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Gone Too Soon Wiki

Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was the third child of carnival workers Lester Cecil Likens (1926–2013) and his wife Elizabeth Frances "Betty" (née Grimes, 1927–1998). She was born between two sets of fraternal twins: Diana and Danny (two years older), and Jenny and Benny (one year younger, the former disabled by polio).[3]

Likens' parents' marriage was unstable. The family moved frequently, and the parents had financial difficulties. Likens and her sister Jenny were often boarded out or forced to live with relatives, such as their grandmother, so that their schoolwork would not suffer while their parents were on the road. To earn money, Likens babysat and ironed, the same kind of work that was done by Gertrude Baniszewski. At the time of Likens' death, her favorite rock band was The Beatles.

In July 1965, Sylvia and Jenny Likens were living with their mother, Betty, in Indianapolis, Indiana. During that time, Betty was arrested and jailed for shoplifting. Lester Likens, who had recently separated from his wife, arranged for his daughters to board with Gertrude Baniszewski, the mother of the girls' new friend Paula Baniszewski (aged 17) and Paula's six siblings Stephanie (15), John (12), Marie (11), Shirley (10), James (8), and few-months-old Dennis Lee Wright Jr. During her early time with the Baniszewski family, she would sing with Baniszewski's daughter, Stephanie.

Although the Baniszewskis were poor, Lester "didn't pry" into the condition of the house (as he reported at the trial), and he encouraged Baniszewski to "straighten his daughters out."

Abuse and death[]

Lester Likens agreed to pay Baniszewski $20 a week in exchange for her care of the Likens girls. Baniszewski, described by The Indianapolis Star as a "haggard, underweight asthmatic",[7] was suffering from depression and the stress of several failed marriages. When his payment arrived late, Baniszewski beat the Likens girls on their bare buttocks with paddles.

Baniszewski soon focused her abuse exclusively on Sylvia. She accused her of stealing candy that she had bought, and humiliated her when she admitted that she once had a boyfriend. Baniszewski's daughter, Paula, who was pregnant at the time, kicked Likens in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant. Later medical examination proved that Likens was not pregnant and could not have been.[8] Baniszewski began allowing her older children to beat Likens and repeatedly push her down stairs for entertainment. During a church function, Baniszewski force-fedLikens a hot dog overloaded with condiments. Likens vomited afterwards, which she was later forced to consume. Baniszewski also accused Likens of prostitution and delivered misogynistic sermons about the filthiness of prostitutes and women in general.

Likens was later accused of spreading rumors within Arsenal Technical High School that Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski were prostitutes. This supposedly provoked Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to physically attack Likens. Afterwards, Hubbard, and several other classmates and local boys visited the Baniszewski residence to assist Gertrude in abusing Likens. Baniszewski encouraged Hubbard, her children, and neighborhood children to torment Likens, including, among other things:

  • Beating her
  • Starving her
  • Tying her up
  • Forcing her to eat feces and drink urine
  • Clubbing her with objects such as hair spray cans, dishes and bottles [9]
  • Using her as a practice dummy during violent Judo sessions[10]
  • Clawing her back [11]
  • Lacerating her
  • Burning her body with lit cigarettes over 100 times[12]
  • Burning her with scalding water
  • Injuring her genitals[13]
  • Rubbing salt into her wounds
  • Forcing her to strip naked and insert an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina[7][14]

Paula Baniszewski once beat Likens in the face with such force that she broke her own wrist. She later had to wear a cast, which she used to further beat Likens.[15][16]

Gertrude Baniszewski later forced Jenny to hit her sister, beating her if she did not comply.[17]

Meanwhile, Raymond and Phyllis Vermillion, a middle-aged couple who moved next door, saw Gertrude to be an ideal caretaker for their two children. They visited the Baniszewski residence on two occasions, where they witnessed Paula, with Gertrude's approval, abusing Likens and boasting about it in front of them. [18] The Vermillions refused to report the abuse to the authorities out of fear on both occasions.[19]

Baniszewski eventually forbade Likens from attending school after Likens confessed to having stolen a gym suit from the school when Baniszewski would not buy a gym suit for her. She brutally beat and whipped Sylvia and did the same for Jenny after remembering that she supposedly stole a tennis shoe. Baniszewski then switched the topic to the "evils" of premarital sex and brutally kicked Sylvia multiple times in her vagina. She also burned all of her fingers with matches and further whipped her.[20]

Likens eventually became incontinent due to the severity of the torture. [21] She was denied access to the bathroom and thus, was forced to urinate herself. As punishment for her incontinence, Baniszewski threw and locked her in the basement. Throughout her captivity, Baniszewski frequently, with the assistance of her children and their friends, restrained Likens in a bathtub filled with scalding water and rubbed salt onto her burns. [22] She was often kept naked and rarely fed. At times, Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son John Jr. would make Likens eat her own feces, as well as urine and feces from the diaper of Gertrude Baniszewski's one-year-old son. She also made abusing Likens a pastime, charging the neighborhood children five cents to see the "display" of Likens' naked body and tie, beat, burn and mutilate her. Likens attempted to alert the neighbors for help by screaming and hitting the walls of the basement with a spade, ultimately to no avail.

The Likens sisters had no way to contact other family members to inform them of the abuse. Jenny, especially, struggled to do this since she was constantly threatened by Baniszewski that she would be abused and tortured next like her sister. She was also bullied by the neighborhood girls and beaten whenever she alluded to Sylvia's situation.[23] Early that summer, they saw their older sister, Diana, a couple of times at the local park. Diana was then 18 years old, married, and estranged from the rest of her family. Their parents had forbidden contact between the two. When her sisters finally had the chance to tell Diana about the punishments they were receiving, she assumed that seeing her was the reason why. They wished they could all live together, but at the time, they did not know they lived less than a mile and a half apart. Diana eventually learned that Sylvia and Jenny were staying at a home which was not their parents', and she attempted to visit them. She did not know the woman who answered the door, but later learned it was Gertrude Baniszewski. Baniszewski told her that the girls were not allowed to see her, and ordered Diana off her property. At one point, Diana secretly gave a starving Sylvia a sandwich. Sylvia remained silent about the matter but after Marie Baniszewski revealed it, Paula and Gertrude choked and paddled Sylvia before subjecting her to another scalding bath.[24] Shortly thereafter, a neighbor made an anonymous report, which prompted an in-home visit by a public health nurse. The nurse entered the home and made inquiries, but had no choice but to leave without further investigation. She told Baniszewski the report was about Likens; Baniszewski replied she had kicked Likens out of her house, and that her whereabouts were unknown. The nurse had no way of knowing that the subject of her inquiry was right below her in the basement. 

Likens was often deprived of water. Jenny later speculated, during her court testimony, that Likens was unable to produce tears due to dehydration.[25]

On October 22, 1965 Likens was forced by John to eat a bowl of soup with her fingers. John quickly took away the bowl when Likens attempted to eat it. Baniszewski eventually allowed her to sleep upstairs, under the condition that she learned not to wet herself. That night, Likens whispered to Jenny to give her a glass of water before falling asleep. On October 23, 1965, Baniszewski discovered that Likens had urinated herself. As punishment, Likens was forced to masturbate with an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle in front of Baniszewski's children. After that, she stripped Likens naked and carved the words "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" onto Likens' abdomen with a heated needle.[27][28] When Baniszewski was unable to finish the branding, she had Richard Hobbs finish. Hobbs continued to brand Likens as Baniszewski calmly took Jenny to the groceries.[29]Hobbs and 10-year-old Shirley Baniszewski then used an iron poker in an attempt to burn the letter "S" into Likens' chest; the burn scar ended up looking like the number "3."[25] Baniszewski later taunted Likens about how she would never be able to marry a man due to the words carved onto her stomach. Likens was taken back to the basement, where Coy Hubbard arrived to tie her up and slam her body against the walls six to seven times. That night, Likens confided to her sister, "I'm going to die. I can tell".[30]The next day, Baniszewski woke Likens, then dictated a letter to her, intending to mislead her parents into believing that she had run away. The letter also tried to frame a group of anonymous boys for abusing and mutilating Likens after she supposedly agreed to have sexual relations with them. After Likens finished the letter, Baniszewski formulated a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny take Sylvia to a nearby forested area and leave her there to die.

On October 25, Likens tried to escape after overhearing Baniszewski's plan to blindfold her[25] and dump her body in Jimmy's Forest, a wooded area nearby. Likens fled to the front door but due to her extensive injuries, Baniszewski caught her in time. Likens was provided with toast but was unable to eat it due to her severe dehydration. Baniszewski shoved the toast into her mouth and struck her face several times with a curtain rod. She violently threw Likens into the basement and with the assistance of Hubbard, she tied and bludgeoned her until she was unconscious. Likens managed to recover but was unable to speak intelligibly and move her limbs properly. Likens tried to exit the basement but collapsed before she could make it to the stairs. Baniszewski crushed her head with her feet and stood there for several moments.[31]

On October 26, after multiple beatings, burnings, and scalding baths, Likens died of a brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition.[7] She was 16 years old.

When Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs realized that Likens was not breathing, Stephanie tried to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Banzisewski, however, shouted at them that Likens was "faking it".[32]

When Baniszewski finally realized that Likens was dead, she sent Hobbs to call the police from a nearby pay phone. When police arrived, Gertrude Baniszewski handed them the letter she had forced Likens to write a few days previously. Before the police officers left the house, however, Jenny Likens approached them and said, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything."[33] Her statement, combined with the discovery of Likens' body, prompted the officers to arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. Other neighborhood children present at the time—Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe—were arrested for "injury to person".


Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials.

An examination and autopsy of Likens' body revealed numerous burns, bruising, muscle and nerve damage. All of her fingernails were also broken backwards and most of the skin's outer layer peeled off. Her severely mutilated body led authorities to initially believe that it was the work of an "anonymous madman".[34] In her death throes, Likens bit through her lips, partially severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, which meant it was possible she was still a virgin, discrediting Baniszewski's assertions that Likens was a prostitute and her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin.

During the highly publicized trial, Gertrude Baniszewski denied being responsible for Likens' death. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. She claimed that she was too distracted by her ill health and depression to control her children.

Four minors who took part in the abuse of Likens were also put on trial. They were:

  • Paula Baniszewski, aged 17
  • John Baniszewski, aged 13
  • Richard Hobbs, aged 15
  • Coy Hubbard, aged 15

The attorneys for the minors claimed that they had been pressured by Baniszewski.

When Gertrude's 11-year-old daughter, Marie Baniszewski, was called to the stand as a witness for the defense, she broke down and admitted that she had been forced to heat the needle with which Hobbs had carved Likens' skin. She also testified that she had seen her mother beating Likens and forcing her into the basement.

In his closing statement, Baniszewski's lawyer said: "I condemn her for being a murderess ... but I say she's not responsible because she's not all here!" He tapped his head to make his point about her state of mind.[35]

On May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder. She was spared the death penalty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Paula Baniszewski, who had given birth to a daughter during the trial, was convicted of second-degree murder. She was also sentenced to life imprisonment.

Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were all convicted of manslaughter and given two 2-to-21-year prison sentences.