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Iowa teacher's aide suspended after role in '65 torture death revealed

Paula Baniszewski was charged with second degree murder for the death of a 16-year-old girl who lived in her home. She changed her last name to Pace and moved to Iowa where she worked as a teacher's aide. She was recently found out.
Paula Baniszewski was charged with second degree murder for the death of a 16-year-old girl who lived in her home. She changed her last name to Pace and moved to Iowa where she worked as a teacher's aide. She was recently found out.Indiana State Prison

The Grundy County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa received an ominous voice mail earlier this month: A teacher’s aide at the local high school was a member of an Indianapolis family that tortured and killed a girl in 1965.

Paula Pace, the caller said, was actually Paula Baniszewski, who was 17 at the time of the killings and the eldest of seven children. She started working at the school district in 1998 and was, most recently, an aide to a high school counselor.

Confirming Pace's original identity, the school district suspended her. 

Pace was mostly quiet and kept to herself at work, according to WHO-TV. But in 1965, prosecutors painted her as one of the ringleaders in the torture of Sylvia Maria Likens, a 16-year-old who moved in with the Baniszewskis while her mother was on the road as a traveling entertainer, according to the Indianapolis Star.

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. She needed money and suggested to Sylvia’s father that Sylvia and her sister Jennie move in – provided he pay $20 a week.

But when the girls’ father failed to pay as promised, Gertrude Baniszewski paddled the girls.

The abuse escalated sharply, and Sylvia bore the brunt of it, most of it in the basement of a home described by the Indianapolis Star as "a rundown, gray frame rental house."

The Baniszewskis beat, belted and burned her. They dropped her into a tub of scalding water, then rubbed salt into her raw skin. They burned her skin with their cigarette butts. (An autopsy revealed burns across her body -- "Everyone but the baby" burned Sylvia, 12-year-old John told police, according to the Indianapolis Star).

Other reports say the family forced Sylvia to strip in front of neighborhood boys and masturbate with a coke bottle.

Gertrude Baniszewski, then 37, and 12-year-old John would force her to eat her own feces.

Five days before she died, according to a 1965 story by the Indianapolis Star, Gertrude Baniszewski ordered one of the neighbor boys to etch, with a three-inch, red hot needle, “I am a prostitute and I'm proud of it” into Sylvia’s stomach. That was punishment, allegedly, for having spread rumors that the elder two Baniszewski girls, including Paula, were prostitutes.

When Sylvia died after being brutally beaten five days later, her sister, Jennie Likens, whispered to police, “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything.”

The Baniszewskis were tried together and in 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder. Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison in Indianapolis.

John Baniszewski and two other boys ages 16 and 15 were convicted of manslaughter. They were released on parole in 1968.

In 1971, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the convictions, saying jurors had been prejudiced by publicity and that the trials should have been held separately.

Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder again at a second trial. She was paroled in 1985, changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan and moved to Iowa. She died in 1990.

Paula, however, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter to avoid another trial.

The Indiana Department of Corrections records indicate she was sentenced in August 1971 to a sentence of two to 21 years. She escaped in 1971 but was recaptured.

Paula, now 64, was released from prison in 1972. She was living in Iowa in the mid-1980s, according to a man who grew up with her three sons. Paula, he said, was also very close with his mother. He asked that NBC News not use his name.

He said he received a Facebook message a month ago, detailing Paula's previous life.

“We’re just sickened by it,” he said.

He doesn’t know who sent him the message but assumes it was someone he knew who opened an account under an alias. He said his family did not approach the police.

Paula was stern, he said, but did not discipline her children physically.

“She took care of the kids. She made dinner every night," he said. "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.”

Gertrude Baniszewski moved in with her daughter in the mid-1980s, he said. She was quiet and reserved – but she also made him nervous.

“She was kind of scary – her presence was scary,” he said. “Her eyes were sunken in, and her face was very slender. There was a skeletal impression in her face.”

Sylvia Likens' death at the Baniszewski house has been made into a television drama, "An American Crime," and was the premise of "The Girl Next Door," by Jack Ketchum. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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