In the heart of Indianapolis in the mid 1960's, through a twist of fate and fortune, a pretty young girl came to live with a thirty-seven-year-old mother and her seven children. What began as a temporary childcare arrangement between Sylvia Likens's parents and Gertrude Baniszewski turned into a crime that would haunt cops, prosecutors, and a community for decades to come…
When police found Sylvia's emaciated body, with a chilling message carved into her flesh, they knew that she had suffered tremendously before her death. Soon they would learn how many othersincluding some of Baniszewski's own childrenparticipated in Sylvia's murder, and just how much torture had been inflicted in one HOUSE OF EVIL
About the Author
John Dean is a former newspaper reporter who has had articles published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the Chicago Journalism Review.
Read an Excerpt
" THE MOST TERRIBLE CRIME "
TWO CHILDREN—A boy and a girl in their early teens—knelt over the motionless body of another teen age girl, trying to breathe life back into her mangled, emaciated form. They were trying to deny what was already, but for a few last, labored breaths, a fact. A deputy prosecutor was later to call this death "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana."
"She’s faking! She’s all right!" screeched the haggard, panic- stricken woman standing in the doorway.
The boy, a gangly 14- year- old whose straight blond hair tended to slide over his black horn- rimmed glasses, rushed the woman back downstairs.
"Someone better call a doctor or somebody," his companion told him when he regained the top of the stairs. Stephanie Baniszewski, 15 years old, had never looked more serious. A glint of reproach in her eyes told Richard Hobbs that she meant it.
He started back down, taking the last three steps in one jump. Stephanie heard her mother, the woman who had been forced downstairs, tell Richard that the police were the ones to call. The Hobbs boy, joined by the woman’s husky 12- year- old son Johnny, headed for the nearest telephone—a pay phone at the Shell station across the corner. It was at twilight of what had been a brisk October day, but the boys knew they had no time to put on wraps before darting across the busy one- way street.
Patrolman Melvin D. Dixon had been cruising the neighborhood about two hours when the radio crackled with his signal. He saw no reason to expect any particular trouble on this night. It was a Tuesday, and it was chilly. It had been quiet so far, except for the usual rush- hour headaches. The traffic had slacked off now, and since it was not quite dark yet, Dixon thought he would have things easy for a while. Lean, dark, and roughly handsome in his dark blue uniform, Dixon, 45 years old, had been on the force long enough to know you sometimes get trouble when you least expect it, however.
It was 6:27 p.m., October 26, 1965, when the dispatcher called Dixon’s signal. "Go—to—3850 East New York," the dispatcher spaced out the words in his usual casual manner. "Investigate possible dead girl."
You don’t get one like that every day. But then, more often than not, it turns out to be a fainting spell; occasionally a child might bleed to death from a household cut.
But Dixon had heard the homicide car being radioed to the scene too, along with other patrol cars; and any "possible dead" calls rated prompt attention, he knew, for the simple fact it might not be too late for resuscitation. He was there in minutes.
The door was open; he walked in. The haggard woman, wan and drawn for her 37 years, met him. He talked to her long enough to take down her name—"Gertrude Wright, white, female, 37"—and the name of the girl—"Sylvia Likens, white, female, 16." Mrs. Wright handed him a note and showed him upstairs, telling him the girl had wandered into her backyard bare- breasted an hour before, clutching the note. The girl had been a boarder at her home, Mrs. Wright said, but had run off with a gang of boys several days before.
The note, on a sheet of lined notebook paper in a childish scrawl, said:
To Mr. and Mrs. Likens:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me if I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted and they did and did and when they got finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.
And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.
I have done just about everything that I could do just to make Gertie mad and cause cost Gertie more money than she’s got. I’ve tore up a new mattress and peed on it. I have also cost Gertie doctor bills that she really can’t pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids. I cost her $35.00 for a hospital in one day and I wouldn’t do nothing around the house. I have done anything to do things to make things out of the way to make things worse for them.
This pitiful note was not signed. Had Dixon taken the time to read it then, he would have suspected it was phony, merely from the formal form of address from a girl to her parents. He would have seen that the note no doubt was dictated by someone else, from the writer’s mistaking the sound of "cost" in the third paragraph for "cause," as is apparent in the correction made. But Dixon, who later handed the note to a detective, was more intent on seeing the body.
What he saw was the long, thin body of a teenage girl stretched out on her back on a mattress on the floor of the bedroom. Although she wore sweater and slacks, her midriff was exposed, and Dixon could plainly see the words "I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!" freshly carved on her belly. Above that inscription, deeply branded into her chest, was a large, curious "3." Her light brown hair was shaggy, disheveled and cut short. Her face was covered with sores, and the entire left side of her face was discolored where the skin had eroded. There were open sores also around the markings on her abdomen, and bruises. Dixon knew that she was dead.
The deputy coroner, Dr. Arthur Paul Kebel, arrived about an hour later. He found the body in complete rigor and at room temperature, indicating she may have been dead eight hours. But he also noted that she had been bathed recently, perhaps after death, and that the water could have lowered the body temperature quicker; he knew also that prolonged shock before death can quicken rigor mortis and loss of heat.
The 47- year- old physician examined the body thoroughly, observing a few things the policeman had missed. There was a large bruise on the left side of the head, about the temple. A tooth was missing. Cuts, burns and scald marks covered the body; the numerous patches where skin had eroded seemed to have been caused by scalding water or acid. The body was covered also with more than 100 small, round sores—"punctate wounds," the doctor called them. One was a hole almost to the bone, on her right wrist. Each "punctate wound" was about the size and shape of the end of a cigarette.
The vagina was swollen and puffy. On the girl’s back was a discolored, bruised area about the size of a hand. The sores were in various stages of healing.
The skinny, distraught matron of the house hovered about Dr. Kebel as he examined the girl’s body, explaining that she had applied rubbing alcohol as first aid.
Kebel was surprised to find no evidence of sexual molestation other than the swollen pubic region.
Also hovering about the doctor, jabbering away, was the Hobbs boy. "What are you doing here?" the doctor demanded.
"I’m a neighbor and a friend of Gertie’s," he said.
Kebel was shocked and confused. He suspected no one around him. He assumed the murder to be the work of some anonymous madman.
Dr. Charles R. Ellis, the young resident pathologist who performed the autopsy on the girl’s body a few hours later, noticed a few more things. Her lips were in shreds; her fingernails were broken backward, all of them. Though not yet 30, Ellis was a veteran of more than 250 criminal autopsies; but he cringed as he thought of the pain Sylvia had endured.
Ellis noted that the patchy skin- loss areas were mainly about the face, neck and breasts; the right knee also was bare of skin.
Examination of the internal organs revealed more. The liver was fatty and yellow, indicating malnutrition (the pelvic bones’ prominence also indicated loss of weight). An alteration in the kidneys indicated the victim had been in shock for some time prior to her death, perhaps as much as two or three days. Examination of the brain showed the effect of the large external bruise about the temple. The doctor drained off two tablespoons of free- flowing, unclotted blood. Unstopped bleeding in such an area causes loss of consciousness and eventually death as pressure on the brain builds up. The doctor concluded that Sylvia died of a "subdural hematoma" caused by the blow to the head, with shock, malnutrition and the excessive injuries as underlying factors.
DETECTIVE SGT. William E. Kaiser had arrived at the Wright home within 10 minutes of Patrolman Dixon. Other policemen already were swarming through the house, taking photographs, making notes and controlling traffic.
Shortly after Kaiser’s arrival, a tiny teen age girl limped toward the house from across New York Street. A rake in her hand, her dingy blond hair stringing from her shoulders, the crippled girl quickened her pace as she saw the patrol cars parked outside the house. A wave of anxiety swept across her face. Her shriveled left leg was encased in a steel brace, but she broke into a near trot as she neared the home.
Police reports listed her later as Jenny Fay Likens, white, female, 15. Sylvia was her sister.
Jenny burst into the front room. Someone said Sylvia was dead. Tears streamed down the polio victim’s face.
Arriving about the same time, home from her job at a neighborhood cafeteria, was a large, brown-haired, slovenly, bottle- bottomed girl named Paula. She was 17, Mrs. Wright’s eldest daughter. She, too, heard the news that Sylvia had died. "You’re kidding!" she exclaimed.
They were not kidding. Paula reached for her Bible. She began reading to Jenny. "This was meant to happen," she intoned then, softly. "If you want to live with us, Jenny, we’ll treat you like our own sister."
Mrs. Wright came into the room, bustling about like a busy stage director. "Did you tell them I’d been doctoring Sylvia?" she reminded.
Jenny remembered her lines: No one had seen Sylvia for several days; she had run off with a gang of boys; she staggered into the backyard at 5:30 p.m., bare- breasted, clutching a note. But Jenny ad-libbed, also. "You get me out of here," she whispered to a policeman, "and I’ll tell you everything."
By 9 p.m., several members of the house hold were on their way downtown. Richard Hobbs, who had been allowed to go home, was rousted out of bed and hustled into a paddy wagon. The wagon was halfway to police headquarters in the 26- story City- County Building, but it backtracked for one more passenger—12- year- old Johnny Baniszewski.
Grim detectives unlocked the doors in the homicide office and went to work. Kaiser, a large, middle- aged, red- faced man, his speech slow and measured, had the appearance of a rube. But he had been a policeman and a homicide detective a long time. He sensed what was up.
He spoke first with Jenny Likens. Next he talked with Richard Hobbs.
"You are in serious trouble," he told the boy. "I know that girl didn’t die at the hands of five boys. Do you want to call your dad before you talk to me?"
Ricky knew his father was worried enough about his wife, Ricky’s mother, who was dying of cancer in Community Hospital. He decided to face the veteran detective alone.
Next Detective Kaiser talked to Mrs. Wright. He learned that her true name was Baniszewski, the same as that of six of her seven children; that her brief cohabitation with 20- year- old Dennis Lee Wright, father of her youngest child, had not been sanctioned by law.
Mrs. Baniszewski handed Kaiser, from her purse, another letter from Sylvia to her parents, on school tablet paper and longer than the note Sylvia supposedly clutched as she staggered into the backyard. It began, "Mom and Dad," and it was signed, "Sylvia Likens."
It listed 15 confessions of theft, sexual adventure and other misbehavior: "I am writing to tell you what I have done for the last two weeks. . . . I done things that could cause a lot of trouble. . . . I took $10 from Gertie Wright. . . ."
The handwriting may have been authentic, but Kaiser knew the motivation was not. By this time he was irritated. He brusquely informed Mrs. Baniszewski that she was under arrest on a preliminary charge of murder and that she might contact an attorney if she chose.
By midnight, Mrs. Baniszewski and Richard Dean Hobbs were in custody on murder charges. Three of Mrs. Baniszewski’s children and five neighbor children were taken into custody within the next few days on juvenile delinquency charges. They were Paula Marie Baniszewski, 17; Stephanie Kay Baniszewski, 15; John Stephan Baniszewski Jr., 12; Stephanie’s boyfriend, Coy Randolph Hubbard, 15; Randy Gordon Lepper, 12; Judy Darlene Duke, 12; Anna Ruth Siscoe, 13, and Michael John Monroe, 11.
By the end of the year, after a grand jury investigation, Mrs. Baniszewski, Paula, Stephanie, Johnny, Hobbs and Hubbard were being held in jail without bond on charges of first-degree murder. The other four children had been released to their parents, under subpoena as state’s witnesses. The stage was set for the most searing courtroom drama in Indiana history.
Excerpted from House of Evil by John Dean
Copyright © 2008 by John Dean
Published in 2008 by St Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Table of Contents
Foreword to the First Edition,,
by Leroy K. New,
Author's Preface to the New Edition,
Revised Author's Preface to the First Edition,
Chapter 1: "The Most Terrible Crime",
Chapter 2: They Didn't Pry,
Chapter 3: The Honeymoon Ends,
Chapter 4: School Days,
Chapter 5: Mob Psychology,
Chapter 6: No Friends in Need,
Chapter 7: Cinderella Without a Prince,
Chapter 8: The Longest Weekend,
Chapter 9: Death of Two Women,
Chapter 10: Indicted for Murder,
Chapter 11: A Judge and Five Lawyers,
Chapter 12: A "Nice Girl," a Jury, and an Angry Young Man,
Chapter 13: A Sluggish Start,
Chapter 14: The Defendants Fall Out,
Chapter 15: Star Witness,
Chapter 16: The State Rests Its Case,
Chapter 17: A "Passive Personality",
Chapter 18: Perjury,
Chapter 19: The Defendants Rest,
Chapter 20: Neurotic but Not Psychotic,
Chapter 21: "The Penalty Should Be Death",
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 pages available as a sample and all 14 pages were title, table of contents, about the author. I like being able to read a little of the book before I buy and not a single page was the actual story.
The beastly torture was uncalled for. She was young and innocent. That did not stop her slayers. Beating after beating she withstood and was battered and scarred. She was a vergin and yet her body was marked by the name prostitute. Her screams were ignored and punished. Her name was Sylvia and she was 16 years old. She didn't even begin to live when she died in vain. The faces of her torturers were the last she saw before she was so brutally murdered. Why wasn't she saved by the neighbors that saw her bruises and so frequently heard her screams of agony? Sylvia deserves to have her story told.
I lived in the neighborhood where Sylvia Likens was murdered; I was a small child at the time of this crime. I have been horrified and fascinated by it ever since, reading everything about it. The city of Indianapolis has never forgotten Sylvia, erecting a memorial monument in her favorite park to tearing down the complex she lived in for good instead of evil. Never has a crime touched so many.
Disappointed that I didn't get the photos that it said were included!
I didnt get any of the pictures!
Loved the book and movie that was made from it was very good also. It does take a strong constitution to read and watch the movie the absolute horrific treatment that poor girl received made me cry and I normally don't when it comes to stories like this. sort of jaded because of my line of work I have seen it all but this tops most of it.
If this story was fiction, no one would beleive it. It is a pretty twisted true story that is not for the weak of heart. It is a story about torture and mayhem. I liked it because it took you through the story and trial. It really didn't leave any questions hanging.
I saw the movie "An American Crime" first and actually found this a few months later at a thrift store and it's a really good book. Horribly tragic story and I thought Ellen Page looked remarkably like Sylvia Likens. In my opinion the movie was pretty good too!
Such a terribly compelling story of Sylvia Likens. So many questions left unanswered. Why? Why did no one say anything? Why did she not run away? Why did she not defend herself? Why did no one else defend her? One of the worst crimes committed in this country, this book tells the sad tale of Sylvia's last months of torture. I do wish the author would've gone more in depth about the last months Sylvia endured, rather than alluding to them. I also would've preferred a slimmed down version of the trial - too much mumbo jumbo.This book proves you can get away with murder in Indiana. Terrifying and eye opening.
As a grandfather, raising 2 of our grandchildren I'm appaled. This was the best written naration of a story I'd heard of and read pieces of for years.
Poorly written, bad grammer, confusing sentences. I quit reading it when I saw the author had spent page after page on the jury voir dire. Not a good true crime read at all. Im headed to the internet to find out the end.
poor girl Family was twisted and didnt have much remorse. I enjoyed this book and I would recommend to anyone who likes true crime and a little horror.
This book as sad and upsetting as it was was very good. This was my first true crime book that I have read but I was unable to put it down. I read it in less than a week. An interesting fact that I found out after I finished the book was that Johnny lived like 10 mins from me! There weren't enough pictures in the book so I had to google some more and found an article about Johnny stating that he changed his name and moved to Millersville in Lancaster PA. I was able to search his obit in our local paper! Just made this book hit a little closer to home. I just can believe that people can be so evil towards another person for no reason and for what they all did to her they really in my mind did not serve enough time! I am glad that I chose this book to read for my first true crime novel! On to the next!!
House of Evil gave me chills all throughout the book. The book was amazing and terrifying. This book showed me that people can be evil. Gertrude Baniszewski killed an innocent sixteen year old girl because she was jealous and angry with Sylvia for no reason. The things Gertrude and her children did to Sylvia were awful and disgusting. iIt is chilling to know someone can torture a girl for so long and do so many awful things to her and no one tries to stop Gertrude or her children from beating her. This book to me shows people cannot be trusted with another person's life. This book also showed me that someone can take a person's life and make it awful just by one decision. House of Evil is an amazing book and had great details. This book will make you think about it happening to you and the chance it could happen to anyone you know or yourself. I recommend this book for everyone to read about an Indiana torture slaying of a year girl. If you like true books and books about crimes and murders then you will enjoy this book.
I had got the sample and it only got tittle that made me mad but it seem like a good book and she look like she been through alot she need her story to be told and this made me cry when i seen the movie
I found this book to be very well written. The details & facts of what these monsters did to this poor young lady were shocking & inhuman to say the least. Its a very disturbing story a tragedy that could've been prevented. But its a story that needs to be told.
Couldnt put it down!
I have read a lot about what happened to Sylvia Likens. This book gets all the basic info correct without exploiting Sylvia's memory.
It takes a lot to keep me turning the pages nowadays. Maybe that makes me morbid, but this book is an eye opener that makes you feel sadness, anger, confusion, and frustration. I like a book that can make me feel anything I guess. I new evil existed in this world, but this hits home. And in the most senseless way possible. It's no wonder to me anymore why people don't ask questions anymore when it comes to children and rumors. This book is not for the emotionally weak.
The book was so poorly written I couldn't even finish it. I remember seeing a TV movie about the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens so I thought I would read the book. It is such a sad and heart breaking story, but the book is horrible I suggest watching the movie (usually it's the other way around but not in this case)
I first became interested in this story; or true crime event, after watching a show about it, a movie about it, and the novel "The House Next Door" by Jack Ketchum. Now, although the story is twisted, horrific, and sad, the author wrote of it well, and included everything readers need, and want to know about the Indiana Torture Slaying. The author covered the actual occurrences, the arrests, and the somewhat lengthy trial. I do recommend this true crime novel to all fans!