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Sylvia Likens Murder

Likens Family

Sylvia Likens was a girl of only 16 years old at the time of the events. She lived with her father, Lester, her mother, Elizabeth, and had an older twin brother and sister, as well as a younger twin brother and sister, totaling five children. She was in the middle, between the older twins and the younger twins.

The family’s life was quite hectic, as Sylvia’s parents worked in the circus, leading them to move frequently throughout the year. This meant that the girls didn’t have many friends since they were always changing schools.

Family Issues

In 1964, Lester and Elizabeth, the parents, decided to separate. They had experienced many conflicts in their relationship over time and finally chose to part ways. As a result, Sylvia’s younger sister, Gene, went to live with their mother, and the other children stayed with their father. In the following year, 1965, things were financially tough for the family.

Elizabeth was arrested for shoplifting in town, and Sylvia and Jenny, who were with her, went to live with their father along with their other siblings. During this time, Sylvia befriended two girls at school named Paula and Stephanie Banzelos, who were also sisters.

City Change

New Friendships

The girls, who often visited each other’s homes, began to build a friendship. As time passed, Lester learned that the circus would move to another city again. Since Isabelle was no longer with him as she was imprisoned, he thought it would be difficult to care for all those children alone, traveling through various cities, especially with financial difficulties. Additionally, Sylvia had made some friends in that city.

Lester’s Idea

Lester started thinking that it would be good to leave the children, or at least some of them, with someone in that city while he took some of the other children to balance things a bit and make it easier to manage and financially recover. After that, he would pick up the girls, and everything would be fine.

He found out that the mother of Sylvia’s two friends was a woman named Gertrude, who, besides her daughters, had five more children, totaling seven children under her care. She also worked occasionally as a babysitter for other children in the neighborhood, taking on odd jobs like babysitting and ironing clothes. Gertrude had significant experience in dealing with children and was well-regarded by people. Parents liked to leave their children with her because of her reputation for straightening out children in education, especially those a bit unruly.

Lester thought it would be ideal since the girls were already friends with Gertrude’s daughters. One day, when he went to pick up Sylvia and Jenny from Gertrude’s house, where they had gone to visit their friends, he took the opportunity to talk to Gertrude about it. Since she had seven children and was a single mother, having been abandoned by her husband, she took care of her children and others, surviving as a babysitter, ironing clothes, and other services.

Lester’s Proposal

She was a compulsive smoker, consuming several packs of cigarettes throughout the day. Gertrude was also considered a cold, strict, and authoritative woman. She educated the children with this firm stance, making them calmer and meeting parents’ expectations. Lester, Sylvia, and Jenny’s father, talked to Gertrude and offered her $20 weekly to take care of the two girls.

She agreed, as it was extra income for her, and so it was done. He left the two girls there and continued traveling with the circus, along with the other children. Initially, everything was fine, even though Gertrude, this colder woman, did not present anything out of the ordinary. The girls were doing well at her house.

The Beginning of Problems

Lester, facing financial problems, began to delay the $20 weekly payment to Gertrude. She became very angry and started taking it out on the girls, mistreating them, even though she didn’t care about their well-being. Payments continued to be delayed, and she became increasingly furious. She began to physically abuse the girls, beating them with a belt, shouting that their father had delayed payment, and she was taking care of them for free.

Jenny was very upset and angry with this situation, after all, none of it was their fault. Moreover, the other children in the house did nothing to defend them, including their friends Paula and Stephanie. They started to resent Gertrude’s entire family and the other children. One day, at school, Sylvia heard a story that Paula, Gertrude’s eldest daughter, was having relationships with older men, and she was even pregnant by one of them.

Remembering all the anger she was going through and as a kind of revenge, Sylvia decided to spread this story throughout the school. Soon, everyone knew and looked at Paula with disdain, talking badly and spreading rumors about her. When Paula found out, she told her mother Gertrude, who became even more furious with Sylvia. She then focused punishments exclusively on Sylvia, leaving Jenny aside. Gertrude took Sylvia out of school and increased the physical abuse every day, even going as far as locking her in the basement without food or water for many and many days.

The abuses Sylvia endured

The situation caused Sylvia to become malnourished and dehydrated because she spent so many days without water and food. Sylvia had no other option but to eat her own waste, and from that point on, the aggressions became even more severe.

Gertrude started calling everyone to gather in the basement around Sylvia to beat her while Gertrude watched. Gradually, other children from the neighborhood began to be summoned to participate in these torture sessions. This behavior began to turn the situation into a kind of horror show for those people, and even the children seemed to enjoy the situation. The situation Sylvia found herself in was utterly deplorable. The only ones not amused by this atrocity were, obviously, Sylvia and her sister Jenny, who was horrified. Gertrude always threatened Jenny, saying that if she told anything to anyone, the same would happen to her. Jenny would join Sylvia and suffer in the same way.

The attacks on Sylvia became increasingly intense, and Gertrude, in addition to applying physical punishments, began to perform even more cruel acts. Sylvia was burned with cigarette tips daily and deprived of food. If she complained or expressed any discomfort, she was subjected to even more severe humiliations and aggressions. In one of the most shocking episodes, Gertrude went so far as to force Sylvia to insert a glass soda bottle into her genital area. This atrocity happened more than once, and the reasons behind these acts were unknown. Sylvia’s health quickly declined, and she was so weakened that she could barely stand or defend herself.

Despite pleas for help, Sylvia found no relief. A letter that Jenny managed to send to their older sister was ignored, as she did not believe the barbarities described, thinking they were Jenny’s inventions to attract attention. Unfortunately, the torture persisted, and Sylvia was trapped in this cruel nightmare. One of the last things that happened to Sylvia, which was particularly memorable, was a day when Gertrude asked the children to hold Sylvia while she heated a needle in the fire. Afterward, she wrote on Sylvia’s belly: ‘I am a prostitute, and I am proud of it.’ Sylvia became even more debilitated; the wounds were infecting, including the one on her belly. She was in very bad shape, and Gertrude realized that Sylvia was at risk of dying in her house, and she would be blamed for this murder. So, she forced Sylvia to write a letter to her parents saying she had run away, had no intention of returning, and they shouldn’t look for her. After that, she intended to abandon Sylvia somewhere for her to die alone. And when someone went looking for her, she would hand over that letter, saying the girl had run away, to really get rid of Sylvia.

Conclusion of the Case

On October 24, 1965, another torture session took place. Sylvia was beaten several times, suffering numerous blows to the head with a piece of broomstick. After that, she was thrown, abandoned in the basement, bloody and locked up. Two days later, everyone returned for another torture session, and this time, Gertrude intended to give Sylvia a bath with boiling water, claiming it was to cleanse the impurities and sins of the girl. There are reports that this had happened before, but the fact is that she entered with the intention of giving Sylvia a boiling water bath, and upon entering, she realized Sylvia wasn’t breathing. Upon realizing this, they decided to call the police and hand over the letter that Gertrude had forced Sylvia to write, stating that the girl had run away from home. The police were somewhat suspicious of the situation, but the whole lie fell apart when Jenny, the younger sister, found the courage to tell the truth to one of the police officers.

She told the whole story, all that absurdity. Gertrude, her children, and all the other children involved in this situation were arrested. Sylvia was found thrown in the basement, with many injuries, completely disfigured, various cuts, and various types of wounds on her body. In addition, her genital area was completely swollen. However, examinations revealed that Sylvia was still a virgin, contradicting all the inventions made about her.

An evaluation was conducted on Gertrude to determine if she was sane, to understand all the cruelty she had committed. The evaluation indicated that she was completely insane. There was a possibility that she had done all this out of jealousy of Sylvia’s beauty, as she was a truly beautiful girl. So, all her frustrations throughout her life, all the mistreatment, all the abandonments, all the hardships of caring for those children, were taken out on Sylvia, a completely innocent girl who was not to blame for anything Gertrude had gone through in life.

Gertrude and her older daughter, Paula, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Paula, who was pregnant, gave birth to a girl, but her right to keep the child was denied, and the baby was put up for adoption. In addition, various children and teenagers involved in the torture were sent to reformatories.

In 1973, even with the life sentence, Paula was granted parole and released from prison. In 1985, Gertrude was also released, despite public protests; however, five years later, in 1990, she died of lung cancer.

In 2007, the movie “An American Crime” was released, based on this case. If you are interested in watching, please consider signing up for Amazon Prime Video through the following link: Prime Video

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