In recent days, the name of Sylvia Likens has popped up in national media. To many, her name is familiar because of the movie An American Crime with Ellen Paige. To others, they might know of the inspiration for Jack Ketchum’s book The Girl Next Door. To natives of Indiana (or those who just happen to live here), her name is recognizable because of the news coverage her murder receives every year on the anniversary.
I am publishing this on the 47th Anniversary because it seems fitting.
Now, why has her name been in the national news? It’s because of a woman named Paula Pace. For the past 14 years, until this past Tuesday anyway, she had been working as a Teacher’s Aide in Iowa. An anonymous tip to local authorities reported her real name as Paula Baniszewski.
Baniszewski/Pace was one of six people charged with her systematic torture and murder. Others charged were Gertrude Baniszewski (her mother and the ringleader of the abuse), Coy Hubbard (her boyfriend), John Baniszewski (her brother), Stephanie Baniszewski (her sister), and Richard Hobbs (a neighbor).
Of the six of them, Stephanie’s charges were dropped because of her willingness to testify of the horrors that she and the others committed. Paula and Gertrude were both convicted on 1st degree murder charges (these were both overturned because of Jury Bias and new trials were ordered). The boys were sent to a boy’s reformatory school.
But what exactly happened? Forgive me if the details are wrong, but I am going off pure memory, so here it is as I recall: Sylvia and her younger sister stayed with Gertrude Baniszewski at 3850 East New York Street (the house stood for 44 years until a church purchased the property to make it a parking lot). The Likens’s girls stayed with Baniszewski because their parents, carnival workers at the time, asked that they be able stay. Their parents agreed to pay a certain amount of money per week while they traveled.
When payment was late, Baniszewski took it out on Sylvia. Her children were directed to hit her. Paula lied about her saying Sylvia was a prostitute and was pregnant (incidentally, Paula herself was pregnant by Hubbard). When Sylvia proclaimed her innocence, she was beaten. She was burned with cigarettes, Hubbard practiced his karate moves on her, and she was forced to eat her own excrement. The words “I’m a prostitute” were carved into her abdomen.
On 26 October 1965, Sylvia died from a cerebral hemorrhage. The police were called and her younger sister said “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.”
The boys spent roughly two years incarcerated. In a second trial for Gertrude and Paula, Paula took a plea bargain while Gertrude was once again convicted of 1st Degree Murder (she was paroled in 1985).
The sentences of all involved seem light. Certainly they are. Hubbard spent the rest of his life in and out of prison before dying in 2005. John Baniszewski became a pastor, breaking his silence in 1998 after a school shooting in Jonesboro, AK. He told reporters that he was proof that young offenders can turn their lives around. Gertrude died of lung cancer in 1990. Pace/Baniszewski was paroled in 1972 (her child, by the way, was born in prison in 1966). Hobbs died of lung cancer at 21. He had picked up a multi-pack a day habit while incarcerated.
After her release in 1972, Pace/Baniszewski moved away. When she filled out her job application at
Beaman-Conrad-Liscomb-Union-Whitten in Iowa, she lied saying she had never been convicted of a crime. The fact that she spent 14 years around children frightens me very much.
I don’t know why some people feel compelled to do things this horrible, but I hope that with the last surviving person associated with Sylvia’s murder, Pace/Baniszewski takes a hard look at herself in the mirror every morning, realizing she was responsible for something so horrific that words cannot describe them. More so, I hope her husband and children realize what kind of monster she is.