Marc Hoover: The brutal murder of Sylvia Likens

Marc Hoover

As a teenager, I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana which is also the location of Indiana’s most disturbing murder. Although the crime happened decades ago, many people who have lived in Indianapolis for any significant time know about the Sylvia Likens homicide.

On October 26, 1965, Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old teenager was found dead on a filthy mattress at 3850 East New York Street. Resident Gertrude Baniszewski told authorities that a group of boys had beaten and killed Likens. The teen’s body had over 100 cuts and bruises and the words “I am a prostitute” were carved into her body. She also appeared malnourished.

Upon further investigation, a more sinister tale unfolded. It was almost too disturbing to believe. Before her death, Sylvia and her sister Jenny were left with Baniszewski after she agreed to watch them for $20 per week.

According to various crime reports, Baniszewski became enraged at Lester and Betty Likens after they didn’t pay Baniszewski for keeping the Likens’ daughters. Baniszewski was a single mother trying to care for seven children and she was already poverty-stricken.

Instead of returning the girls to their parents, Baniszewski focused her hate on Sylvia. She allowed her own children and neighborhood children to beat and torment Sylvia. Some atrocities against Sylvia were being burned with lit cigarettes and forced into a bathtub filled with scalding hot water.

Toward the end, she was thrown down the stairs into the basement. She wasn’t allowed to bathe, use the restroom or even given food or water. The official cause of death was listed as brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain and shock. A trial soon followed. Baniszewski received a life sentence but only served 20 years. Against a public outcry, she was paroled in 1985. She changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and left Indiana. She died of lung cancer in Iowa on June 16, 1990. She never accepted responsibility for her actions and claimed she didn’t remember the crime.

Gertrude’s daughter Paula Baniszewski and her brother John received sentences for their roles in the killing. Neighbors Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs also received jail time for their participation. John Baniszewski, Hobbs, and Hubbard are all now deceased. Additionally, Jenny Likens died on June 23, 2004. She was only 54. She had lived to watch her sister tormented to death. Unfortunately, she struggled to get through life and leave her past behind.

In 2007, a movie about the murder of Sylvia Likens was released. It was titled An American Crime and starred Ellen Page and Catherine Keener.

I can remember the first time I heard about this crime as a teenager in Indianapolis. I didn’t believe it because I didn’t think such cruelty existed. For many years I had either driven past or rode my bike past the house on 3850 E. New York Street without knowing the horrors that had once occurred in that house.

I even remember visiting the house with a childhood friend. We stood on the porch and wanted to enter the house. Out of curiosity, I can remember turning the knob to the front door. It was locked so we left. But I can remember feeling bad vibes while standing on the porch and feeling much sorrow. Fortunately, the house was demolished several years ago.

Sylvia had an older sister named Dianna Bedwell (formerly Likens) who has experienced her own tragedies since losing her two younger sisters. She nearly died after her car broke down in a California desert. Although she survived and was rescued, her husband died. When people complain that life isn’t fair, I disregard those comments.

But I will say Dianna Bedwell is an exception. I have interviewed her about an upcoming movie depicting her near death experience in the desert and losing her beloved husband and sisters. The interview will appear in a future column.

Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at http://www.lifewithgrandpa.com. He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on Amazon.com.