In 1965, 16-year-old Sylvia Likens died after being tortured by her adult guardian — with the help of the woman’s family and other neighborhood children. The prosecutor called it “the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana.” Now, nearly 50 years later, Sylvia’s sister has mysteriously vanished.
Los Angeles’ ABC 7 reports that Dianna Bedwell, who was 18 when her sister was killed, was last seen May 10. Her husband of 25 years, Cecil Knutson, went missing at the same time. Bedwell’s son, Robert Acosta, believes the elderly couple may have been involved in a traffic accident, since both are diabetic and require insulin. They were due for dinner at Acosta’s house after visiting a casino near San Diego, and they never arrived.
Bedwell and Knutson’s disappearance would be worrisome under any circumstances, but the case has attracted even more attention due to Bedwell’s tragic family history. Bedwell did not live in the home where her sister was abused, but the girls’ younger sister, Jenny, did. It was Jenny who was able to explain to the police the truth about Sylvia’s death, which came some months after the girls, whose parents constantly traveled as a result of their carnival jobs, moved in with Gertrude Baniszewski. She had seven children of her own and the $20 a week rent was a welcome addition to her limited income.
Baniszewski was a deeply troubled person, and Sylvia soon became her favorite target. The details of the torture are horrible, even five decades later: cigarette burns, forcing the teen to eat feces, having “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” carved into her stomach with a hot needle, and other unimaginably cruel acts. She also encouraged her own children and other neighborhood youths to join in, which they did, eagerly.
Gertrude, her husband and children, and two unrelated 15-year-olds were arrested after Sylvia’s body was discovered in the family basement; the sensational trial included such details as 11-year-old Marie Baniszewski losing her nerve to lie on the stand, and recounting the group’s abuse techniques in graphic detail.
Four people were convicted, but Gertrude got the harshest punishment: for a conviction of first-degree murder, a life sentence. She eventually got parole in 1985, despite public protest, and moved to Iowa, where she lived until her death in 1990.
Sylvia’s story was dramatized by 2007’s An American Crime, with Ellen Page starring as the doomed girl and Catherine Keener as her cruel caretaker. A marker memorializing the tragedy stands in Indianapolis; the home where Sylvia died was torn down in 2009 to make way for a parking lot.