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Sylvia Likens: The Brutal Murder Of A 16-Year-Old That Rocked Indiana

The murder of Sylvia Likens remains one of the goriest and heartbreaking stories even today. What makes it distinct from other murders is that before Likens was murdered, she was abused not by one person by several others, many of whom were children as young as 10 years old.

Sylvia Likens was born on January 3, 1949, the child of parents Lester Cecil Likens and Elizabeth “Betty” Frances. She was the third child among five, between two sets of fraternal twins. Her parents were carnival workers originally from Boone County, just south of Indianapolis. Since they travelled a lot, they didn’t like their daughters Sylvia and Jenny to accompany them. Lester and Elizabeth suffered an unstable marriage with a lot of financial strain. Sylvia, whom friends called “Cookie”, was lively and friendly but timider when compared to her younger sister Jenny, who limped, as she was affected by polio.

In, 1965, the Likens family was living in Indianapolis. Their father, Lester thought it would be a good idea for his daughters to stay with Gertrude Baniszewski while he and his wife travelled to the east coast for the carnival. Their older daughter Diana was married and the boys were left with their grandparents. Baniszewski’s daughters Paula and Stephanie attended the same school as Sylvia and Jenny. Though Baniszewski had seven children of her own, ranging from 18 months to 17 years, she took on the responsibility of the Likens girls for a weekly fee of $20.

Initially, the Likens girls got on well with the Baniszewski family. They helped with the household chores and even attended Sunday school with the other Baniszewksi children. But when the weekly payments for the children started arriving late, Gertrude Baniszewski began to vent her frustration.

Torture & Abuse

Baniszewski used a paddle to beat the girls stating, “Well, I took care of you two little bitches for a week for nothing!” She looked for excuses to torture the Likens girls, especially Sylvia whom she was jealous of. She accused her of being pregnant and kicked her in the genitals after Sylvia had mentioned a boyfriend. Paula, who herself was pregnant and overweight, kicked Likens off a chair and in another instance broke her own wrist while aiming for Likens eyes and teeth.

Another time, a neighborhood boy named Randy, force-fed Likens with a spicy hot dog and when she vomited, made her eat her own vomit. Stephanie’s 15-year-old boyfriend Coy Hubbard slapped and banged Likens’ head when she spread a rumor in school about Paula and her mother being prostitutes.

Baniszewski, her children, Coy Hubbard, and many of his classmates teamed up to torture and beat Likens. They used her as a dummy for judo sessions, wounding her body, burning her over and over again with cigarette butts and injuring her genitals. She was forced to strip naked and to masturbate in front of everyone with a Pepsi-Cola bottle.

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Failure To Rescue Likens

During the months of July and August, Lester and Elizabeth visited their daughters but because of the presence of the Baniszewski’s they could not utter a word to their parents. Fear that Bainszewski would torture them more, kept them from sharing their horror story with the school authorities and adults.

All attempts to rescue the girls before the tragic demise of Sylvia failed. In September, they even met their sister Diana at the park and confided in her the torture that they were facing at the Baniszewskis. Diana didn’t believe the girls completely and thought that they must be exaggerating. When a neighborhood boy Michael Monroe informed Arsenal Technical High School, which led a nurse to visit the Bsniszewskis, she was turned away. Further, a couple who was their neighbor, Phyllis and Raymond Vermillion, failed to inform authorities even though they found that the girls looked “zombified."

At the height of her abuse, Likens was forced to wet herself as she had lost control of her bladder. She was imprisoned in the basement, left naked, and deprived of food and water. Bainszewski, her children, and the neighborhood children continued to torture her.

12-year-old John Bainszewski forced her to eat the feces from the youngest baby’s diaper, put her into a tub with scalding water, and rubbed salt on her wounds. Bainszewski inscribed, “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on Likens abdomen using a heated needle. She then conjured up a plan to get rid of Likens by leaving her in the forest and forced Likens to write a letter to her parents to make it seem like she had run away.

On October 25, after Likens overheard Gertrude and her son talking about leaving her to die, Likens attempted to escape but she was too injured and weak to move. Bainszewski caught her, beat her with a curtain rod and Coy Hubbard threw her down into the basement.

Death

On October 26, Sylvia Likens was completely delusional, emaciated, and could feel herself dying. Nevertheless, Gertrude Bainszewski and the others continued to torture her and sprayed her with a garden hose. When Lykens tried to exit the basement again, Bainszewski stamped her head. Just as Stephanie decided to give her a bath with soapy water, Likens collapsed and breathed her last at around 5:30 pm. Gertrude was sure that Likens was feigning her death but called the police nevertheless.

When the police arrived at the Bainszewski residence, at 3850 East New York Street at around 6:30 pm, they found her mutilated and bludgeoned body on a soiled and filthy mattress. The autopsy of her body suggested that she was severely malnourished and had received over 150 wounds. She was burnt and bruised, and her fingernails were bent backward. The skin on her face, neck, breasts, and right knee had been peeled off. Likens had bitten through her lips and parts of her face in her desperation.

Arrest & Trial

Following the testimony of Jenny Likens, police arrested Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Bainszewski Jr, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs. Five other neighborhood children were also arrested. In May 1966, Gertrude blamed the children for all the torture on Likens and pleaded not guilty. But the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder and found Paula guilty of second-degree murder. Both were given life imprisonment in Indiana Women’s Prison.

Stephanie’s murder charges were dropped when she agreed to plead guilty and testify against the others. Hobbs, Hubbard, and John Bainszewski Jr. were convicted of manslaughter and were sentenced to two 21-year terms at the Indiana State Reformatory located in Pendleton. They were released in 1968 on parole, based on good behavior.

In a new trial in 1971, Paula pleaded guilty to manslaughter and got 2 years in prison whereas Gertrude was convicted of first-degree murder. She was finally granted parole in 1958 and relocated to Iowa. She died in 1990 due to lung cancer. In 2014, attorney Forrest Bowman stated, “She had a miserable life. What I think this was ultimately about was jealousy.”

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