Indiana’s “girl next door,” Sylvia Likens (left), and two of the main villains—the diabolical Gertrude Baniszewski and her loyal imp, Richard “Ricky” Hobbs.
“Just wait,” my friend advised me. “It’s too cold to travel there now.” But I couldn’t wait. Something was drawing me, like a magnet…back to Indiana. I had been wrestling with the notion of making the journey back there for some time, but had thus far been successful in keeping the urge to do so at bay. Money was tight, too tight to waste it on frivolous eccentricities. But I was having nightmares about it, nightmares about what happened there—about the crime, the girl…and the place; Indianapolis. It was haunting me. She was haunting me. But I was not the first—only the latest. The victim’s name was Sylvia Marie Likens. She would today be 66 years old, had she survived her ordeal. But she didn’t. She was methodically and slowly tortured to death in 1965 by a brood of adolescent children, guided by a sick, psychotic leader—their mother, Gertrude Baniszewski. To add insult to injury, other children from outside the family eagerly joined in. “Let’s go have some fun with Sylvia,” they would gleefully howl, as they headed off to pay yet another extracurricular visit to the haplessly dying 16-year-old, until life had finally extinguished itself permanently from her worn and ravaged being.
SYLVIA’S LOT—me in early 2015, standing where the Likens murder house was. And the house in 2008, showing window of room where Sylvia died (red square). *Arrows point to old gas station where Hobbs phoned police.
Two films about the crime came out in 2007, returning it briefly to the public consciousness. The house where the events took place was torn down two years later (2009). It was a sad unthinkable affair that most in the Hoosier state just wanted to forget. The second floor bedroom where Sylvia died was barely noticeable until the neighboring house on the one side was torn down. Once that was gone, the window of Sylvia’s death abode became clearly visible. Some even claimed to have seen her ghost there—usually around Halloween (she died October 26th and was buried Halloween weekend). In this room Sylvia had suffered greatly at the hands of her many tormenters, read her Bible for strength, prayed for salvation that never came. Then she died…on a dirty mattress in the room’s decrepit west-north corner. The house was cursed after that. No one could live in it—it seemed. Efforts to restore and use it productively for social services that would have benefited the neighboring community failed—the same neighboring community that had let poor Sylvia down and allowed her screams to permeate the night air without calling police.
DEATH BED—where Sylvia’s last breath was taken (1965). And a 2008 color photo showing a trespasser’s cruel words painted atop the very spot where Sylvia died.
The house deteriorated into a useless eyesore that only served to remind one of the horrors that had once reverberated within its now silent walls. I ran across Sylvia’s story quite by accident. A friend had been prodding me to see a movie called The Girl Next Door. I had missed the opportunity of seeing Sylvia’s former neighborhood for I had resisted watching the movie my friend had suggested (unaware the film had been based on actual events). I learned later that those events had taken place just a couple of miles from where I had been staying when I visited Indianapolis in 2013. I was only 6 years old when Sylvia Likens died. The newspapers in St. Louis had not even mentioned it—preoccupied instead with the long-awaited completion of the Gateway Arch. *When the final section was lifted into place (photo) Sylvia was being readied for burial in Lebanon. Gertrude Baniszewski was damaged goods. In 1965 she was a weary and burned-out 37-year-old. Physical abuse had changed her. She was now emotionally unstable—and very dangerous. She seemed to have a vindictive disdain towards Sylvia right from the very beginning. She hated the pretty young girl who had come to reside at her new home, along with Sylvia’s polio-crippled younger sister Jenny as well. But it was Sylvia who would receive the brunt of Gertrude’s twisted wrath.
Rare trade PB edition–with Lisa Falkenstern’s controversial cover art.
Novelist Jack Ketchum perhaps captured and characterized the situation of Sylvia’s predicament and plight the best–in the synopsis for his 1989 fictionalized account “The Girl Next Door” (made into a movie in 2007, starring Blythe Auffarth). In it, Ketchum summed it up this way, “On a tranquil, tree-lined street in the Suburbs, in a dark basement, fourteen-year-old Meg (Sylvia) and her little sister Susan (Jenny) are about to learn everything there is to know about the savagery in the human heart. And the entire neighborhood, young and old alike, will either turn away from the madness, or succumb to it, joining in the slow, sadistic torture of a victim too beautiful and too innocent for her own good.”
UNHEALED GUILT—Jenny Likens is comforted by older sister Dianna during the court trial in 1966 (top left) and again 35 years later at the unveiling of Sylvia’s memorial (bottom left). At right; Sylvia and Jenny—just months before their terror in Indianapolis would begin. Jenny passed away on June 23, 2004 (age 54).
Had the Likens family only remained in California just a little while longer, then perhaps none of this would have ever happened. Had Mr. and Mrs. Likens not squabbled and separated after their return to Indiana, then perhaps none of this would have ever happened. Or if Mrs. Likens had only taken her two daughters to the local rollerskating rink that day as the girls had wanted to do, instead of to the local discount store where dear mom was then arrested for shoplifting a pair of cheap pedal pushers, then perhaps none of this would have ever happened. Sylvia’s favorite singing group was said to be The Beatles. Their fifth (studio) album was released in the United States on August 13, 1965. Sylvia (and Jenny) had been residing at the Baniszewski home for just over a month by then. By the time the new album’s run at the top of the music charts was winding down, so was by then sweet Sylvia’s own life. One wonders whether she ever got the opportunity to actually hear that latest Beatles album? And if so, what did she think of it? What might have been the thoughts running through her mind when listening to such songs as “Yesterday,” “Help,” “The Night Before,” or “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”? One will never know.
UNEXPECTED—the signed photo (top) I received from Blythe Auffarth, the actress who played the character based on Sylvia in Jack Ketchum‘s The Girl Next Door (2007).
When New Years 2015 arrived, Sylvia Likens was far from my thoughts. I did not realize it was the 50th year since the crime. I had recently re-watched Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. It was the more disturbing of the two films released about Sylvia. A fictionalized adaption of the events, the Ketchum film is far less sanitized than its rival An American Crime. It pulls no punches—and is in many ways, far more accurate in its detailed depiction of Sylvia’s suffering and end. Even it, however, does not approach the madness unleashed upon the real Sylvia Likens. Afterwards I penned a brief correspondence to the film’s lead actress—Blythe Auffarth, who had so effectively portrayed the Likens-based character. I talked about Sylvia in the letter. I never expected a response. To my surprise, Blythe responded. She wrote me back, even going so far as to send me an autographed photo. This had come immediately following a rather strange incident I experienced in a neighborhood parking lot near my home. When I returned to my car, sitting in plain view on the ground in front of it was what looked like someone’s abandoned Christmas present. I reached over and touched the colorful bag warily. It was cold to the touch, meaning it had been sitting there for some time. Why I had not seen it when I first pulled in was unclear to me. Red tissue paper rested just beneath the bag’s rim, hiding from view the contents.I assumed it was “discarded holiday trash.” I began to drive away, when I was suddenly overcome with a strange sensation.
DISCOVERY—my car, parked in the exact same spot where I found the discarded bag of movies, with a copy of The Girl Next Door (lower left) sitting on the very top.
I stopped my car and backed up, intent on investigating the mysterious bag further. In hindsight, I’m glad I did. It was filled with someone’s entire collection of DVD movies. But most odd…sitting on the very top of the discarded stack was a copy of The Girl Next Door! Speechless, I didn’t know what to think? Was somebody playing a practical joke on me? Or was someone—or something, trying to send me “a message?” Looking suspiciously like an unauthorized bootleg copy, the film was in a non-original amber colored plastic case. At first I thought it might be the 2004 comedy of the same title? It wasn’t. It was right after that (albeit strangely) when Blythe Auffarth’s correspondence back to me showed up in my local post office box. I thought about Indiana again. Knowing my present money situation prohibited me from returning there anytime soon, I made a quiet wish for some “extra cash.” I didn’t expect the wish to actually “come true.” But that’s exactly what happened. Two days later I was called literally out-of-the-blue and offered an unexpected job. The extra money I would be making would definitely afford me the opportunity of returning to Indianapolis after all. But should I do it? Still resistant and undecided, the weird got even weirder the following week when I found an old toy I had once owned (and been endlessly searching for) protruding from beneath a stack of dusty books on a vendor table at an Illinois flea market across the river.
CHANCE FIND—box of Indianapolis Krazy Ikes that seemed to be waiting for me. The last time I owned a set was as a child in the 1960s.
I had only recently learned it was called “Krazy Ikes,” a child’s building game with colored peg pieces. I had never seen one in the many years since I had first owned a set. Then suddenly, there it was! Looking up Ike’s history I was stunned! The game was originally manufactured in Indianapolis! But not just “anywhere” in Indianapolis—on the very same street as Sylvia Likens’ memorial! Eerily, the location of the old Knapp novelty plant where Krazy Ikes was produced is situated at a point almost exactly between the memorial and Sylvia’s death address (points map). More coincidence? I didn’t know. Time passed. Then I suddenly awoke one night. It was 2 a.m., much too early to be getting up. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t get back to sleep. I had a nightmare—about Sylvia. It was too vague to recall in specific detail once I was up and around but it continued to vex and bother me. A few minutes later (rather spontaneously) I hopped in my car, proceeded to the nearest gas station, filled my tank to the top and headed off down the highway…blindly on my way to Indianapolis. I was of course entirely unprepared. I had no map with me, trusting only in my memory of the places and addresses that I previously looked up. Oak Hill Cemetery (where Sylvia is buried) was my initial destination. It is not in Indianapolis. It is north of there, in Lebanon. After road construction hampered my efforts in getting there, I turned around.
ACTORS & MEMORIALS
Myself, with the 1993 Medford, Massachusetts monument I donated for 1947 murder victim Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia (top). And me–in 2015, visiting actor/filmmaker Ivan Rogers’ 2001 memorial for 1965 murder victim Sylvia Likens in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Back in Indianapolis I settled on visiting Sylvia’s old neighborhood first. The cemetery would come later. I was anxious to see her memorial. It was paid for and dedicated in 2001 by a man not unlike myself. His name was Ivan Rogers. He wanted to be an Indianapolis police officer, but turned his efforts instead to acting, before then becoming a filmmaker. Oddly, I had once planned on becoming a Los Angeles police officer, before turning my attention to acting (and eventually film-making). Reading about Rogers’ recent death in 2010 at the early age of 55 had a familiar ring to it. It brought back memories of Dr. Valeriani—the man who had gone to great lengths to help me put the 1993 memorial up for murder victim Elizabeth Short; The Black Dahlia. Unable to attend the unveiling myself, Valeriani took my place—then died two years later at the age of 62. Bizarrely, there have been many untimely deaths associated with Sylvia Likens. Richard “Ricky” Hobbs, the neighbor boy who did much of the torturing, died of cancer in 1972 (his mother died of cancer two weeks after Sylvia). Hobbs himself died at age 21, passing away only hours before what would have been Sylvia’s “23rd birthday.”
HOBBS HOUSE—Sylvia’s death house in 1965 (red square) and tormenter Richard “Ricky” Hobbs’ nearby home. Hobbs died on January 2, 1972 at age 21–only hours before Sylvia’s posthumous “23rd birthday” (Jan. 3).
Gertrude, who had orchestrated much of Sylvia’s suffering and pain, served twenty years in prison. She was released in 1985, supposedly “a changed person.” This “change,” however, did not spare her from death. She died of cancer—five years later, at age 62. Three of Sylvia’s primary male torturers (Coy Hubbard, Randy Lepper and John Baniszewski Jr.) all died young, succumbing it seems to the “Likens Curse” as well. John Baniszewski Jr. even changed his name and sought out refuge in rural Texas as a minister. Death claimed him in 2005, at age 52. Today, many of the addresses associated with the tragedy sit vacant and dilapidated. The house at 109 Euclid Avenue (recent photo) where the Likens sisters lived just prior to moving into the Baniszewski house is still there, itself rumored to be haunted. One neighbor I spoke to back on East New York Street mentioned that he had known the Baniszewski family. “I use to play on that street when I was a boy,” he told me. “I knew them. They had not lived there for very long before that happened. My mother still has all the old clippings from the newspaper.” I never asked the man’s name. He didn’t seem like he would have told me anyway. I watched him shrug his shoulders and head off down the block, as I turned the other way to head back to my car which I had parked across the street where the old Shell gas station had once been (where Hobbs had made the phone call to police to report Sylvia’s death). I visited Sylvia’s grave after departing Indianapolis. I found it covered in snow. There were no flowers, only minor token gifts left by other visitors.
AT REST—Sylvia, leaving Russell & Hitch funeral home on her way to nearby Oak Hill Cemetery; Friday, October 29, 1965. Her father (Lester Likens) weeps at far right as pallbearers load Sylvia’s casket into hearse.
As I stood there I felt only stillness. There was no sense of any “after-life” presence, no ghostly vibrations, no strange happenings. My camera batteries did not fail (as they sometimes had a habit of doing in other cemeteries). Where was Sylvia Likens, I wondered? Perhaps her tortured spirit had moved on…and somehow escaped being “ghostly-anchored” to this world by the brutal nature of her sad tragedy and untimely departure? I planned on bringing flowers to her grave, but the little shop up the road had closed early for the day. Rummaging through my car for something I might be able to leave in lieu of flowers, I happened upon an old deck of tarot cards. My friends Tom and Lisa (their photo) bought the deck for me at a bookstore on Cherry Street in Tulsa (1989). We had all traveled to Oklahoma from California to work on a low-budget horror movie for Tom’s father (actor-director Clu Gulager). Lisa was Tom’s girlfriend at the time. On a whim Lisa insisted we should all have our own tarot decks. Tom picked a Halloween deck with black cats and grinning pumpkins. Lisa picked one based on Alice in Wonderland. I chose the Arcus Arcanum (photo).
Sylvia’s grave (Lebanon, Indiana) on a cold February day in 2015–nearly 50 years after she was originally laid to rest there.
Since I already had the deck with me, I decided to carry it over to Sylvia’s grave, just for the heck of it. Using a standard 3-card draw that Lisa had once favored, I shuffled the deck and cut it. I noticed the afternoon sun making its way down through the branches of Sylvia’s tree (the large oak that towers over her grave). It was getting late…and soon dark. So I decided to return the cards to their box–without looking at them (and head back to St. Louis). A few days later I remembered the deck while sitting in my car. Curious what the three cards were, I retrieved the deck from my glove compartment. When I saw the bottom card (the first card) I paused. It didn’t seem like the one I remembered glancing at before I put the cards away while at the cemetery? In any case, it was the card that was on the bottom now: THE HIGH PRIEST—aka “The Hierophant” card (photo).
Sylvia–at age 16, with her mother Betty in 1965, and me–at age 6, in December 1965, with Santa in downtown St. Louis.
Ironically it was one that dealt specifically with communication between the “supernatural world and that of man.” I then slid off the top card…which was the second one. It was JUSTICE (photo)—the blonde virgin who holds the scales of righteousness in her one hand and a protective sword in the other. I found this to be a bit strange—considering how all those “prostitute” slurs directed at Sylvia had later been proven completely false (she died a virgin). Cutting the deck, I then removed the final card from the middle (this was a random selection and had nothing to do with the cemetery, other than the fact that I had pre-shuffled the cards there). The final card was the 8 OF SWORDS (photo)—the card of “bondage and compliance,” in the suit (swords) of strife…and enemies. The card depicts a young female. Her arms are tied tightly behind her. She does not resist, giving in willingly to her captors, awaiting whatever punishment is about to be brought upon her. Surrounded by four accusatory males, she appears helpless and accepting of her fate. “Ironic,” I thought, almost too ironic. If you don’t think so…HERE are but a few comparison examples of that very same card (as it appears in other decks). I paused for a moment with cards in hand—reflecting on Sylvia, and what life may have been like for her…had she survived. All I could do was shake my head and think to myself, what a sad, sad story. Poor Sylvia Likens. Fifty years ago. May she rest in peace.
Follow-up posting, “Sylvia Likens; Ghost of Indianapolis, 50th Anniversary Strange” available HERE