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Sept. 12, 2022

Terrifying & True | The Torture Basement - The Tragic Murder of Sylvia Likens

Terrifying & True | The Torture Basement - The Tragic Murder of Sylvia Likens

The sadistic torture and eventual death of Indianapolis teen Sylvia Likens, and the horrific details that came out during the trial, is a story that has been told through books, television, films, and podcasts. What impact that event had on another...

The sadistic torture and eventual death of Indianapolis teen Sylvia Likens, and the horrific details that came out during the trial, is a story that has been told through books, television, films, and podcasts. What impact that event had on another Indianapolis youth, b-movie action star Ivan Rogers, and how their lives intersected, is a story not often explored.

But we are telling that story today, on Terrifying & True

Written by John Oak Dalton

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Hello and welcome, I am your host Henrique Couto and I want to thank you for joining us for a special true crime edition of Weekly Spooky.  Screenwriter and native Hoosier John Oak Dalton was a longtime friend of filmmaker Ivan Rogers, and penned this account of the shortened lives of both Rogers and Likens.  Be forewarned that this story contains graphic depictions of extreme torture.


The torture murder of teenager Sylvia Likens in Indianapolis in 1965 is widely considered one of the most heinous crimes in Indiana history.  She was sixteen years old.

When this killing happened, Ivan Rogers was just eleven years old and also living in Indianapolis.

Rogers would go on to study martial arts, and parlay that knowledge into relationships with action stars like Fred Williamson, who encouraged him to star in his own b-movies.

Likens’ guardian Gertrude Baniszewski encouraged neighborhood children to use Sylvia for martial arts practice when she was tied up in the basement.

Rogers would end up starring in films like Ballbuster and Survival Island.

Two films to date have been made about Likens’ death, The Girl Next Door and An American Crime.  The latter starred Elliot Page as Likens and Catherine Keener as Baniszewski.

Rogers had a longtime interest in law enforcement and liked playing detectives in film.  As a young man, Rogers was about to enter the training academy for the Indiana State Police, but life intervened. 

Nobody intervened even when neighbors knew what Likens was going through.

Those who knew Ivan Rogers stated that the short, terrible life of Sylvia Likens stayed with him, as it did so many people in the Hoosier state.  He had been known to talk about her death.

The Likens were a big, poor family whose parents worked a variety of jobs and moved often.  In the summer of 1965, Sylvia and her younger sister, Jenny, who had polio and wore a leg brace, were boarded with friends they had made at Arsenal Tech High School at the cost of $20 a week.  This was another large, poor family, led by Baniszewski, with seven children spread over three failed marriages.  

Likens’ mother was in jail for shoplifting and her father was working on the road with a carnival, leaving the family with few options.  But the early weeks of the arrangement seemed to be peaceful.

It did not take long for the $20 a week to come late, or not come at all.  And that’s when the trouble started for the Likens sisters, with the focus eventually landing on Sylvia almost exclusively.

Two aspects of this case captured the attention of Indiana, and the front pages of the Indianapolis Star and other newspapers, for a long while to come.

The first was the grisly nature of the tortures inflicted on Likens over weeks and months.  The Indianapolis Police Department's homicide chief, a veteran officer of more than 30 years, stated to the Indianapolis Star that the death of Likens was “the most sadistic act I ever came across.”

Likens was steadily and routinely beaten by fists, boards, belts, and other objects, as well as kicked and used for various attempts at wrestling and martial arts moves.  She was thrown down flights of stairs, and eventually just tied up down in the basement with little or no access to food or water.  

She would be brought upstairs occasionally and cleaned in scalding baths, then rubbed with salt over open wounds that had been created by cigarette burns and other objects. 

In her basement prison, worse degradation began.  She would be force fed sometimes rotten food, and when she vomited forced to eat that vomit.  She was made to eat from a baby’s diaper, and sometimes consume her own feces.

Baniszewski proclaimed to her family and others that Likens was pregnant, and a prostitute, and began beating Likens regularly in her groin, stripping her naked, and forcing her to insert objects into herself.

In the years since, others have struggled with why Baniszewski focused so much on Likens, besides the loss of income from her parents.  Some have blamed jealousy between the older woman and the teen, or the contrast between Likens and Gertrude Baniszewski’s daughter Paula, just slightly older than Likens but in fact pregnant.

The second aspect of this case, which made it hard for ordinary citizens to understand, was that Baniszewski’s own children, and many children from the neighborhood, participated in the torture.

All seven of Gertrude’s children, except the baby, were involved in the torment.  At the time, their ages ranged from 17 to 8 years old.  Other neighborhood children were either encouraged to participate as well, or charged pocket-change admission to go into the basement to view Likens--bound, bruised and bleeding, and often nude.  They were as young as 8 or 10 on up to teen years.

The beatings and torture became an almost daily after-school experience for neighborhood kids and was not kept a secret.  Some neighborhood parents had seen Likens beaten in public or when visiting the home but by and large did not act on what they saw.  An eventual visit from a school nurse ended Likens’ high school career, and her time allowed out of the basement became less frequent.

Only a few days before her death, Gertrude Baniszewski decreed that the words “I am a prostitute and proud of it” should be carved into Likens’ stomach with a hot needle.  She was assisted by her ten year old daughter Shirley and a 14 year old neighbor.  Afterwards, the two children attempted to brand an S into her skin, but made a letter 3 instead.

This day was Likens’ ultimate undoing, and the Baniszewski family quickly realized that Likens was failing fast.  Likens was incontinent and delirious.  

Gertrude Baniszewski made Likens to display the writing carved into her to the neighborhood children, proclaiming that it had been done at a sex party.

Baniszewski then forced Likens to write a letter that stated she had run away after being assaulted and abused by a group of strangers.  The next part of this plan was to enlist her son John Junior, 12 at the time, in abandoning her body in a neighboring woods to die.

But Likens succumbed to her wounds before this could be carried out, causing Gertrude Baniszewski to re-write her plan and have one of the neighborhood children call the police from a pay phone.  While they waited for the police, they bathed and clothed Likens and put her in an upstairs bed.

Baniszewski provided the responding officers with the false letter, but the Indianapolis police could tell immediately what had been forcibly written by Likens could not be true.  Likens was very emaciated, and a coroner later determined she had more than 150 wounds on her body, in various stages of healing.

It was October 26, 1965.  Sylvia Likens had only lived under the Baniszewski roof a few months.

A few days later, the Indianapolis Star headline read in big block letters:  Why Did Sylvia Die?

Justice appeared to be moving swiftly, as in December 1965 a grand jury indicted Gertrude, Paula and John Junior, as well as two neighborhood teens, Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard.  They were all to be tried together.  Stephanie Baniszewski, 15 at the time, turned state’s evidence against her family and was not charged.   Marie Baniszewski, 11, was to testify for the defense, but broke down on the stand and admitted her role in the crimes.  That trial began on April 18, 1966.

The nature of the crimes caused the insanity defense to come into play, with at one point Gertrude’s lawyer displaying a photo of Likens’ mutilated body and asking, "How can anybody look at that woman and say she's sane?”

But on May 19, 1966, a jury found Gertrude Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder, Paula Baniszewski guilty of second-degree murder, and John Baniszewski Junior, Hobbs, and Hubbard guilty of manslaughter.  Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were sentenced to life in prison.  John Junior, Hobbs, and Hubbard were sentenced to 2-to-21 years.

The state seemed unsure what to do about the rest of the children involved in the crimes, some as young as 8.  Ultimately decided that they were not culpable in Likens’ death, even if they participated or watched.  Although charges were filed against other children, they were eventually dropped.  

No one else was ever convicted through their association with Likens’ ordeal.

It came as a shock to many in Indiana when John Junior, Hobbs, and Hubbard only served two years.

Richard Hobbs did not enjoy freedom for long, and died in 1972 at 21, of cancer.

After having her child in prison, and then trying to mount an escape, Paula still served only seven years.

Gertrude served twenty years, and despite widespread public pressure, was paroled in 1985.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ivan Rogers was following the path of other action movie hopefuls in appearing in movies shot in the Philippines, Canada, and elsewhere, with talent like Harrison Ford’s brother Terrence Ford, Martin Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez, and other second-tier performers.

Gertrude Baniszewski changed her name and moved to Iowa, but prison and ill health took its toll and she died in 1990.

After an injury during a stunt in the film Karate Raider in 1995, Rogers decided to work more on the other side of the camera.  He spent more and more time in Indianapolis, where his mother still lived and needed caring for.

In 1996, Ivan Rogers’ first directorial effort was released, Caged Women II.  It was a name-only sequel to Bruno Mattei’s 1982 Italian sleaze effort Caged Women, starring Laura Gemser as Emmanuelle.

Rogers would not use Gemser or the long-running Emmanuelle character in writing the film himself.  He would shoot the film in Indiana, with regional talent and some recognizable b-listers.  And Rogers would take his sequel in his own interesting direction.  

The film follows a young woman, played by Deborah Dutch, who returns to rural Indiana only to be railroaded into a white slavery ring.  There are several notable scenes where Dutch, and other women, are tortured in front of a group of spectators by a tormentor played by actress Lorissa McComas.  Rogers is the police detective on the trail to break up the torture ring.

The completely unrelated plot of Caged Women II to the original is of interest when sat next to Rogers’ only other project as writer/director.

Rogers next effort was 2001’s Forgive Me Father, with Rogers starring as a hitman turned priest—turned hitman again—to avenge the senseless death of his brother.

Rogers’ own brother had died of AIDs in 1994.

Rogers was also an accomplished musician, artist, and poet.  He had written a poem about Sylvia Likens and led an effort to have a six-foot black granite memorial placed in Willard Park, near where Likens had lived and close to Arsenal Tech High School.  

In that same year, 2001, that effort was realized with the dedication of the monument with Rogers’ poem inscribed on it.

The event numbered hundreds of people, including law enforcement, clergy, and surviving members of Sylvia Likens’ family, including her younger sister who had been a target of some of the abuse.

Sylvia’s younger sister Jenny, a suburban Indianapolis resident who attended the dedication, died in 2004 at age 54.

The Baniszewski family would not fare well in the intervening years.  Many of them moved, changed their names, or otherwise tried to drop off the radar.  Curiously, several of them became teachers, teacher’s aides, or entered religious service.  The whereabouts of several remain unknown.

John Junior reportedly had a spiritual epiphany and showed public remorse, but died of cancer at age 52 in 2005.

When the film American Crime, directed by Indiana native Tommy O’Haver, debuted in 2007 with Elliot Page as Sylvia Likens, Indianapolis residents realized Coy Hubbard was still in the area.  He promptly lost his job and died that same year.

Paula, who had once beaten Likens so hard she had broken her wrist, then beat her again with the cast, was uncovered working in an Iowa school system in 2012 under another name.  She had been working there since 1998.  Paula was fired for providing false information on her application and has since gone off the radar again.

Ivan Rogers’ own health began to deteriorate, although he continued to try and complete one more film, titled The Payback Man.  Rogers became more ill and died in August, 2010, at age 55.

Rogers spent a lot of his time and money dedicated to the Sylvia Likens Memorial.  But his own request was that he be cremated, with no memorial service, and no obituary.