Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Should Sylvia Likens’ Torturer Get to Live a Quiet Life?

Sylvia Likens.

Paula Baniszewski was a teenage participant in one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. After working at a school under an assumed name for 14 years, Paula’s identity has been revealed. She was fired from the school system, and with a past so notorious, her future looks bleak. 

It’s a case that stays with anyone who learns its dreadful details. Pretty, dark haired Sylvia Likens is left by her carnie parents in the care of the bony asthmatic Gertrude Baniszewski. When payments for Sylvia’s and and her sister Jenny’s care arrive late, Gertrude unleashes her rage on the girls. She paddles them and dunks them in scalding water to cleanse them of their sins. Sylvia suffers the worst of it, and the torment she endures turns perversely sexual. Accused of being promiscuous, she has a glass Coke bottle inserted into her vagina and the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it!” carved into her stomach. She is frequently beaten, kept out of school and left locked in the basement, where she finally dies at 16 of brain hemorrhage, malnutrition and shock.

Paula Baniszewski prison photo.

Gertrude, convicted of first degree murder, was despite a public outcry paroled after 20 years, but died of lung cancer five years later. As appalling as Gertrude’s actions against Sylvia were, the true depravity of the crime lies in the fact that she did not act alone. Gertrude recruited her own children and neighborhood boys to participate in the abuse. Coy Hubbard, the boyfriend of her daughter Stephanie, practiced his judo moves on Sylvia. Another boy, Richard Hobbs, with the help of Gertrude’s 10-year-old daughter Shirley, branded the number 3 on Sylvia’s chest. And Gertrude’s oldest daughter, Paula, 17 at the time of Sylvia’s 1965 death, kicked the girl in the groin after accusing her of being pregnant. Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs are both dead. Stephanie, who tried to revive Sylvia when she stopped breathing and later testified against her mother, was never tried. She assumed a new identity and found a life away from Indianapolis and her past. Not much is known about the youngest three Baniszewski kids — Shirley, Marie and Jimmy — and it’s likely they prefer it that way.

Paula, however, has been dragged back into the spotlight after quietly working for a school district in Iowa for 14 years. Back in 1965, a pregnant Paula was convicted of second degree murder. After an appeal, she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. In prison, she gave birth to a baby girl she named Gertrude (the name was changed when she was adopted.) She was paroled in 1972, took the last name Pace and has tried to remain unnoticed. In her job as a teacher’s aide for special needs kids, she was a “sweet lady” and always helpful, according to a former student. After school officials learned of Paula’s true identity, she was fired for lying on her resume.  There are no criminal proceedings against her.

Paula Pace, teacher portrait.

So should the 64-year-old Paula Baniszewski, now Pace, be left alone to live out the rest of her days in peace? It’s a question almost not worth asking, because no matter what the answer is, she won’t be. No one will hire her knowing what she did, unless she moves away and lies again. Weighing against her too is that by today’s toughened penal standards, she did not serve nearly enough time for anyone’s liking. Now that she’s been outed, the most likely scenario is that Paula Pace will die, shunned, ashamed and bullied, lucky to have had even her 14 year streak of anonymity.

It’s hard to imagine that Paula isn’t haunted by the awful acts in which she was involved. She was born to and raised by a terrible woman, and became involved, along with many others, in that terrible woman’s terrible scheme. The deplorable behavior of Paula, her siblings and neighbors was a stark example of group hysteria egged on by a hate-filled authority figure, whose madness infected the others like a fever.

Letting Paula Pace live in peace doesn’t mean she’ll be happy; instead of being tormented by the hate mail and vandalism that’s sure to come her way, she’ll be tormented only by her own guilt. That should be enough. Sylvia Likens was robbed, violently, of all dignity, and the eye-for-an-eye urge to show Paula at least a fraction of that same treatment is strong in many. But the only way to heal the still-gaping wound of a 47-year-old murder is to discontinue the perpetual cycle of vindictiveness and abuse. A mob riled up to drive Paula out of town would only serve as a reminder of the ease with which we slip into bile-spitting fury. The mob would soon forget their initial purpose and act only for the dirty joy of violence.

The Torture Murder of Sylvia Likens

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