Paula Pace was working as a teacher’s aide when local police received a startling voice mail revealed a startling secret: Paula Pace is actually Paula Baniszewski, who was part of an Indianapolis group charged with the brutal torture and murder of a school girl in 1965.
The Grundy County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa received the anonymous tip last Wednesday. After confirming Pace’s original identity, the school district suspended her. Pace had worked for the school district since 1998, most recently as a high school counselor’s aide.
Paula Pace was a high school student herself when she – along with several family members and neighbors – tortured and killed a 16-year-old girl who lived with the Baniszewski family in 1965. Pace was 17 at the time of her conviction.
Superintendent Ben Patty said that the school board fired Pace for “providing false information on her application,” and offered no further comment about the case. The school board was responsible for making the decision regarding Pace, since, according to Sheriff Rick Penning, there has been no criminal offense. The district was notified after Sheriff Penning received the tip, informing him that Pace was actually Paula Baniszemwki, who had been convicted of manslaughter for “participating in the torture and murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in 1965.”
“They wanted to make us aware of it because of the crime that was involved and because she was in the school system,” Sheriff Penning said. “We turned it over to the school and we’re kind of out of it because there’s no criminal offense per se.” The school district had a special meeting to discuss Pace’s fate with the district.
Sheriff Penning states that the caller indicated they had “picked up on Pace’s identity from a Facebook posting.” He added, “Whether it was somebody on a vendetta or somebody just in the public interest started putting it on Facebook, people just started picking up on it.” Upon investigation, Penning found that Pace has completed her prison sentence and was released on parole.
The case, which took place in 1965, has been labeled as one of “the most notorious crimes in Indianapolis.” The story has served as a basis for fiction and nonfiction books, a play, and movies. The most popular films based on the events is arguably the 2007 drama “The American Crime” and “The Girl Next Door.”
The case began when Sylvia and Jenny Likens moved in with the Baniszemwki family. The girls’ parents traveled for their work for a carnival circuit. In the summer of 1965, Mr. and Mrs. Likens offered Gertrude Baniszewski $20 a week to look after her daughters. Betty Likens never recovered from the outcome of her decision.
Gertrude Baniszewski was a single mother with seven children – Paula, 17, Stephanie, 15, John, 12, Marie, 11, Shirley, 10 and James and Dennis, 18 months. Within weeks, Sylvia was being brutally abused, by Gertrude, her children, and even kids from around the neighborhood. While neighbors from more than three houses down heard Sylvia’s screams, no one reported the incidents, claiming that “they had no idea what was really going on.”
The Indianapolis Stararchives from that summer detail what was, indeed, going on. A transcript of Gertrude’s children – including Paula – being questioned regarding Sylvia’s condition records that the children and their mother burned the girl with cigarette butts “many times.” They also note that Sylvia had been in the basement of their home for two weeks at the time of her death.
The Baniszemskis beat Sylvia, often with the participation of dozens of other neighborhood kids. The belted her and burned her with cigarette butts. They dropped her into a tub of boiling water, which scalded her skin so badly that most of her body was peeling when authorities found her. Authorities claim that the majority of her body was covered in cigarette burns, and her wounds had been roughly rubbed with salt. Across her belly, the words “I am a prostitute and proud of it” were etched. Twelve-year-old John admitted that his mother made a neighborhood boy carve the words into the girl with a red hot pin. Later, John added that “everyone but the baby” took turns beating and burning Sylvia. He and his mother reportedly forced the girl to masturbate with a coke bottle, and to eat her own feces.
Jenny, who was weak and sick from polio, was not harmed. Nor did she go for help, fearing for her life and that of her sister.
When Sylvia’s body was discovered on a pile of rags in the Baniszewski house, a coroner who examined the body found “cigarette burns, missing teeth, a swollen vagina, cuts, eroded skin, tattoos and severe malnutrition.”
Gertrude, 37, stated that the reason for Sylvia’s punishment was that she spread rumors that her daughters, Paula and Stephanie, were prostitutes. She denied any abuse, stating that she merely “spanked” the girl. The single mother added, “I believe Sylvia was dying from some other cause and I didn’t know it. She died five minutes after I had given her a cup of tea.” Gertrude later added that she “had been sick for a while and that she was ‘not aware of many of the things that were going on.’ ”
Paula and her siblings were tried along with their mother. Paula Baniszewski, who is now 64, was released from prison on Dec. 6, 1972, and discharged from parole in March 1974. It is unclear when Paula moved from Indiana, or when she changed her name.
NBC News reports that she was living in Iowa in the mid-1980s, according to a man who grew up with Paula’s three sons. The man – who wishes to remain anonymous – said that Paula was very close with his mother. “Paula was stern,” the man notes, “but [she] did not discipline her children physically.”
“She took care of the kids. She made dinner every night,” he added. “She was like a normal person. If we wanted to go outside and play, she’d let us, and maybe she’d come out and mess around and play, joke around. She seemed like she was having a good life.”
He notes that, when he found out about Paula’s previous life, he was shocked. “We’re just sickened by it.”
Gertrude Baniszewski moved in with her daughter in the mid-1980s, he said. “She was kind of scary,” he remembers. “Her presence was scary. Her eyes were sunken in, and her face was very slender. There was a skeletal impression in her face.”
She made him nervous.
Gertrude died of lung cancer in 1990. Her death was “too kind,” says Sylvia’s sister Jenny. “We wanted her to get the electric chair.”
Readers: Do you think that Paula deserved to be fired from her current job, more that 40 years after her crimes were committed?