and Elizabeth. She was born between two sets of fraternal twins. Her parents were carnival workers and their relationship was unstable. Sylvia and her younger sister Jenny often stayed with relatives while their parents traveled the state. Normally with their grandmother. She was often described as friendly, confident, and lively. She and Jenny were very close and Sylvia looked out for her sister who had suffered from polio and walked with a brace.
In July of 1965 Jenny and Sylvia’s father had arranged for the two girls to go live with Gertrude who had two daughters that the girls had known from school. When Gertrude accepted the boarding agreement, she assured Lester that she would care for his daughters as if they were her own.
Gertrude was to received $20 weekly in boarding fees for the two girls. Their parents would collect them in November. In the first few weeks there was little discipline or abuse in the Baniszewski household.
After a few weeks the promised payments for boarding of $20 a week failed to arrive consistently. To vent her frustration in this, Gertrude would beat the bare buttocks of the two girls with various instruments, making degrading comments to them as she did so. In mid-August, Gertrude focused the majority of the abuse onto Sylvia. Gertrude was very jealous of Sylvia’s physical appearance and her potential in life.
Not only was Gertrude abusive, but so were her children, especially Paula, who was 3 months pregnant, overweight, and not as attractive as Sylvia. The abuse, torment, and humiliation didn’t end with just Gertrude and Paula. Coy Hubbard and several other classmates, would all physically abuse Sylvia.
Both sisters were fearful of notifying an adult or family members about the abuse and neglect. They were afraid it would only worsen their predicament. Sadly when the two girls did inform their elder sister of their distress, she didn’t believe them.
The abuse endured by this young girl is heart wrenching; physical beatings, scalding baths, whipping, starvation, sexual humiliation in front of family and friends, dehydration, choking/strangulation, forced to eat feces, vomit, and urine.
October 25 and 26, Sylvia attempted to escape the basement where she had been staying after overhearing the plan to leave her to die in the forest. Sylvia was caught before she could escape, and was then beaten to unconsciousness by both Gertrude and Coy Hubbard.
The police were called and Gertrude led them to Sylvia’s body. It was emaciated, extensively bludgeoned, and mutilated. Her body was lying on a soiled mattress. Paula Baniszewski looked at Jenny and stated, “If you want to live with us Jenny, we will treat you like our own sister.”
Jenny recited the rehearsed version of events to police and then whispered, “If you get me out of here, I’ll tell you everything.”
Jenny provided a formal statement to police that led officers to arrest; Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie, and John Jr. Baniszewski. They also arrested, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs. They were all arrested for suspicion of murder. Gertrude denied any involvement and pushed the blame onto the children.
Lacking any remorse, Paula Baniszewski signed a statement admitting to having repeatedly beat and abuse Sylvia. John Jr. also admitted to having abused Sylvia on several occasions, and that his mother had burned her with cigarettes frequently.
Five other neighborhood children who had participated in the abuse were also arrested and charged with causing injury to a person. They were all released to the custody of their parents and would be required to appear as witnesses at the trial.
- The convictions from the trial:
- Gertrude Baniszewski – guilty of first degree murder, life imprisonment
- Paula Baniszewski – guilty of second degree murder, life imprisonment
- John Baniszewski Jr. – guilty of manslaughter, 2-21 years
- Richard Hobbs – guilty of manslaughter, 2 – 21 years
- Coy Hubbard – guilty of manslaughter, 2 – 21 years
Both Gertrude and Paula appealed and were awarded retrials. Paula opted to plea guilty to voluntary manslaughter, she was then sentenced to 2 – 20 years in prison. Gertrude was again found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life.
Sadly Gertrude and Paula would both be paroled before serving their full sentences.
Gertrude had changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and relocated to Iowa in 1985. She never accepted full responsibility for Sylvia’s death. She died of lung cancer in 1990.
Paula was paroled in 1972, and had assumed the name of Paula Pace. She eventually was hired as an aide to a school counselor for 14 years, in Iowa. She had concealed the truth regarding her criminal history and was fired in 2012. She is married with two children, the child she was pregnant with in 1966, had been adopted.
Stephanie Baniszewski had turned states evidence and any charges against her were dropped. She changed her name and got married, Stephanie Serikstad lives in Florida.
Richard, Coy, and John Jr, all served less than 2 years in stated reform school.
Richard Hobbs died of lung cancer in 1972.
Coy Hubbard stayed in Indiana, and never changed his name. He continued to have legal issues from criminal activity. He died of a heart attack in 2007.
John Baniszewski Jr, changed his name to John Blake and became a lay minister. He died of diabetes in 2005.
The house of horror at 3850 East New York Street is now a church parking lot.
Protect children however you can, make good choices, stay safe