Authors: John Dean
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THE INDIANA TORTURE SLAYING
St. Martin’s Paperbacks
If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
HOUSE OF EVIL
Copyright © 2008 John Dean.
Cover photo of house ©
The Indianapolis Star.
Cover photo of Sylvia Likens © Bettmann/Corbis.
All rights reserved.
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Printed in the United States of America
St. Martin’s Paperbacks edition/August 2008
St. Martin’s Paperbacks are published by St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
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Foreword to the First Edition
by Leroy K. New, Chief Trial Deputy to Marion
County (Indiana) Prosecutor (1966)
is the most urgent law of nature, it may seem difficult to understand why Sylvia Likens neither sensed nor avoided her impending death. I have no intention of discussing facts or culpability in the matter because the convictions are still on appeal. But I have been repeatedly asked why Sylvia did not just simply run away. I would suggest that by the time Sylvia told her sister she knew she was dying, she had reached profound apathy and had lost all will to resist. She failed to avoid continued abuse because she had no known source of help. Why she did not inform her parents of at least some of her abuse the last time she saw them must remain a silent mystery known only to Sylvia. She may have been painfully disappointed upon learning she could not go with them. Youngsters often sulk and say nothing when disappointed.
But what of Jenny, her sister? In her case, I feel the answer to why she didn’t tell someone is quite easy: Fear. She was intensely afraid even to go to her grandmother’s home three miles away for fear she’d be thrashed and beaten; and as time passed she assumed a silent, passive attitude, much as prisoners of war who feel it is better to say nothing and know nothing. Neither child could write or otherwise make contact with the parents, for the parents were
constantly on the road. A secretly mailed letter was simply out of the question. Then, too, environment and conditions play powerful roles in all human behavior.
If ghetto living produces revolution, it is quite possible that it also produces murder. Legally, such living standards could never justify murder and, indeed, there really is no relation between poverty and bestiality. Poverty itself is not a cause of crime. If it were, we could eliminate crime simply by tearing down tenements and replacing them with elaborate housing projects. The theory does not hold water. We have mounting crime today amid mounting affluence.
But the minds of men do react to agitation and turmoil. The turbulence of pounding pavements and roaring traffic could drive people to unreasonable behavior if they did not try to condition themselves or seek mental tranquility elsewhere. Sylvia accepted Christ. She reached out for a pillar on which to lean. Jenny did the same. They often went forward to the altar together. But at times, it seemed, the entire neighborhood turned on Sylvia. Why? She was gentle by nature and kind to them. Could it be that a national attitude or psychology of the times has eroded and distorted human values to the terrible extent that this generation rewards indolence, exalts muggers, tolerates murder and encourages people to believe they have some proprietary right to other people’s properties and, indeed, even their very lives? If so, we are engulfed in a massive moral breakdown
that generates civil disobedience and promotes elastic tolerance of wrongdoers.
Thus, to those removed from Sylvia’s environment, what happened is shocking and senseless. To those caught up in it, it simply may be a way of life. That way of life may now be on trial also. And if the Sylvia Likens story reflects the moral course America now follows, I say calmly and deliberately that we are on the road to oblivion as a nation. We are free, as citizens, only because every other citizen is restrained from the invasion of the rights of others. Unless we tighten up fast on the reins of law enforcement and restore respect for its purpose in a free society, we will surely experience not liberty, but license as it exists in the jungle, and with the anarchist and the assassin.
In twenty years of the practice of law, in serving three prosecutors and handling homicides totaling well over a hundred, I feel that the Likens story has the most ominous moral implications of any in which I have ever been involved or even heard of. I trust it will serve as a beacon to Americans and even to the world. Ignore it and we are all doomed. Sylvia Likens may speak far louder in death than she ever did while she lived.
Leroy K. New
Editor’s note (1966): Leroy K. New holds a law degree from the Indiana University Law School and was admitted to practice in Indiana in 1946 and in
Florida in 1947. He is a member of the Indianapolis Bar Association, the Florida State Bar Association, and the Indiana Prosecutors Association. He is a frequent lecturer at the Indiana University Law School and is widely experienced in criminal law. He has assisted grand juries in investigations of the Indianapolis Coliseum explosion, a gambling scandal involving Indianapolis police officers, vice in Indianapolis, and control of obscene publications. He is married and the father of two daughters, 12 and 15 years of age.
Author’s Preface to the New Edition
edition of this book sold more than 55,000 copies in 1966 and 1967, and I was surprised. I was a newspaper reporter, and I knew that I was reporting a big story that had been broadcast around the world; but I had this lingering wonderment at who would want to read so much about it.
While I was reporting on the Sylvia Likens murder case for the
, I fantasized about writing a book on it. I shared my dream with a writer for
magazine who was covering the case, and he agreed that it would be a good idea. But I did not send out a book proposal to agents or publishers. I was
to write the book—by David Zentner, the publisher of Bee-Line Books Inc., then of Cleveland, Ohio (later of New York).
Only after the book was published did I realize that Bee-Line’s main line had been pornography. My book and another published the same year—
Viet Nam Mission to Hell!
, by Val Seran—were Bee-Line’s entrées into the publishing mainstream. Previous titles in the company’s catalog included such titles as
Peekin’ Place, Some Came Sinning
In Hot Blood.
What really surprised me, though—much more than the initial sales—was that the book became a “cult classic.” Long after it went out of print (the first
printing was 75,000 copies, and they did not sell out), I kept getting queries from people from all over the country and a few from overseas—by mail and by telephone—asking where they could get a copy (this began long before eBay and
A few of the queries came from playwrights, filmmakers and television writers (two women in New York said they had connections with Bill Moyers and wanted to produce a documentary). Sadly, I told them all, the book was out of print (I made photocopies of my last, dog-eared copy of the book for some of the writers).
A student at Indiana State University—who was not from Indiana, but from the Southwest—visited me to examine my archives in order to write a term paper about the case.
The oddball movie director John Waters published an essay in which he fantasized about getting a copy of
The Indiana Torture Slaying
in his Christmas stocking.
it about this case? I wondered.
And to one of my many correspondents I mused, “I wish I knew who owned the copyright on that book.”
“Who does own the copyright?” he asked.
Light bulb! I didn’t know. But I knew enough copyright law to realize that the original copyright had expired; and I hired a copyright lawyer in Washington, D.C., to find out who owned the renewal rights.
“You do!” he wrote back, in so many words, after a little research. So I republished the book myself, in 1999, and printed it myself, under the imprint of a small press I had founded in 1980, and it has sold steadily ever since. I made more money on the first hundred copies I published myself than I did as the author on the 55,000 copies that had been sold more than thirty years before.
And now, finally, a Hollywood movie has been made about the case—
An American Crime
, which debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
But all this merely
the continuing fascination with the murder of Sylvia Likens by Gertrude Baniszewski and a gang of children. It doesn’t
the fascination. And I remain at a loss to explain it.
Many writers, including the writer and director of
An American Crime
, have compared the Likens case to William Golding’s 1954 novel
Lord of the Flies
, in which a community of unsupervised children commit unspeakable atrocities on their fellows.
But that comparison has never convinced me. The children in
Lord of the Flies
had no adult supervision. The children who participated in the murder of Sylvia Likens were not merely sanctioned, but were even directed, by an adult—the divorcee Gertrude Baniszewski. I find the Sylvia Likens murder more comparable to the murders committed by the minions of Charles Manson than to the murders in
Lord of the Flies.
I have received compliments over the years for
the straightforward narrative of
The Indiana Torture Slaying
, but I have taken some criticism for not explaining why that divorcee and those children would commit such a crime, and why the Likens girls did not flee. I have three things to say about that.
First, I’m not a psychologist, and I was not asked by my publisher to pretend to be one. In fact, it was not really clear to me what the publisher wanted when he commissioned me to write the book. I sent him a manuscript within a month of the verdict, based principally on the trial, and he sent it right back. “No, no,” he said. “Have you read
In Cold Blood?”
(Truman Capote’s seminal “true crime” novel, published the year before.)
“No,” I confessed.
“Read it,” he said. “And then send me another manuscript. That’s what I want.”
I did, and I did; and now you have it.
So, that’s the first thing I have to say: Just the facts, ma’am.
Second: There’s a book on the Internet about the case, at
, by Denise Noe, a writer in Atlanta. The title of one of the chapters of her e-book is “The Sexless Sex Crime.” Her point was that, although Sylvia’s tormentors accused her of sexual misconduct and forced her to masturbate with a Pepsi-Cola bottle, there was no evidence that any of them had personally sexually assaulted or molested her.
But I disagreed that the Sylvia Likens crime was “sexless,” and I e-mailed Ms. Noe and argued with her about that title (we have since become friends). I
pointed out that Ricky Hobbs, age 14 at the time of the murder, was not a friend of the Baniszewski children. He was a friend of Gertrude Baniszewski. He even said so, to both the police and the coroner’s investigator. That and other sexual innuendos, including defense attorneys’ portrayal of Gertrude Baniszewski as a siren, were reported in the articles I wrote for the
at the time as well as in my book.
There’s a photograph of Gertrude Baniszewski and Ricky Hobbs in court together that is worth a thousand words. It shows Baniszewski and Hobbs
as a couple.
It’s one of the most remarkable journalistic photos you will ever see. In my mind it ranks with the 1930s photos of the Okies, with the 1945 Iwo Jima photo, and with the photo of the young girl running toward the camera, and away from the napalm, in Viet Nam. I don’t know who took the courtroom photo of Gertrude and Ricky. I saw it in a detective magazine, uncredited and uncopyrighted.
There was a sexual relationship between Ricky Hobbs and Gertrude Baniszewski. I am not saying that they had sexual relations. Only they would know that, and both are deceased. Hobbs denied it vehemently on the witness stand (Gertrude Baniszewski was not asked). But denial is fiercest in the face of circumstantial evidence impossible to rebut. I have reservations about the credibility of Hobbs’ denial. What else besides sex would motivate an otherwise decent young man to carve words upon a girl’s belly with a burning wand? Everything
fits—including Hobbs’ death at 21 years of age from cancer. He was a tormented young man.
So, there’s a little psychology for you. All I am saying is that sex is a powerful enough motivation for murder. We know that from history. Sex was Charles Manson’s most powerful persuasion of the young women who killed for him (and of the men who killed for him, too, rewarded by sexual favors from his women).
But while we can speculate forever on Ricky Hobbs’ motivation in the murder of Sylvia Likens, and on the others’, we’ll never know.
Third: The prosecutor, Leroy New, presented the best psychological analysis of the crime I have ever seen, in his introduction to the first edition of this book, reprinted in this edition. He dealt harshly with the defense’s excuse of poverty, and intensively with Sylvia Likens’ failure to avoid or escape her fate. He makes as good a case with that as he made in court.
This book presents the facts of the case. You figure it out.