Sylvia Likens, also known as “Cookie,” was a teenage girl whose tortuous murder by Gertrude Baniszewski and several other juveniles inspired the movie The Girl Next Door.
In July 1965, Sylvia’s parents, Lester Likens and Elizabeth Frances, had to return to their carnival concession business that they operated during the summer.
They were unable to take their children with them, so they left their two boys in the care of their grandparents.
And Gertrude was to take in Sylvia, 16, and her younger sister, Jenny, who was diagnosed with polio and walked with a limp.
She lived on the same street at 3850 East New York Street in Indianapolis, Indiana, with her seven children.
Lester told her that he would pay her $20 per week to take care of his daughters until he and his wife returned.
Gertrude, who was 37 years old at the time, had promised that she would care for Sylvia and Jenny as if they were her children, but it was a promise that she would later break.
In September of that same year, Sylvia returned to school at Tech High School, but records showed that on Oct. 6, she stopped attending her classes, which concerned school officials.
They sent several notices to Gertrude, asking about Sylvia’s whereabouts.
After they informed her parents, Lester contacted Baniszewsk and told her to get Sylvia back in school. She told him that she would, but Sylvia never returned.
School officials sent out another notice to Baniszewsk on Oct. 22. They asked how they could help Sylvia return to school, but four days later, she was dead.
Six arrested in connection with Sylvia Likens’ death
At around 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, 1965, officers arrived at Gertrude’s home and were taken to an unfinished second-floor bedroom. It was there that they found Sylvia’s body on a double bed mattress.
A thin, pink blanket and pink nail polish were found nearby, and there was trash scattered on the floor.
Officers noticed that Sylvia had over 150 wounds on her body, including sores, cuts, bruises, and burn marks.
Gertrude told the officers that Sylvia had been attacked by a group of boys. To confirm her story, she showed them a note that appeared to have been written by Sylvia.
Law enforcement wasn’t buying her story, as they later found and removed several items from the home, including a crowbar, a leather belt, and a wooden paddle, that they believed were used to cause the injuries to Sylvia’s body.
Some of the items belonged to Gertrude’s ex-husband, John Baniszewski, a Marion County police officer.
An investigation revealed that Sylvia had been beaten, burned, starved, and branded with metal objects.
Sylvia’s death was ruled a homicide, and an autopsy showed that she died of brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock.
She was also severely malnourished.
Gertrude was charged with first-degree murder. She pleaded not guilty but later changed her plea to not guilty by reason of insanity.
While at the county jail, she told a reporter that she wasn’t aware that Sylvia was being tortured.
She said, “I believe Sylvia was dying from some other cause and didn’t realize it. She died five minutes after I had given her a cup of tea.”
Five others were arrested, including three of Gertrude’s children, Paula Baniszewski, 17, Stephanie Baniszewski, 15, and John Baniszewski, 13.
Paula was charged with second-degree murder, while John and two 15-year-old neighbors, Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, were charged with manslaughter.
Stephanie never faced any charges after her testimony.
Gertrude Baniszewski’s trial: Details of Sylvia Likens’ torture revealed
On April 18, 1966, Gertrude’s trial began at the Indianapolis City-County Building, where over 70 people testified, including three of her children and three police officers.
They told the court how Gertrude began abusing Sylvia when she and her daughter, Paula, started feuding.
Gertrude then accused Sylvia of spreading rumors at the school about her children, Paula and Stephanie, being prostitutes.
She said her children were very religious and often attended church services at the Grace Memorial Baptist Church.
But when Sylvia moved in, Gertrude said she encouraged her children to lie and steal.
Gertrude also said Sylvia had a disciplinary problem, and she had to spank her on several occasions. But according to witness testimonies, Gertrude did more than spank Sylvia.
She reportedly threw her down the basement stairs and tied her up while she burned her with cigarettes and beat her.
Her children and other juveniles in the neighborhood would come over and take turns torturing Sylvia.
They would put glass bottles and other objects inside of her. And when they would cut her, they would rub salt in her wounds.
Sylvia was also starved and forced to eat her own feces.
Neighbors said they heard screaming during that time. They said they didn’t report it to the police because they “had no idea what was really going on.”
The day before her death, Sylvia tried to escape the torture house. Gertrude caught her before she could get the front door open.
She received a scorching hot water bath as punishment.
Jenny Likens testified at Gertrude’s trial
Jenny took the stand and explained how Gertrude, whom she would refer to as “Gertie,” had tortured, bound, and gagged her sister for weeks.
She said Gertrude used a hot needle to engrave “I am a prostitute and proud of it” on Sylvia’s stomach.
When they helped Sylvia stand on her feet, Jenny said Gertrude looked at her and asked, “What are you going to do now? You can’t get married or undressed in front of anybody.”
With the help of her son’s friend and her 10-year-old daughter, they then branded her chest with a hot-iron poker.
Jenny also recalled being slapped by Gertrude when she didn’t receive her parents’ $20 money order on time. She said, “Well, I took care of you two b****es for a week for nothing.”
The money order arrived the next day.
Following a 23-day trial, Gertrude and Paula were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
John, Hobbs, and Hubbard were also convicted and sentenced to 2–21 years in prison.
What happened to Sylvia Likens’ house of torture?
The house where Sylvia was tortured to death became known as the “Torture Murder House” or “House of Evil.”
When it was left vacant for many years, several people from across the world would visit the home, but by that time, it had been vandalized and covered with graffiti.
In 2009, the house was demolished.
How the true story inspired The Girl Next Door
Sylvia’s tortuous death inspired the movie The Girl Next Door. It was released in 2007, and it was directed by Gregory M. Wilson.
The movie is centered around a teenage girl named Meg Loughlin (Blythe Auffarth) and her disabled sister, whose parents were killed in a car accident.
Instead of moving in with a neighbor, the girls were sent to live with their aunt, Ruth (Blanche Baker), and her children.
While there, Ruth began torturing and abusing Meg in the basement of her home, where she forced her to live.
She allowed several children from the neighborhood to join in on the abuse, including her own children.
It’s also what Gertrude did to Sylvia, and just like the children in her neighborhood, no one ever reported the crime to the police.
Unlike Sylvia, Ruth developed a friendship with one of the boys, a next-door neighbor who tried to help her but was overpowered by the other children.
Despite his efforts, Meg, just like Sylvia, did not survive her injuries.
An American Crime: The movie depicts the true story of Sylvia Likens
An American Crime was directed by Tommy O’Haver. It was released in 2007, and it sheds light on Sylvia’s life as well as the events that led up to her death.
Gertrude is played by Catherine Keener, Sylvia is played by Elliot Page, and Jenny is played by Hayley McFarland.
Actor Nick Searcy played the girls’ father, Lester.