Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

A Few Close Calls

Sometime in October, Diana Shoemaker came to the home to visit her sisters. Gertrude could not allow her to see the condition that Sylvia was in so she refused to permit Shoemaker to enter the residence. Gerty claimed the Likens parents had given her permission to keep Diana away from her sisters. Diana insisted that she wanted to see her sisters and Mrs. Wright ordered her away, threatening to have the young woman arrested for trespassing.

Very shortly before Sylvia died, Jenny ran into Diana on the street. Jenny told her older sister, "I can't talk to you or I'll get in trouble," and hurried away from her.

A public health agency had received a report about a girl suffering running, open sores at the Baniszewski house. A public health nurse came to the door October 15. She was attired in a starchy white uniform. "Mrs. Wright?" she asked.

Gertrude nodded and invited her in.

The stranger informed Gertrude that she was a public health nurse and wanted to talk about Mrs. Wright's children because of an anonymous report that there was a girl there with multiple sores.

Jenny was in the room at the time, terrified of Gertrude and full of hope. Was this rescue?

Mrs. Wright looked at her with eyes that must have been full of menace, repeating silently the threat she so often made to the girl verbally: "If you say anything about Sylvia, you'll get the same treatment she's getting." Out loud, Gertrude ordered Jenny to go to the kitchen and do dishes. Jenny promptly complied.

The Baniszewski's basement
The Baniszewski's basement

Then Mrs. Wright turned her attention back to the nurse. "I know who you're looking for," she began, "Jenny's sister Sylvia. She has sores all over her body. She won't keep herself clean. I finally kicked her out of the house. She's not worthy to stay here. She's a prostitute." Gerty told the concerned nurse, "I don't know where she would be now."

The two of them were, in fact, sitting right above the basement in which Sylvia was locked and bound.

The nurse returned to her office. There she filed the report on the Baniszewskis on a "one time only" card, meaning there was to be no follow-up.

Just five days before Sylvia's death, the police came to the Baniszewski residence. Gertrude called them. As reported by John Dean/Natty Bumppo, "Robert Bruce Hanlon, banged on the door that evening, demanding the return of some things he said the children had stolen from his basement. Gertrude told him he was knocking on the wrong door . . . She called the police, telling them she had found Hanlon halfway through her window. The police locked him up on a burglary charge."

Phyllis and Ray Vermillion witnessed these events from their car. They were parked at the curb at the time. Phyllis Vermillion became concerned about Hanlon and talked to the police about him, helping to free him of the charge. One wonders again why she didn't tell the police, at this time or previously, about the things she had witnessed involving Sylvia.

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