Written by Angus Keenan
As a first draft, I wrote a big, long introduction about the antagonist of today’s post, how they were evil and vile and the worst human being imaginable. Instead, I think I’m just going to give a content warning and explain that I’ve made the conscious decision to exclude the antagonists name from this episode. At first, my stated reason was on some moral grounds, in reality I just feel so disgusted by their crimes that I didn’t want to give them a name, they simply don’t deserve one. Fair warning, what you are about to hear is about as bad as it gets. I did not enjoy learning about this story, and I request that you seriously consider whether you want to proceed from here. I’m not going to make this some big dramatic introduction, there is no comedy here, let’s just start.
On the 26th of October at around 6:30pm, police responded to a call from a suburban residence; 3850, East New York Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. A middle-aged woman, clutching a bible answers their knock and leads the police officers through her home into a bedroom on the upper floor of the house. In this bedroom is the emaciated form of a 16-year-old girl, lying on a mattress soiled with blood, urine and faces. There was no need to check, she was clearly dead. Her body was covered head to toe in wounds, sores, burns, lacerations, bruising and the beginnings of infection were already showing in some of them.
The woman explained that the girl was called Sylvia Lichens, she had been residing with her for the last 3 months. It was revealed that two days ago Sylvia had run away with several local boys and that she had gone looking for Sylvia but hadn’t found her until earlier that day. When found, Sylvia was half naked, already in her current battered state and barely alive. The woman picked her up and brought her home to try and doctor her wounds, however she died only an hour later. She then handed the police officers a note that was written in Sylvia’s own hand, corroborating everything that was just said. Just to save everyone some confusion, I’m going to call this woman, that’s holding the note, VW from now on, I’ll explain why later.
In this house there were several other inhabitants, they will receive the names DS1 aged 17, DS2 aged 15, DS3 aged 12, DS4 aged 11, DS5 aged 10 and DS6 aged 8. There was also 2 other members living in this house, an infant who will remain nameless and another girl, called Jenny Likens. She was in nowhere near the same state as her sister but was clearly not well cared for.
Once VW had finished talking to the police, DS1 stepped forward, also holding a bible, and said to all in the room, including the police, that Sylvia’s death was and I quote, ‘meant to happen’ she then turned to Sylvia’s sister, Jenny and said, ‘If you want to live with us, Jenny, we’ll treat you like our own sister.’ Jenny just nods and recites to the police officers exactly the same story as just stated by VW, confirming how Sylvia had died. We can’t be sure what the police were thinking but they weren’t in a position to make any arrests yet. The police opened a file on her death then called in an ambulance and the forensics team to begin examining the scene.
It’s interesting to think that there are single sentences that can change a situation from just another moment to one of the most significant moments of your life. As they were going about their duties, little Jenny goes over to the police officers and very quietly whispers: ‘Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.’
Before proceeding any further, perhaps it is good to know a bit about who those sisters were and why they were in that house. Sylvia was born on January 3rd, 1949, to parents Lester Cecil Likens and Elizabeth Frances. Sylvia was the third in a family of 5 children. Her two older siblings were twins called Daniel and Dianna and her two younger siblings were also twins, Benny and Jenny and they were 1 year Sylvia’s Junior. Sylvia had a happy childhood, she would regularly play with her siblings. A notable occasion arose when she was 7. She and her brother Daniel were playing together when he accidentally elbowed her in the face, knocking out her front tooth. In her teenage years this would be a source of embarrassment to Sylvia.
The family situation was not a comfortable one either. Both parents worked multiple jobs to pay for the family outgoings and because of this, they were both absent for a fairly large portion of the time. The marriage of Lester and Elizabeth was also not a particularly stable one, however it seems they did all they could to ensure that this animosity never got back to the kids.
As she got older, Sylvia became very attached to and protective of her younger sister, Jenny. As a baby, Jenny had contracted polio, which she survived but had left her leg very weak and with a visible limp, for which she had to use a brace. As the Likens children grew into their teens the parents settled into working at carnival stands in Indiana through the summer months. The boys of the family would join them, to help the family earn some money. However, Sylvia and Jenny were discouraged from doing this, being the youngest their parents were concerned for both their safety and ensuring that they both finished their education.
However, this didn’t stop Sylvia doing what she could to help the family and in particular her sister. Jenny and Sylvia shared love of roller skating, however due to her weak leg Jenny found it very difficult skate on her own. Whenever Jenny went out to go skating by herself or with her friends, Sylvia would go with her, skating by her side and acting as her stronger right leg.
To her friends, Sylvia was called cookie. She was a happy, lively, and confident girl, who was highly involved in her education. During these final two years of her life, she had also begun to garner quite a lot of attention from the boys in her school. Though Sylvia often gave this little mind, instead choosing to spend any time that she wasn’t with her friends, at school or at church, doing odd jobs for her neighbours like running errands, assisting with laundry, and babysitting. All of this was in an effort to earn a bit of money which she would give to her mother to assist with the family.
By the time 1965 came around Sylvia was 16 years old and looking at a very bright future. She was a kind, hardworking and intelligent young woman. She was attending Arsenal Technical High School and had begun courting a boy in her class. She had also made friends with 2 other girls, one in the year above her and one in Jenny’s year. Then in July of 1965, their mother Elizabeth was arrested and jailed for shoplifting. This was just at the peak season of the carnival and Lester and the other members of the family were not going to be able to give his two youngest daughters the time they needed. So, they organised for Sylvia and Jenny to board with the mother of two of Sylvia’s friends. If you were curious these friends were DS1 and DS2 and their mother was of course VW. So, on the 5th of July Sylvia and Jenny moved into 3850 East New York Street. Lester made an agreement with VW pay $20 a week and in return for VW promised to take care of his daughters.
Which brings us nearly up to date with the life of Sylvia Likens. Often when you give a rundown of a person’s life, assuming it’s been done in sufficient detail, it should take up perhaps a few thousand words, not 721 but such is this sad story.
She was born at some point, she had parents, supposedly they weren’t all that bad. She was dropped on her head as kid apparently. I do know that she had 3 marriages, I believe that her first husband beat her and also all 3 marriages had ultimately failed by the time of our story in 1965. Also she had 7 kids as a result of those marriages, so you know she’s good at making life decisions. Truth be told, there wasn’t even going to be a section on the life of VW, I felt that she was undeserving of a backstory. However, I thought it would a good place to say that, from the basic research I did do on her life, it suggests that she has no sever deprivation as a child, there is no account of her being traumatised or mistreated during her childhood: In short, she had no excuse for her crimes. Anyway, that’s about all the backstory she gets, moving on.
Upon their arrival, VW welcomed the girls warmly into her home. Both sisters were given a room and space of their own. The family was a religious one, which suited the two sisters as they attended the same church. For the first couple of weeks, it was a happy household, the girls would attend school every day, with the DS1 and DS2. The weekly payments of $20 would arrive and all would be good. However, by the third week the payment from their father had arrived a day late, the week after that, it was a couple of days late, which perhaps reasonably aggravated VW.
However, rather than taking this up with their father, VW elected to punish the girls, by removing their clothes and putting them both over her knee, beating them with a wooden paddle. Allegedly yelling at them, “Well, I took care you two little bitches for a week and nothing!” bearing in mind that Sylvia and Jenny were both 16 and 15 respectively. Although really there is no age where that is acceptable. In the following weeks this would become a fairly regular occurrence if the payments were late, she would beat them.
If you don’t know about this story, I warn you that what you are hearing about now is about as good as it gets, from here on out, things will get much worse and there is absolutely no shame in skipping ahead or watching something else. It didn’t take long for the other members of the family to begin taking part in their mothers’ aggressive behaviour. During that August, VW beat the girls on their backs with that same paddle, because her daughter, DS2 had accused the sisters of eating too much food, when they attended a church supper together.
Perhaps at this point they were just thinking that VW was a strict disciplinarian. This was just simply not the case though, in reality VW was jealous. She was 36 years old, had 3 failed marriages and 7 children. The most recent disappointment in her life was when her 22-year-old ex-boyfriend abandoned her when she bore him her 7th child. Despite being in her mid-30’s she looked about 55 and she was a chain smoker with asthma. Here were two young girls in her home with far greater prospects than she’d ever had and of one which was considered attractive by her peers.
She saw these two young women and then saw the gaping hole that was her life and she decided that it was their fault. More specifically, it was Sylvia’s fault. And so, she reacted accordingly. It was around mid-August that VW began to focus her abuse on Sylvia. What began as beatings soon escalated to humiliation, degradation, and starvation. When she returned from school VW would beat her. To begin with she had at least given the girls reasons for their being beating but at some point she lost even the desire to do that.
As time went on, she would refuse to allow Sylvia to sit at the dinner table, refuse her meals and force her to watch as they threw the leftover food away. Telling her that if she wanted to eat then she would have to eat out of the bins. At one point Sylvia claimed that she had a boyfriend in Long-Beach, California. VW heard this and began questioning her on if she had ‘ever done anything with a boy’. Of course, Sylvia had no idea what she meant by this and replied, ‘I guess so.’ Explaining that she had gone roller-skating with boys and gone to the beach with a boy. At further questioning she revealed that she had one lain under the covers with her boyfriend but said nothing more. VW wouldn’t question her any further that day and nothing seemed to come from this incident.
Or at least, nothing happened until 3 days later, Sylvia, Jenny and a few others including VW were all sitting at the kitchen table, when VW returned to the subject saying, ‘You’re certainly getting big in the stomach, Sylvia. It looks like you’re going to have a baby.’ Sylvia assumed that VW was just joking, so she responded, ‘Yeah, it sure is getting big. I’m just going to have to go on a diet.’ Apparently, VW didn’t see the joke because she screamed for everyone to hear that if anyone quote ‘did something’ with a boy, then they would be certain to get pregnant. She then kicked Sylvia in the genitals.
It’s worth pointing out here that VW’s own 17-year-old daughter DS1 was ACTUALLY pregnant at this moment a fact that VW was perfectly aware of but just lacked the critical thinking to see the irony. DS1 was also in the room and upon seeing her mother kicking Sylvia, jumps up and screams, ‘You ain’t fit to sit in a chair!’ before knocking Sylvia to the ground and joining her mother in beating Sylvia. A few days later, VW, DS1 and a boy called Randy Gordon Lepper force-fed Sylvia a hotdog overloaded with spices, mustard, and ketchup. Sylvia vomited on the floor and at the threat of being beaten was then forced to eat what she had thrown up.
Sylvia was not a violent girl, when these moments arose, she would not put-up resistance. The only thing she did in response was to start a rumour at school that DS1 and DS2 were prostitutes. Upon finding this out, DS2 confronted Sylvia at home and Sylvia admitted to it. DS2 then punched her in the face and Sylvia apologised, which DS2 accepted. However, when DS2’s boyfriend found out, he went to their home and attacked Sylvia, slapping her, banging her head against the wall and then throwing her to the ground. Finding out about this VW also thought that Sylvia’s apology was not enough, and also beat her.
On one occasion, DS1 began beating Sylvia. She focused on Sylvia’s eyes and teeth, punching her so hard that she broke her wrist. Of course, she felt that this was clearly Sylvia’s fault that she broke her wrist and when she returned from the hospital, used her cast to further beat Sylvia. VW, who was now entirely focused on Sylvia, began forcing Jenny to hit her own sister, threatening to beat them both if Jenny didn’t do what she was told.
The worst of it
By this point you can clearly see the terrible progression from simple teaching to all out bullying on a level that is beyond imagining. The damage inflicted upon Sylvia was mostly physical and you could argue that these people are already worthy of your deepest contempt, but what follows from here can only be described as among the worst acts, I have ever heard committed a human being. Quite frankly, I don’t want to relate them, but as this is a true crime podcast, I’m obliged to take you through what happened, so let’s begin.
VW would encourage local neighbourhood kids, classmates, and her own daughters to beat Sylvia. As a means of furthering the torture inflicted, she would invite local teenagers to her home and encourage them to do whatever they wanted to her, which included using her as a practice dummy for violent Judo practice. VW would also hand out cigarettes to these teenagers on the condition that the put them out on Sylvia. She forced Sylvia to masturbate with a glass Pepsi-bottle in front her daughters, Jenny, and other teenagers. All the while saying, ‘Prove to Jenny what kind of a girl you are’. The beatings were regular, progressing to using a belt as a whip instead of a paddle.
The damage upon Sylvia’s body began to take its toll. Damage to her vagina and kidneys resulted in her becoming incontinent. When this began VW would refuse Sylvia the use of the bathroom until she could no longer hold it. Then, when she began wetting the bed VW began locking Sylvia in the basement and refused to give her water or food. Occasionally she would tie her to the railing of the stairs down to the basement so that she could barely touch the floor and leave her there overnight.
By this point it was October and we are nearing the end of Sylvia’s life, however there was still worse to come. VW would tell her children that Sylvia was insulting them behind their back in an attempt to incite her own children into attacking her, which they did. VW began charging the neighbourhood children 5 cents to allow them to see Sylvia’s naked and battered body, encouraging them to humiliate, beat, scald, burn and mutilate her in any way they wished.
As an example of one of the most horrific incidents that occurred, when VW saw that Likens had once again wet herself, she forced her to empty the contents of a bottle of Coca-Cola into her vagina then dragged her into the kitchen, forced her to strip naked and began using a heated needle to carve the words “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT” into her abdomen.
What I have just described is by no means an extensive list of what occurred in that house and I would question the indentions of anybody that wants to hear the rest. This should have given you enough information to understand that the suffering of Sylvia Likens was beyond reconning. I have very little more to say about this, you don’t need me to underline the horror of what I have just recounted to you, it is readily apparent.
I’ve waited until this moment in the story to reveal what VW stands for, because I wanted us all to be in agreement that she is entirely deserving of a name fitting of her station. In my humble opinion, in committing the acts that she did, VW lost the right to be remembered to history as anything other than VW and that’s because VW is short for Vile Witch. There were other words beginning with B that I could have gone for, instead of Witch but I didn’t think that would fly on YouTube. I also considered calling her TMVASCTEDTSOTE which would have been short for: ‘The Most Vile And Sadistic Cunt To Ever Disgrace the Surface Of This Earth.’ but that was too long, so I just settled for VW. Also, DS stands for Demon Spawn as they were the children of VW. Their numbers refer to their level of responsibility, DS1 being the most responsible and DS6 being the least.
On October 23rd, Sylvia confided to her sister the following words: ‘Jenny, I know you don’t want me to die, bit I’m going to die. I can tell it.’ The next day, VW woke Sylvia and told her to write a letter. The letter stated that Sylvia had chosen to run away with a group of local and entirely fictional boys, whom she had promised to have sex with. It seems that VW’s intention was to use this letter as a means of an alibi of sorts for what was inevitably going to happen to Sylvia. She was going to order her son and Jenny to blindfold Sylvia, walk her out to the woods, tie her to a tree and leave her to die.
At this point, Sylvia was beyond recognition from when she had entered that house in July. By the 25th of October, there was barely any life remaining within her. However, that morning, she overheard a conversation between VW and DS3, regarding the families plan to abandon her in the woods. And yes, you heard that right, VW was discussing the murder of a someone wither her 12-year-old son. Upon overhearing this conversation and despite her desperately weakened, dehydrated, and damaged state Sylvia still managed to break out of the basement and run for the front door.
However, VW caught her before she could make it and dragged her back. She then gave her some toast which Sylvia tried to eat but was so dehydrated that she wasn’t able to chew or swallow. VW proceeded to force it down her throat before grabbing a curtain rod and beating Sylvia around the head and body with it, so severely that by the time she tiered herself out, it was bent at right angles. Then Coy Hubbard, one of the boys from the neighbourhood who had been most active in Sylvia’s torture, took the curtain rod from VW and proceeded to continue beating Sylvia, focusing on her head until she lost consciousness.
That evening Sylvia woke up in the basement, which had been barred this time. Sylvia wasn’t going to give up just yet, she found a shovel in the basement and began banging it against the wall screaming for help to try and alert the neighbours. One of the most desperately sad things about this story is that a neighbour did hear her. She heard her screaming for help and did absolutely nothing. Then at about 3.00 am it abruptly stopped, and she still decided to not call the police.
Don’t worry Sylvia wasn’t dead yet, she’d just lost consciousness again. Later that morning VW went to go see her. She was lying on the basement floor barely conscious. She had almost entirely lost control her arms or legs and was barely able to form a sentence. VW moved her to the kitchen where she gave her a glass of milk and a doughnut, but she wasn’t able to coordinate her movements enough to consume them. VW became infuriated at this and threw Sylvia off her chair before moving her back to the basement.
Later that day, the family went down into the basement and VW asked Sylvia to try and identify them, which she could barely do, when asked to recite the alphabet, Sylvia could only make it to the letter D. Then as her final meal VW gave Sylvia a rotting pear, which she was barely able to take a bite out of. When she did manage it, she stated that she could feel the looseness of her teeth. To which Jenny stepped forward and responded, ‘Don’t you remember Sylvia? Your front tooth was knocked out when you were seven.’ Perhaps she knew her sister was coming to the end of her life, perhaps she didn’t, either way this would be last time she ever saw her sister alive.
Because of Sylvia’s incontinence she needed to be washed. DS3 took that job, spraying her with a garden hose. When he left, he left the door open, and Sylvia made one last attempt at freedom but by this point she wasn’t even able to make it up the stairs from the basement. VW found her lying there and stomped on her head for this infraction.
It’s at this point that we see perhaps the only moment of compassion that was ever extended to Sylvia throughout this entire ordeal, upon entering the basement, DS2 observed the state of Sylvia’s body and mind. Moments later, she was found by her boyfriend, cradling Sylvia, and crying. I have no idea what she felt when she saw Sylvia laying there, but I sincerely hope it was the deepest pit of misery any human may be capable of, I somehow doubt it though.
Both of them took Sylvia upstairs and washed her. Over the past two months, on the occasions that she had been washed it had been in water that was either freezing cold or so hot that it scalded her skin. At least this time it was in warm, soapy water. They fully cleaned her, covered her emaciated and battered body in clean clothes for the first time in weeks, and lay her on the bed that had been hers before she had been forced into the basement. Lying on that bed, in a voice barely louder than a whisper, Sylvia Likens spoke her last, wishing that her daddy could be here and asking if DS2 would take her home. 114 days after Sylvia had entered 3850, East New York Street, she died.
Upon realising their captive was dead, the family’s first reaction was to try and resuscitate her with mouth-to-mouth. However, to have succeeded in that would have truly been a final punishment for Sylvia. There was nothing more that she could lose now, the family could pull no more joy from her misery as there was none left to give. I think there are very few people in the world who could have endured as long as Sylvia did, not because she had an exceptional fortitude of body, but because she had an exceptional fortitude of mind. When she stepped into that hose VW saw the quality of character that existed in Sylvia Likens and compared it to the vast gaping blackness that was her own life. Like the witch she was, she tried to fill that hole by taking everything from Sylvia, eventually taking her life.
One last thing, you may have wondered why I called the first section of this episode Faker! Faker! Sounds like the sort of thing a child would yell at another child when they were exaggerating about getting hurt in the playground, right? No. This was the reaction of a 36-year-old woman when she was told that a child in her care was dead. When told VW allegedly jumped onto the lifeless body of Sylvia Likens and began beating it with a bible, screaming that she was faking.
Turning the other cheek
This brings us back to the scene in the intro, when Jenny had approached the police officers and said to them: ‘Get me out of here and I will tell you everything.’ The police removed Jenny and took an official statement from her. Once they had finished, they returned to the residence with a warrant for arrest of VW, DS1, 2, 3 and 4, on the suspicion of the murder of Sylvia Likens. A couple of hours later, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs were also arrested and charged with the same thing. DS1, 2 and 3 were all placed in juvenile custody and the rest of the younger members of the family were detained in the Indianapolis Children’s Guardians Home.
As the story of what had happened became known first to the police, then to the family, and then to the general public. Many, many questions were asked. Questions that, you yourselves may have been asking dear listener and Simon was almost certainly asking. Questions like, if so many people were involved, if so many people had seen Sylvia going to church and school and moving around the neighbourhood from time to time, where were all the witnesses? Why did nobody do something? Why didn’t her own sister do something? And what about her family, their other siblings and Sylvia herself, why did they do nothing to prevent these events? The simple answer is that people did suspect, they saw her turning up with bruises, they heard her screams, at school her abusers would openly gloat about the new degradation they had inflicted upon her the night before.
When DS1 broke her wrist punching Sylvia she was heard gloating on the bus that she had returned and given her a black eye with the cast, even going so far as to say they were planning on killing her eventually. The pastor of the church approached VW about the bruises he had seen on Sylvia, and she said she was disciplining her for propositioning young men. People did see and hear the horror that was unfolding in their midst, they just did nothing. It wasn’t their business, and they didn’t want to stick their noses in, or as was occasionally the case they wanted to get involved.
Through a combination of apathy, unconcern, or opportunism every single person that could have acted in the aid of Sylvia, instead made the collective decision to look away. As for Jenny, she did do what she could to help her sister. But early on VW made it clear that she would either join them or be subject to the same attacks as her sister. Jenny’s first instinct was to refuse, early on when told to punch Sylvia she refused and was beaten for it. But no matter what, Sylvia would protect and care for her little sister, she told her to just go along with it, told her that there was no point in herself getting hurt and her priority was to stay on VW’s good side.
I wasn’t lying when I said very few people could have endured for as long as Sylvia did, I wonder how many others would have asked their sibling to take the risk and help defend her, to join her in her misery? Even in her final days alive Sylvia refused to ask her sister to help her escape or to even help her sneak some food. Even when she knew she was going to die, she would rather that, then ask her little sister to take the risk of incurring the wrath of their oppressor. When goaded to fight back Sylvia would turn the other cheek and refuse, so as to not risk her sister being attacked in her stead. In much the same way, their neighbours, her teachers, classmates and even her religious guide, all the people that saw the effects the torture was having on her body, in the same way, they all made the collective decision to turn the other cheek and look away from what was happening in front of their eyes. But what Sylvia did as an act of courage and concern for the person she loved, they all did as an act of cowardice and apathy.
As for their family the girls saw their parents on several occasions. Lester and Elizabeth did visit their daughters over the course of those 3 months. On weekends, they would return from the travelling circus when they could. I cannot say for sure why the girls didn’t tell their parents about the abuse. However, one of the trademark methods of abusers is to convincing their victims that telling anybody would result in the victim getting in trouble. I have no doubt in my mind that VW said something along the lines of tell your parents and I will beat you. My theory as to why they said nothing is that during the early weeks and months of the ordeal, the abuse was not sever enough to warrant the parents removing the girls from VW’s care, but it was enough for them to confront VW about it. The girls likely foresaw that if they did tell their parents early on, they would not be removed and they would almost certainly be punished.
Then later on, when the abuse got more severe VW would lock Sylvia in the basement, knowing that if she did get out and told someone it would be enough to get her arrested. As for Jenny, she was following her the orders of her sister to not do anything that would put her on the bad side of VW. Only people who were taking part in the abuse would be allowed to see her and so they would not inform anyone. On the odd occasion that someone approached VW about the damage that was appearing all over Sylvia’s body she would say that Sylvia was out of control, that she was running away and getting involved with boys, she would say that she was prostituting herself and so the damages were either a result of her own behaviour or as punishment for breaking rules. I believe these implemented mechanisms were how VW was able to keep a lid on the horrors that she and her teenage followers were inflicting for so long. It’s also worth mentioning that Jenny herself commented that no blame should be applied to their parents, they had no way of knowing the type of person that VW was, before or during the abuse.
After being arrested there was the predictable denial of any wrongdoing. VW at first stuck to her original line of slandering Sylvia’s name and hoping that this would divert the investigators. However, they weren’t buying that, and it took only a day for her to admit that she was aware of some abuse of Sylvia going on in her own home. And if there was a single drop of doubt in anyone’s mind that she was a piece of shit, she began blaming her own children, saying that they were out of control and that she couldn’t keep track of the goings on inside her house. Saying that she was dealing with her own mental health and that her medication had been making it very difficult for her over the last few months. What medication was this? Asthma medication, apparently her inhaler was blinding her to the systematic abuse of a teenager in her own home.
Finally, she admitted to forcing her to sleep in the basement on approximately three occasions, when she had wet the bed. This was only the second day and already the family was beginning to break, however, it would take 2 specific incidents that would really destroy any argument against VW and her family. First was DS2 offering to testify against them family in return for a plea deal. Second was the autopsy results that revealed the extensive damage to Sylvia’s body, I will keep this bit brief.
Over the course of her ordeal Sylvia had received more than 150 different wounds across her body. Some from the earliest abuse had begun to heal so the number is likely much higher than that. These included, burns, lacerations, muscular and nerve damage, sever bruising, swelling and all of her fingernails being broken backwards which often occurs as a result of desperate scratching motions. Her uterus and genitals were so severely damaged that they were nearly swollen shut, there was the inscriptions carved into her flesh as well as the letter ‘s’ branded into her skin. Her body was emaciated such that you could see most of her bones and she was so dehydrated that her skin had begun peeling away at the areas where impacts had been most frequent such as around the breasts, face, neck, and knees.
The official cause of death was noted as a subdural hematoma near her right temple. This is essentially a form of massive internal bleeding within the brain that often occur as a result of a severe blow to the head. No doubt dealt out by either VW or Coy Hubbard when they were battering her with the curtain rod. It is also stated that this was exacerbated by the deplorable prior condition of her body. These results indicated that there was absolutely no possibility that VW was not fully aware of the torture being inflicted on Sylvia. To the investigators this meant that either VW had been at best, encouraging the behaviour or at worst, actively causing it. However, the testimony of Jenny and her own daughter left the investigators with little to no doubt that she was both a perpetrator and an instigator of what happened to Sylvia.
On December 30th, 1965, a Marion County grand jury returned indictments of first-degree murder against VW, DS1, DS3, Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, the latter two being some of the oldest and most active participants in the abuse of Sylvia. All were charged through the collective inflicting of fatal injuries to Sylvia Likens with premeditated malice. The only reason that DS2 wasn’t indicted was because of her prior plea deal and also because she had been released from custody upon a writ of habeas corpus bond. Arguing that the court had insufficient evidence to support either charge of murder or cumulative fatal injuries and also agreeing to testify against her family.
From the outset, the prosecution made it clear that it was their intention to seek 5 counts of the death penalty and I’m almost certain that Simon has already asked the question, so I will answer, yes, they had the death penalty in Indiana in 1965. There was a large amount of very convincing evidence against the defendants, a large amount was testimony from lesser involved individuals seeking a lighter sentence. All of this was more than enough to get a conviction, the biggest hurdle to overcome was the insanity plea. So, each defendant was evaluated by a psychiatrist, and each was cleared as mentally competent to stand trial.
The decision was made that all 5 would be tried together as their crimes involved each acting ‘in concert’ with the other. The prosecution argued that if they were tried separately this would require 5 different judges and 5 different juries and as such, they could not hear testimony relating to a complete picture of the accumulation of offences committed. In other words, by trying them as a group they would be able to paint a full picture that followed the course of events as appose to an incomplete picture if they were tried separately.
The trial began on April 18th, 1966. VW’s defence pled not guilty by insanity. The others also pled not guilty. Here it is important to point out that a few criteria need to be met to prove an insanity defence. First and foremost is the testimony of a psychiatrist corroborating the claim. Second is that you need to prove, through evidence of their behaviours and actions that the defendant lacked the substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of their actions. Meaning that if you could prove through perhaps diary entries and historical medical evidence that the defendant was being told to commit these acts by non-existent voices and if those reports lined up with the time of the acts committed, you would have a fairly strong case for an insanity plea.
It’s also worth mentioning that in making an insanity plea the defendant necessarily admits that they are guilty, just with diminished responsibility. Well at least I believe that’s right, I’m no lawyer, perhaps Simon could correct anything I got wrong. I’d also like the think that the court appointed lawyers fighting VW’s case were fully aware that she would never get away with this defence and they went for it anyway just to make sure that she admitted guilt. Whatever the case, her lawyers knew they had absolutely no cause for saying she was insane, instead trying to appeal to the court with the idea that only an insane mind could have committed these acts.
As the trial progressed and the details came out through testimony and evidence. Any hope of garnering sympathy from the judge and jury evaporated very quickly as these details were revealed every person in that room very quickly turned against the defendants. The prosecution quickly disposed of VW’s insistence that she had no idea what was going on in her home through this witness testimony. Children, younger than 10 were coming up and reciting acts of torture that one would not even witness in a warzone. Sadism for the simple sake of it, a 13-year-old girl testified that she witnesses members of the defence quote ‘cleansing her of sin’ by bathing Sylvia in a scalding hot bath before witnessing them rubbing salt into the open sores on her legs, until she screamed. And yet VW thought she could convince people of her innocence by claiming the worst act of physical violence she committed against Silvia was, quote ‘starting to spank’ her, but that she was emotionally unable to finish and never hit her on any further occasion.
It was safe to say that this was pretty much an open and shut case, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind as to whether the people involved would be convicted, the only question was whether they would get the electric chair or not. Just in case Simon has started discussing the death penalty again, I’ll give you the ages of the defendants for good measure. VW was 36, DS1 17, DS3 12, Richard Hobbs was 14 and Coy Hubbard was 15. As far as I can find out, there wasn’t a death sentence for people until 18, but it seems the prosecution was going for that anyway.
As for convictions, the trial only lasted 17 days before the jury made their verdict. VW was found guilty of first-degree murder. DS1 found guilty of second-degree murder. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment. DS3 was found guilty of Second-degree murder and was sentenced 2-21 years. Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs were convicted of manslaughter and given the same sentence as DS3.
Not one of those convicted actually died in prison and VW received parole in 1985. In the lead up to her hearing, Jenny Likens protested at any possibility of parole, with her was two anti-crime groups, who initiated campaigns against her release and collecting 40,000 signatures from the citizens of Indiana. However, this was apparently not enough and when her parole hearing came around, she superficially took responsibility for her crimes, but also distanced herself by saying that she was on drugs, and she wasn’t sure what role she had to play in the events that transpired. Wow, asthma medication must have been strong back in the day. Unfortunately, VW had very good behaviour under her belt and despite the margin of votes for her release being slim, she was released from prison in 1985 after spending only 19 years in prison. She died of lung cancer at some point in 1990 I don’t care enough to find the specific date.
As I wrote this script, I became aware of two acts of evil at play, first was the overt act of evil. This was the complete disregard for even the most basic rights every human should receive, the right to privacy and control over their body, the right to say no to a request, the right to dignity. If VW’s logic is to be believed, then her own misery gave her the special right to strip others of their own rights and happiness. The second was a far more subtle act of evil and one that is seen all over the world even today. This is the collective decision to look away when confronted with the evidence of mistreatment. There were so many opportunities to prevent these events from transpiring.
And therein lies the true tragedy of this story, it could have been avoided if just one person, a neighbour, a teacher, somebody had taken the opportunity to act, had the courage to react and call the police, or to just inquire and ask Sylvia herself, what was happening or if there was a problem? Perhaps she would have said nothing but at least she would have been able to say something, she would have had the opportunity to save herself and her sister. Unfortunately, no one did, instead they decided to listen to her abuser’s slanderous lies. Defaming her and dragging her name through the mud so even if she was being a bit excessive in her punishments, Sylvia was the type of girl to deserve it.
My intention with removing the name of the antagonist was to first, spite her memory by removing her name and replacing it with something more fitting. Second, it was to make it as easy as possible to forget that this villainous woman even existed and to ensure that the Likens sisters are the only ones who can be remembered in this story. To ensure in my own way that the goodness that was within Sylvia Likens is emphasised beyond all doubt.
What I saw more than anything was bullying. The action was torture, but the behaviour was a textbook example of bullying. Thankfully cases this sever are very, very rare but when they do arise it’s important that we remember them. Forget the villains and remember the victims and more importantly learn all we can from them so that we can ensure nobody else has to suffer like they did. Here we should learn the lesson of intervention. Better to intervein in a situation and risk looking the fool than to turn the other cheek and read about the results in the news.