Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

Who Was Sylvia Likens?

Sylvia Likens
Sylvia Likens

Sylvia's photograph shows a pretty, freckled teenager with wavy dark hair and bangs, gazing into the distance with an expression that, as one of the prosecutors said at the trial of her killers, seems "full of hope and anticipation." The girl described in The Indiana Torture Slaying by John Dean (he has since changed his name to Natty Bummppo to prevent confusion with the John Dean of Watergate fame) and in the non-fictional and non-speculative passages of Kate Millett's The Basement, appears to have been a fairly average youngster. She enjoyed attending church and made average grades in school. She liked roller skating and dancing. Nicknamed "Cookie," she is said to have had a lively sense of humor and tended to smile with her mouth closed because she was self-conscious that a front tooth was missing (the result of some childhood roughhousing with a brother).

Dean quotes an acquaintance as remembering that Sylvia felt like "the odd one in the family because she was born between two sets of twins." Both twins in the Likens family were fraternal rather than identical and both were of different sexes. Danny and Diana were two years older than Sylvia while Jenny and Benny were a year younger.

The Likens family was always poor and the marriage was troubled; Lester and Betty had split up, then gotten back together, more than once. Given the demands of two sets of twins and the extra care that had to be given Jenny because of her disability, it seems reasonable that Sylvia may have felt rather neglected by her parents.

In her sixteen years of life, Sylvia had known no less than fourteen addresses because the family moved so frequently. In the past, she had been left at a grandmother's house or boarded out when Lester and Betty did not find it feasible to take Sylvia and Jenny along with them.

Jenny Likens with her older sister Diane Shoemaker
Jenny Likens with her older sister Diane

Like most teenagers, Sylvia made a little cash through odd jobs. She baby-sat and did ironing (ironically, the same jobs Gertrude Baniszewski held). Also like most in her age group, Sylvia enjoyed music. Her favorite rock group was, unsurprisingly in that era, The Beatles. She also enjoyed singing herself. During her early time with the family B., she would sing to Stephanie Baniszewski, who returned the favor. Sylvia's favorite tune had a lyric about "all the stars in the sky."


Sylvia appears to have been very close to her disabled sister. When the girls went on one of their frequent roller skating expeditions, Jenny would put a skate on her good foot and Sylvia would pull Jenny around the ring so Jenny could experience skating even with the steel brace around one leg.

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