Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

No Rescue in Sight

One of the most depressing aspects of the Sylvia Likens case is the realization that there were several times when, if people had acted just a bit differently than they did, Sylvia could have been rescued. People have always asked, "Why didn't they tell someone?" In September, Sylvia and Jenny told someone. That someone was their older, married sister, Diana Shoemaker, a slim, attractive woman with jet black hair. Sylvia was being picked on, both girls said. Every time something, anything, went wrong, Mrs. Wright would shout, "Paula, get the board!" Jenny backed up Sylvia's claim that the latter was constantly punished for things she didn't do.

Diana blew them off. They were exaggerating. They had to be. No one likes to be punished but they probably deserved it, she thought.

The Baniszewski home had visitors. Phyllis Vermillion's visits, the assaults she witnessed, and her failure to do anything about them have already been described.

A twelve-year-old girl named Judy Duke described some of the goings-on to her mother while Mrs. Duke was washing dishes. "They were beating and kicking Sylvia something terrible," the girl reported.

"Oh, well, they're just punishing her, aren't they?" Mrs. Duke asked rhetorically.

The Rev. Roy Julian tried to visit all the members of his congregation. The Baniszewskis attended his fundamentalist Christian church and he was at their home in September. He and Mrs. Wright chatted amiably while sitting on the worn couch of her living room.

Mrs. Wright complained about her husband's failure to pay child support, her numerous medical problems, and all the troubles she had with the kids. Sylvia was by far the worst of the lot, Mrs. Wright asserted. In a horrified tone, she told the man of God, "Sylvia has been skipping school and making advances on older men — for money!"

The Rev. Julian remembered Sylvia, the pretty girl who had "come forward" one Sunday to confess her faith. How awful if she should be sinning so terribly! He asked to speak with her.

Gertrude told him, "Ask her sister."

Jenny, who had been constantly threatened by Mrs. Wright, mechanically recited some of Sylvia's misdeeds: "She tells lies. And at night, after all of us go to bed, she slips down and raids the icebox." Jenny hoped she could please Gerty without having to repeat the most humiliating, sexual sins attributed to her sister. It appeared to work.

Rev. Julian prayed with Gertrude, then left.

He came back for another visit a few weeks later. Again Mrs. Wright complained about the terrible problems she was having with Sylvia. "Sylvia said at school that Paula is going to have a baby," Gertrude claimed. "But I know my daughter, and I know Sylvia. Paula's not going to have a baby; it's Sylvia."

The minister was concerned about the hostility Paula had confessed she harbored. "Paula told me," he claimed, "that there was hatred in her heart for Sylvia."

Mrs. Wright told him it was the other way around and the minister left the house for the last time.

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