" THE MOST TERRIBLE CRIME "
TWO CHILDREN—A boy and a girl in their early teens—knelt over the motionless body of another teen age girl, trying to breathe life back into her mangled, emaciated form. They were trying to deny what was already, but for a few last, labored breaths, a fact. A deputy prosecutor was later to call this death "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana."
"She’s faking! She’s all right!" screeched the haggard, panic- stricken woman standing in the doorway.
The boy, a gangly 14- year- old whose straight blond hair tended to slide over his black horn- rimmed glasses, rushed the woman back downstairs.
"Someone better call a doctor or somebody," his companion told him when he regained the top of the stairs. Stephanie Baniszewski, 15 years old, had never looked more serious. A glint of reproach in her eyes told Richard Hobbs that she meant it.
He started back down, taking the last three steps in one jump. Stephanie heard her mother, the woman who had been forced downstairs, tell Richard that the police were the ones to call. The Hobbs boy, joined by the woman’s husky 12- year- old son Johnny, headed for the nearest telephone—a pay phone at the Shell station across the corner. It was at twilight of what had been a brisk October day, but the boys knew they had no time to put on wraps before darting across the busy one- way street.
Patrolman Melvin D. Dixon had been cruising the neighborhood about two hours when the radio crackled with his signal. He saw no reason to expect any particular trouble on this night. It was a Tuesday, and it was chilly. It had been quiet so far, except for the usual rush- hour headaches. The traffic had slacked off now, and since it was not quite dark yet, Dixon thought he would have things easy for a while. Lean, dark, and roughly handsome in his dark blue uniform, Dixon, 45 years old, had been on the force long enough to know you sometimes get trouble when you least expect it, however.
It was 6:27 p.m., October 26, 1965, when the dispatcher called Dixon’s signal. "Go—to—3850 East New York," the dispatcher spaced out the words in his usual casual manner. "Investigate possible dead girl."
You don’t get one like that every day. But then, more often than not, it turns out to be a fainting spell; occasionally a child might bleed to death from a household cut.
But Dixon had heard the homicide car being radioed to the scene too, along with other patrol cars; and any "possible dead" calls rated prompt attention, he knew, for the simple fact it might not be too late for resuscitation. He was there in minutes.
The door was open; he walked in. The haggard woman, wan and drawn for her 37 years, met him. He talked to her long enough to take down her name—"Gertrude Wright, white, female, 37"—and the name of the girl—"Sylvia Likens, white, female, 16." Mrs. Wright handed him a note and showed him upstairs, telling him the girl had wandered into her backyard bare- breasted an hour before, clutching the note. The girl had been a boarder at her home, Mrs. Wright said, but had run off with a gang of boys several days before.
The note, on a sheet of lined notebook paper in a childish scrawl, said:
To Mr. and Mrs. Likens:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me if I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted and they did and did and when they got finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.
And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.
I have done just about everything that I could do just to make Gertie mad and cause cost Gertie more money than she’s got. I’ve tore up a new mattress and peed on it. I have also cost Gertie doctor bills that she really can’t pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids. I cost her $35.00 for a hospital in one day and I wouldn’t do nothing around the house. I have done anything to do things to make things out of the way to make things worse for them.
This pitiful note was not signed. Had Dixon taken the time to read it then, he would have suspected it was phony, merely from the formal form of address from a girl to her parents. He would have seen that the note no doubt was dictated by someone else, from the writer’s mistaking the sound of "cost" in the third paragraph for "cause," as is apparent in the correction made. But Dixon, who later handed the note to a detective, was more intent on seeing the body.
What he saw was the long, thin body of a teenage girl stretched out on her back on a mattress on the floor of the bedroom. Although she wore sweater and slacks, her midriff was exposed, and Dixon could plainly see the words "I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!" freshly carved on her belly. Above that inscription, deeply branded into her chest, was a large, curious "3." Her light brown hair was shaggy, disheveled and cut short. Her face was covered with sores, and the entire left side of her face was discolored where the skin had eroded. There were open sores also around the markings on her abdomen, and bruises. Dixon knew that she was dead.
The deputy coroner, Dr. Arthur Paul Kebel, arrived about an hour later. He found the body in complete rigor and at room temperature, indicating she may have been dead eight hours. But he also noted that she had been bathed recently, perhaps after death, and that the water could have lowered the body temperature quicker; he knew also that prolonged shock before death can quicken rigor mortis and loss of heat.
The 47- year- old physician examined the body thoroughly, observing a few things the policeman had missed. There was a large bruise on the left side of the head, about the temple. A tooth was missing. Cuts, burns and scald marks covered the body; the numerous patches where skin had eroded seemed to have been caused by scalding water or acid. The body was covered also with more than 100 small, round sores—"punctate wounds," the doctor called them. One was a hole almost to the bone, on her right wrist. Each "punctate wound" was about the size and shape of the end of a cigarette.
The vagina was swollen and puffy. On the girl’s back was a discolored, bruised area about the size of a hand. The sores were in various stages of healing.
The skinny, distraught matron of the house hovered about Dr. Kebel as he examined the girl’s body, explaining that she had applied rubbing alcohol as first aid.
Kebel was surprised to find no evidence of sexual molestation other than the swollen pubic region.
Also hovering about the doctor, jabbering away, was the Hobbs boy. "What are you doing here?" the doctor demanded.
"I’m a neighbor and a friend of Gertie’s," he said.
Kebel was shocked and confused. He suspected no one around him. He assumed the murder to be the work of some anonymous madman.
Dr. Charles R. Ellis, the young resident pathologist who performed the autopsy on the girl’s body a few hours later, noticed a few more things. Her lips were in shreds; her fingernails were broken backward, all of them. Though not yet 30, Ellis was a veteran of more than 250 criminal autopsies; but he cringed as he thought of the pain Sylvia had endured.
Ellis noted that the patchy skin- loss areas were mainly about the face, neck and breasts; the right knee also was bare of skin.
Examination of the internal organs revealed more. The liver was fatty and yellow, indicating malnutrition (the pelvic bones’ prominence also indicated loss of weight). An alteration in the kidneys indicated the victim had been in shock for some time prior to her death, perhaps as much as two or three days. Examination of the brain showed the effect of the large external bruise about the temple. The doctor drained off two tablespoons of free- flowing, unclotted blood. Unstopped bleeding in such an area causes loss of consciousness and eventually death as pressure on the brain builds up. The doctor concluded that Sylvia died of a "subdural hematoma" caused by the blow to the head, with shock, malnutrition and the excessive injuries as underlying factors.
DETECTIVE SGT. William E. Kaiser had arrived at the Wright home within 10 minutes of Patrolman Dixon. Other policemen already were swarming through the house, taking photographs, making notes and controlling traffic.
Shortly after Kaiser’s arrival, a tiny teen age girl limped toward the house from across New York Street. A rake in her hand, her dingy blond hair stringing from her shoulders, the crippled girl quickened her pace as she saw the patrol cars parked outside the house. A wave of anxiety swept across her face. Her shriveled left leg was encased in a steel brace, but she broke into a near trot as she neared the home.
Police reports listed her later as Jenny Fay Likens, white, female, 15. Sylvia was her sister.
Jenny burst into the front room. Someone said Sylvia was dead. Tears streamed down the polio victim’s face.
Arriving about the same time, home from her job at a neighborhood cafeteria, was a large, brown-haired, slovenly, bottle- bottomed girl named Paula. She was 17, Mrs. Wright’s eldest daughter. She, too, heard the news that Sylvia had died. "You’re kidding!" she exclaimed.
They were not kidding. Paula reached for her Bible. She began reading to Jenny. "This was meant to happen," she intoned then, softly. "If you want to live with us, Jenny, we’ll treat you like our own sister."
Mrs. Wright came into the room, bustling about like a busy stage director. "Did you tell them I’d been doctoring Sylvia?" she reminded.
Jenny remembered her lines: No one had seen Sylvia for several days; she had run off with a gang of boys; she staggered into the backyard at 5:30 p.m., bare- breasted, clutching a note. But Jenny ad-libbed, also. "You get me out of here," she whispered to a policeman, "and I’ll tell you everything."
By 9 p.m., several members of the house hold were on their way downtown. Richard Hobbs, who had been allowed to go home, was rousted out of bed and hustled into a paddy wagon. The wagon was halfway to police headquarters in the 26- story City- County Building, but it backtracked for one more passenger—12- year- old Johnny Baniszewski.
Grim detectives unlocked the doors in the homicide office and went to work. Kaiser, a large, middle- aged, red- faced man, his speech slow and measured, had the appearance of a rube. But he had been a policeman and a homicide detective a long time. He sensed what was up.
He spoke first with Jenny Likens. Next he talked with Richard Hobbs.
"You are in serious trouble," he told the boy. "I know that girl didn’t die at the hands of five boys. Do you want to call your dad before you talk to me?"
Ricky knew his father was worried enough about his wife, Ricky’s mother, who was dying of cancer in Community Hospital. He decided to face the veteran detective alone.
Next Detective Kaiser talked to Mrs. Wright. He learned that her true name was Baniszewski, the same as that of six of her seven children; that her brief cohabitation with 20- year- old Dennis Lee Wright, father of her youngest child, had not been sanctioned by law.
Mrs. Baniszewski handed Kaiser, from her purse, another letter from Sylvia to her parents, on school tablet paper and longer than the note Sylvia supposedly clutched as she staggered into the backyard. It began, "Mom and Dad," and it was signed, "Sylvia Likens."
It listed 15 confessions of theft, sexual adventure and other misbehavior: "I am writing to tell you what I have done for the last two weeks. . . . I done things that could cause a lot of trouble. . . . I took $10 from Gertie Wright. . . ."
The handwriting may have been authentic, but Kaiser knew the motivation was not. By this time he was irritated. He brusquely informed Mrs. Baniszewski that she was under arrest on a preliminary charge of murder and that she might contact an attorney if she chose.
By midnight, Mrs. Baniszewski and Richard Dean Hobbs were in custody on murder charges. Three of Mrs. Baniszewski’s children and five neighbor children were taken into custody within the next few days on juvenile delinquency charges. They were Paula Marie Baniszewski, 17; Stephanie Kay Baniszewski, 15; John Stephan Baniszewski Jr., 12; Stephanie’s boyfriend, Coy Randolph Hubbard, 15; Randy Gordon Lepper, 12; Judy Darlene Duke, 12; Anna Ruth Siscoe, 13, and Michael John Monroe, 11.
By the end of the year, after a grand jury investigation, Mrs. Baniszewski, Paula, Stephanie, Johnny, Hobbs and Hubbard were being held in jail without bond on charges of first-degree murder. The other four children had been released to their parents, under subpoena as state’s witnesses. The stage was set for the most searing courtroom drama in Indiana history.
Excerpted from House of Evil by John Dean
Copyright © 2008 by John Dean
Published in 2008 by St Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.