Exporting Sylvia Likens case to Brazil

Dateline: Tue 29 Jul 2008

Indy blogger/activist Walfredo Freitas says his "mind crashed" when he watched "An American Crime," the recent movie version of the Sylvia Likens murder/torture in 1965 Indianapolis.

Now Freitas, a Brazilian native, is filming his own documentary about the case for Brazilian audiences; it will be broadcast in South America this fall. The story, he says, holds a dark fascination for people from around the world, and he thinks it is important to tell in an effort to gain some sort of understanging.

Freitas is an Eastsider; he lives not far from 3850 East New York, where Sylvia died in the basement at the age of 16 at the hands of her caretaker for the summer, Gertrude Baniszewski. Two of Gertrude's children and teens from the neighborhood also helped kill the girl. Baniszewski was a single mother with seven children, hard up enough for money that she agreed to care for Sylvia and her younger sister Jenny while the Likens' parents went on the carnival circuit in Florida.

Freitas began doing research after viewing "Am American Crime," a movie made by Carmel native Tommy O'Haver, who had read about the death while he was a student at Carmel High School (class of 1985) and became fascinated with the concept of evil. The movie broadcast on Showtime in May, to strong reviews.

After seeing the story on TV, Freitas read the court files in the City-County Building for an hour. "I got sick... My stomach got upset. Scared...," he says of his reaction.

Still, he followed his hunches, asking longtime Indy residents questions about the death while trying to get his head around why a woman and a mother would oversee slowly killing/burning/and beating a young girl in her basement while kids participated.

Freitas learned that "3850 East New York is a famous address. Neighbors believe is a haunted house...People from New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Italy are coming to see the home (where she was killed), her monument in Willard Park and her grave in Lebanon."

The house, says Freitas, is now owned by a nearby church, Fellowship Baptist, which plans to tear it down for a parking lot. Freitas is spending time in that area interviewing neighbors, Pastor Tray Davis of Fellowship Baptist and others with historical ties to the case. Freitas says he expects to be the last reporter to visit the house, a large, white, ugly boarded-up structure close to the street.

Freitas has an interview set with Forrest Bowman Jr., who in 1965 was a young 31-year-old attorney representing two defendants in the case, according to Konrad Marshall, an Indy Star reporter who also wrote about the case and the movie.

Freitas, with a degree in communications from a university in Brazil, has done other filming for Brazilian TV.

This is a story that will not rest easily. Those who lived in Indy at the time of the trial, or later when Baniszewski was freed from Indiana Women's Prison in 1985, have tried to avert our eyes, to no avail.

I recall seeing a copy of a book about the case at Hamaker's Pharmacy, probably issued about the time Baniszewski was released. I looked at it, but I could not bring myself to purchase it and have it in a home with children.

Still, we wrestle with what happened...and we need to own it. As I told Freitas, he is brave to take on the project, as have others, including O'Haver, who have attempted to understand and frame this very inhuman case in human terms...


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