Caregiving Gone Horribly Wrong: The Story of Sylvia Likens

By Yuri S.

Get ready for your heart to break when you hear the story of Sylvia Likens and her terrible fate. It’s easy to understand that everyone has a little bit of darkness mixed in with our bright personalities. However, some people have more bad than good. And then there are a few evil people who are rotten to their core. The worst crimes in history involve children. When the innocent are preyed upon, they become even more vulnerable to abuse.

Sylvia Liken was a young victim of such a crime. The poor girl was abused regularly and eventually died from her injuries. The most shocking part of this horrific story is discovering who her perpetrators were. Sylvia Likens died at the hands of her guardian and her neighbors. Mob mentally spread like crazy until Sylvia took her last dreadful breath.

Trying to Make Ends Meet

World War II ended just a few years before Sylvia Marie Likens was brought into the world on January 3, 1949. She was Lester and Elizabeth Likens’ third bundle of joy, but she wasn’t the last. Her parents later had a set of twins, Jenny and Benny. The family resided in southern Boone County, northwest of Indianapolis.

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Her father worked a number of different jobs, like running a laundry route and working in factories, to make ends meet. He even tried to run a restaurant, but that failed. Eventually, he began traveling with carnivals and feeding the visitors from a concession cart. This job would put him and his wife on the road, but what about the children?

What About the Children?

As much as they loved their children, poverty made it difficult for the Likens to put food on the table. The carnival gig was the best option they had, but that meant they needed someone to take care of the kids while they were away.

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Asking one family member to take all their five children seemed like a big request, so they needed to split up the siblings. Their eldest, Diana, was married and out of the house, so they didn’t have to worry about her. Danny and Benny were staying with their grandparents. They now had two daughters to place; Sylvia and Jenny.

A Tale of Two Sisters

Sylvia and Jenny had very distinct personalities that complemented one another perfectly. Sylvia was an extrovert and a social butterfly. She was a beautiful, confident young lady with long brown hair, but she only smiled with her mouth closed because she had a missing front tooth. Sylvia loved to roller-skate, listen to the Beatles, and her loved ones called her Cookie.

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Jenny, on the other hand, was shy and more insecure. As a child, she suffered from polio, and she ended up with a limp as a result. Sylvia took care of her little sister and used her hard-earned babysitting money to take Jenny to the ice rink. It was 1965, and Sylvia was just 16 when her whole world turned upside down.

Lester Meets Gertrude

In 1965, Sylvia made friends at her local high school, including Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski. Around that time, Sylvia’s mother was arrested for shoplifting, and her father was traveling with the carnival. When Lester Likens was introduced to Paula and Stephanie’s mother, Gertrude Baniszewski, he hoped she would look after his girls.

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Gertrude lived in a big corner house and agreed to take care of Sylvia and Jenny for $20 a week. Lester thought this was a great idea, and he was under the impression that Paula and Sylvia were friendly. After all, Gertrude promised to care for the girls like they were her own. If only he knew the truth…

Gertrude’s Unstable Past

If he did a little digging, Lester would know that Gertrude had a habit of biting off more than she could chew. Gertrude married her husband, John Stephan Baniszewski, when she was 16. They were married for a decade and had four children together. But after years of abuse, Gertrude finally got a divorce.

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A few weeks later, she married another abusive man, Edward Gurthie, only to divorce him a few months later – all to get back to her first husband. They had two more kids together before getting divorced again. Gertrude had another son with 22-year-old Dennis Lee Wright, who ditched her as soon as she had the baby. Needless to say, Gertrude had her own deal of problems and was harboring a lot of resentment. Not much care.

Things Were Good, Until They Got Bad

By the time Lester met Gertrude, she dealt with her years of abuse with smoking and raising her children alone. At first, Sylvia and Jenny were settling in, hanging out, and gossiping with the girls. They even got to push the limits of being teenagers, experimenting with drinking, smoking, and discussing adult topics – all in front of Gertrude.

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But this didn’t mean they were living comfortably. Sylvia and Jenny shared a bedroom with three other children. They even had to sleep on the floor when it wasn’t their turn to sleep on the single mattress. Just months after moving in, Sylvia and Gertrude’s pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Paula, weren’t getting along.

A Delayed Payment

Sylvia and Jenny’s parents thought their daughters were in good hands. In reality, the house was bare and impoverished. There weren’t enough beds, and no adequate cooking items. That $20 a week Lester promised was crucial to keep his children alive.

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But one day, the money didn’t arrive. Lester Likens made the initial payment upfront, but the following payment arrived late, and Gertrude wasn’t happy – she took her anger out on the girls. Jenny later testified that Gertrude took them upstairs and began physically and verbally abusing them. The money arrived the next day, but the damage was already done.

Gertrude’s Discipline Methods

Under the stress and pressure of raising so many children alone, Gertrude was falling apart. She was underweight and frail and relied on abusive methods to discipline the kids and maintain authority in the household.

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Her weapons of choice were a fraternity-style paddle and a thick leather belt, and she used them regularly as a form of corporal punishment. Sylvia and Jenny would often get abusive punishments for the smallest things, like exchanging soft drink bottles for change at the grocery store.

Sylvia Was the Focus of Her Abusive Nature

Once the two girls got their first beating, there was no going back. Gertrude seemed to find the perfect outlet from her anger and frustration and continued abusing the girls over the smallest offenses – whether or not they were true. When Sylvia was suspected of stealing, Gertrude burned her fingers with a match while screaming at her.

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Suffering from asthma and chronic bronchitis, Gertrude often had her spells of weakness. When that would happen, she would make her daughter beat Sylvia. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of the sickening chain of events.

Mob Mentality is Real

Instead of coming to the rescue, the kids around the neighborhood decided to get in on Sylvia’s torture. The emotionless community sided with Paula and Gertrude because abusing the young girl was a wonderful release for their own frustrations. Sylvia would be kicked, shoved against the wall, used as a dummy for practicing judo and as an ashtray for cigarettes.

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Eventually, Sylvia’s abuse developed into rumors of promiscuity, and as punishment, she was publicly violated by Gertrude. More horrifying, the witnesses in the room watched and laughed, and Sylvia as being abused and humiliated.

Living in Hell

Sylvia’s life was going from bad to worse. Not only was she physically and verbally tortured, but she would also be starved, forced to look for food in dumpsters. Sylvia’s abusers would taunt her. Once, Paula and a neighbor named Randy Lepper made her eat a hot dog with so many spices and condiments that she threw up – they forced her to eat her vomit.

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What’s worse is that Sylvia was made to believe that she deserved this treatment and the beating was her fault. After her psychical abuse, she was forced to take a scalding hot bath so that she’d be “cleansed of her sins.” Sylvia was literally living in hell.

Her Parent Was Oblivious

You’re probably wondering where the heck Sylvia’s parents were when all this was going on. The Likens did check on their daughter several times. However, Sylvia and Jenny kept their harsh reality a secret, terrified of what would happen if they spoke up. Gertrude began alienating Sylvia from all the other children, including her sister Diana who lived close by.

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She was even taken out of school under the false pretense that she wasn’t interested in education anymore. Paula would taunt Sylvia, telling her to run away. Unfortunately, there was nowhere for Sylvia to go. Eventually, Gertrude decided to isolate Sylvia even more, banishing her to the cold basement.

Life in the Basement

Sylvia thought her life couldn’t get worse, but living in the basement showed her how wrong she was. She was pretty much forced to live like an animal. She was thrown down the cellar-stairs, force-fed crackers, and not allowed to use the bathroom.

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Over time, more people started attacking Sylvia; particularly, two neighborhood kids, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs. They would find joy in slamming Sylvia to the floor and tying her up for days at a time – all under Gretrude’s twisted instructions. Paula once broke Sylvia’s hand and bragged about it before beating the poor girl with her cast.

A Scarlet Letter

But Gertrude wasn’t done with her yet and started tearing apart Sylvia’s reputation, telling everyone that she was a prostitute. Gertrude even used a needle and began carving the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it!” into her stomach… but she didn’t get very far.

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Shortly after, the evil woman got tired and made 15-year-old Richard Hobbs finish the job. She even went as far as helping him spell the word “prostitute.” If that wasn’t enough, she also instructed him to carve the number “3” into Sylvia’s chest.

Gertrude’s Evil Plan

There is only a certain amount of abuse a person can take before their bodies give up. Gertrude was aware that Sylvia was dying and decided she needed to come up with a plan. She made the poor girl write a note explaining that she was beaten up by a gang of boys, and they planned to dump her in the nearby woods.

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The note was addressed to her parents explained every detail of her terrible condition. She even wrote that the gang of unknown boys did the carving on her stomach. Sylvia’s flame was flickering, and she talked to her little sister in a weak voice saying, “Jenny, I know you don’t want me to die. But I’m going to die. I can tell.” In her last days, Sylvia began losing control of her limbs and urination.

Sylvia’s Last Try

Even though Sylvia was basically on her deathbed, she made one last attempt to escape. However, Gertrude and one of the neighborhood boys stopped her. Once again, Sylvia was beaten and thrown in the basement. Her abusers realized the woods wasn’t the best idea, so they went with plan B.

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Gertrude’s son, John, tied Sylvia’s wrist to a raising with her feet barely touching the ground. She was force-fed dry crackers and then contents of baby Denny’s diaper. She was even fed her own feces. On October 25, Sylvia couldn’t hang on any longer. She was dipping in and out of consciousness.

Sylvia’s Ultimate Death

Fighting for her life, Sylvia tried calling for help when she emerged from consciousness, but no one ever came for her. On October 26, 1965, Sylvia took her last painful breath and died. Her cause of death was determined to be brain swelling.

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Sylvia suffered from internal brain hemorrhaging and shock from extreme skin damage. She was terribly malnourished and left laid out on her disgusting mattress while Richard called the police. Gertrude immediately tried to cover up the murder with Sylvia’s note, pretending to be devastated by her death. But the cops didn’t buy it.

The Cops Were Stunned

When the police arrived at the home and saw Sylvia’s body, they were shocked at what they were looking at. Her tiny, lifeless body was lying on a filthy mattress. It certainly wasn’t a situation that happened overnight. They were appalled. It was clear that Sylvia spent her last days being tortured.

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Her lips were chewed through, her nails were broken and bent backward, plus her body was covered with wounds at different stages of healing. The professional who performed the autopsy, Dr. Charles Ellis, was certain that Sylvia died from ongoing trauma and torture.

Gertrude Goes on Trial

How could such a disturbing situation have occurred? Law enforcement was ready to nail the twisted, heartless person (or people) who did this to Sylvia. When authorities spoke to Sylvia’s little sister Jenny, she repeated the story that Gertrude made them all rehearse. She then added, “You get me out of here, and I will tell you everything.”

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Once the truth came out, Gertrude Baniszewski and Sylvia’s other abusers were put on trial. Gertrude denied knowing anything about this abuse and blamed the torture on her kids, claiming they must be the culprits.

The Final Verdict

In May 1966, the year after Sylvia died, the jury found Gertrude Baniszewski guilty of first-degree murder, despite her insanity pleas. Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder. The heartless mother and daughter were sentenced to life behind bars at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. But that wasn’t all.

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Richard Hobbs, John Baniszewski, and Coy Hubbard were convicted of manslaughter. Each of them was sentenced to two to 21 years in the slammer at the Indiana State Reformatory in Pendleton. Either way, Gertrude had a few tricks up her sleeve.

A Second Trial

In order for a trial to be fair, it needs to take place in a neutral court, away from the scene of the crime and a jury with preconceived notions. That didn’t happen for Sylvia Likens’ murder trial. Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were granted a second trial in 1971 by the Indiana Supreme Court on the ground of “prejudicial atmosphere.”

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Once again, Gertrude was found guilty of first-degree murder. Paula, on the other hand, pleaded guilty to a lesser degree of manslaughter, and two short years later, she was released from prison. In 1968, all three boys were released on parole for good behavior after only serving two years. The justice system failed Sylvia Likens.

Life After Prison

Despite orchestrating a torturous and abusive attack on an innocent little girl that she was supposed to care for, in 1985, Gertrude got out on parole. In an attempt to start fresh, she moved to Iowa and changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan. In 1990, the evil witch finally died of lung cancer.

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After serving just two years, Paula was released and free to live the rest of her life, unlike her unfortunate victim. Some poor soul decided to marry her, and they live on a farm in Iowa.

The Boys Got a Second Chance at Life

John Baniszewski was a major player in Sylvia’s torture and death, but he was released early. He moved to Texas and actually became a minister and started counseling the kids of divorced parents. No one should trust him with their children.

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Richard got smacked with karma and died of cancer when he was just 21 years old. Coy Hubbard continued getting in trouble with the law after he was let out. Sylvia’s death put such a strain on her parents, and they got divorced, knowing their little angel suffered such a terrible death.

The Chilling Case of Keddie Cabin

Situated in the woods of Plumas County in Northern California, Keddie was historically famous for being a bustling resort town, with fresh steam of water, perfect for fishing, and incredible hiking trails covered by beautiful green pine trees. Its reputation would forever be tainted on April 11, 1981.

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On that day, the settlement was shaken by a brutal quadruple murder that haunted the community. With each victim in an unbearable state, what made this case even more terrifying was that there were no suspects that the police could identify. That was until years later when law enforcement stumbled on some new evidence that reignited their pursuit to crack the case. Let’s take a look at the chilling series of events that took place at Keddie since the new shocking discoveries came to light.

A Better Life

After dealing with so much abuse from her husband, Glenna Susan Sharpe decided to leave Connecticut to find a more peaceful life. She grabbed her five children in the dark of the night, took whatever belongings she could fit in her car, and rode off on the open road. Hoping to be closer to her brother, Glenna, who liked to go by the name Sue, took her kids to California.

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When they first got there, Sue and the children moved into a one-bedroom trailer that her brother and wife recently vacated. It was clearly an insufficient or comfortable environment for five kids, so Sue was ready for an upgrade.

Meet the Sharp Family

Caring for five children is not easy, especially if you’re a single mother doing it on your own. Sue’s eldest was John, who was 15 when his parents separated. Then there was 14-year-old Sheila, 12-year-old Tina, 10-year-old Ricky, and five-year-old Greg. James, Sue’s estranged husband, was in the Navy.

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Because of his military career, Sue and the kids were used to moving around a lot. Perhaps it made them more prepared to pick up and go to California. The family was struggling financially; Sue lived on food stamps, social welfare, and a $250 allowance from her husband. Still, she was determined to improve her life.

A Determined Woman

With her firm decision to create a better life for her and her children, Sue faced animosity from those around her. Her community had a stigma against people on welfare, but Sue had developed a reputation for dating a lot of guys. Therefore, rumors started circulating about her using drugs and sleeping with men for money.

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Sue also displayed the willpower to better herself and enrolled in a local community college where she studies business. She was described as a hard-working student by her peers, but her studies were cut short when she decided to escape her abusive home.

Moving Around

After settling in California with her children, Sue finally found solace away from her neglectful husband. However, living with five children in a tiny trailer proved to be a pretty cramped and hectic lifestyle.

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Sue heard about this small resort town in Keddie, which was facing financial problems, and decided to turn some cabins into low-income housing. After doing her research on the area, Sue and her children moved into cabin number 28 in the Keddie Resort. Now, a new challenge awaited the family as they prepared to move once again.

Settling Into Cabin 28

Although the Keddie cabins only cost $177 a month, the Sharp family enjoyed their three-bedroom cabin. Although it was run down, there was plenty of space for the kids. The eldest daughter Sheila got her own bedroom, and Johnny converted the basement into a bedroom for himself.

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As for the younger kids, Rick and Greg shared a room while Tina slept in the room with her mother. There were a bunch of kids in the community for them to play with, and for the first time in a while, the family was happy. Unfortunately, there was an expiration date on their happiness.

A Twist of Fate

There were several reasons why April 11, 1981, was a tragic day. The biggest reason was that Sue was trying to provide a happy life and bright future for her children. She had plans to build a small business, buy a house, and take great care of her children.

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Sadly, a wrench was put into her effort as fate had different plans. What started off as an ordinary Sunday turned into a day of violence that would haunt the quiet community of Keddie, as well as the rest of the country.

An Ordinary Day

April 11 was a typical day, so Jonny decided to visit the town of Quincy with his friend Dana Wingate in the hope of finding a party to go to. Sheila and Tina decided to go play with the kids of the Seabolt family, who lived in the cabin next door.

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Ricky and Greg spent the day in the house, and their good friend Justin Easton came to hang out; then, they all rode their bikes around the neighborhood. Like I said, a regular day. It was once the sun went down that darkness swept over the neighborhood.

An Eerie Night

Some strange occurrences took place at the Keddie Resort that night. Many people were hanging out at the local bar called The Black Door Bar. For the little time they spent in their cabins, they did notice some strangeness. A dog, who was clearly alarmed by something, was seen barking at cabin 28 while a group of cats paced the area.

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While Sue, Greg, Tina, Ricky, and Justin all went to sleep (Sheila was sleeping at her friend’s house, and Johnny was still out), some of the neighbors realized that at 4:00 AM, cabin 28’s porch light was still on. The ones who took it as a bad sign were unfortunately correct.

The Next Day

After a fun sleepover at her neighbor’s house, Sheila headed back home on Sunday morning. However, she was greeted with the most traumatic scene – more horrendous than her worst nightmares. She was supposed to go to Church with the Seabolt family; Sheila came home at around 8:00 AM to change her clothes. As the front door cracked open, Sheila was horrified to find her brother Johnny lying face up, covered in blood.

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Another boy was lying face down next to him, with his hands and feet tied up. Sheila then saw a yellow blanket covering what seemed to be a third body. But by that point, Sheila was too traumatized to ever look. With a heart-wrenching scream, Sheila ran to the Seabolts’ home, and they called the police to report the gruesome scene.

Finding the Boys

Once she regained her composure, James Seabolt Jr. accompanied Sheila back to cabin 28. They hoped to find surviving family members. First, they looked in the window and saw the two young boys and their friend Justin peacefully sleeping in their bedroom.

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After waking the boys up by tapping the window, James and Sheila convinced them to climb out through the window to bare them from seeing the appalling scene in the living room. Sheila and her brothers waited for the cops, and James went inside to look for other survivors. While no one had the guts to see who was under that yellow blanket, everyone realized little Tina was missing from the house.

Let the Investigation Begin

With a crowd of spectators forming outside, the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office sent detectives to investigate the scene. Deputy Hank Klement was the first officer to arrive, followed by Sergeant Jerry Shaver, who took statements from neighbors.

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Once Klement confirmed that all three victims in the living room were dead, he and Shaver walked around the cabin to “review the scene.” Regrettably, neither one of them knew how to preserve a crime scene which subsequently, contaminated the crime scene. This, of course, complicated an already challenging investigation.

Where do we Even Start?

The police knew that in order to solve that barbaric crime scene in cabin 28, they needed to understand the series of events that unfolded. The duo who were already assessing the situation was assisted by Sheriff Sylvester Doug Thomas and his assistant Sheriff Ken Shanks and Don Stoy.

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With all five men at the crime scene, they were able to conduct a deeper investigation. Sadly, the officers confirmed that it was Sue who was lying underneath the blanket. She was wearing a bathrobe, and her underwear was stuffed into her mouth.

Cause of Death

It turned out that she was badly beaten with a claw hammer and then stabbed multiple times. Johnny had also been beaten and stabbed; his cause of death was his slit throat. It was also discovered that one of the dead bodies had been repositioned.

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What was arguably the most suspicious thing during the time of the murder is that Ricky, Greg, and Justin were all fast asleep in the other room. It was clear that a more in-depth investigation was necessary to solve this gruesome case.

Interrogations and Descriptions

It was time to question the three young survivors about what they remembered from that fateful night. Ricky and Greg didn’t remember a thing; Justin said that at some point in the middle of the night, he opened the bedroom door and saw Sue talking to two men. That’s when Johnny and Dona came home, and a fight broke out. Tina walked into the room at one point, and one of the men took her out.

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Justin said one man had short hair and a mustache, and the other had long hair and was clean-shaven. Both men wore glasses. After drawing a sketch matching Justin’s description, they went from door to door and conducted several more interviews. It was only hours later that they remembered Tina was still missing.

An Unsuccessful Search

With 12-year-old Tina nowhere to be found, the FBI was called in to help with the investigation. After searching for Tina for two weeks with no luck, the feds handed the case back to the Plumas County Sheriff’s office.

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The county sheriffs had very little to go on, but they did find drops of blood in Tina’s bed, along with a bloody fingerprint on the door frame and railing and a footprint in the yard. With that information, police hoped that Tina escaped her attacker and was hiding in the wood somewhere.

Potential Suspects

Since this was before DNA testing existed, the police weren’t able to match their evidence to find the potential killers. However, they did have two lead suspects: her neighbor Martin Smartt and his houseguest John “Bo” Boudebe – who was known for his involvement in organized crime in the area.

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Both men were seen wearing suits and ties and acting strangely the night of the murders. Hours before the murders, Smartt mentioned that he lost a hammer – the same type of hammer that was found at the crime scene. But ultimately, there was no hard evidence to link either of the men to the crimes. They focused all their attention back on finding Tina.

The Case Goes Cold

After thoroughly searching for weeks, the Plumas County Sherriff’s Office wasn’t able to produce any new lead. Subsequently, the case went cold. It took three full years to pass before police finally discovered Tina’s body.

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A human skull was found in Butte County, just 30 miles from Keddie. Next to the remains, the detective noticed a blue nylon child’s jacket, a pair of jeans with no pocket, and an empty surgical tape dispenser. The crimes of that fateful night just became a quadruple homicide.

Police Negligence

It seemed like the investigation was doomed from the start because of negligence on the officers’ part. There was so much disregarded evidence at the crime scene that had never even been processed. This included the tape of the anonymous tip about Tina’s location. What’s more unbelievable is the cover-up of a letter written to former suspect Marty Smartt from his wife Marilyn, who left her husband the day of the murders.

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The letter, which she personally handed to the police department, read: “I’ve paid the price of your love & now that I’ve bought it with four people’s lives, you tell me we are through. Great! What else do you want?” The evidence was revisited much later.

Getting Back on the Case

Plumas Sheriff Greg Hagwood and Special Investigator Mike Gamberg decided to reopen the case of the Keddie cabin quadruple homicide in 2013. The pain analyzed the tape of the anonymous tip of Tina’s location, as well as the letter sent by Marilyn Smartt, who admitted she thought Martin’s houseguest Bo was the murderer.

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After taking a polygraph test, Marilyn appeared to be telling the truth. Gamberg found a hammer in a dried-up pond in Keddie in 2016 – which was believed to be one of the murder weapons. But that wasn’t even the most startling discovery that Gamberg made.

The Secret Confession

Gamberg met with an anonymous counselor at the Reno Veteran’s Administration later in 2016. The counselor told Gamberg that in 1981, Martin Smartt confessed to killing Sue and Tina Sharp. Although he confessed to murdering the girls, he claimed he had nothing to do with the murder of the two boys.

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What’s even more disturbing is that the Department of Justice was aware of the confession but dismissed it as “hearsay.” After realizing Smartt had a close connection to Sheriff Doug Thomas, it became abundantly clear that there may have been some corruption within the police force.

The Main Theories

Frustratingly, Smartt died in the year 2000, and Bo passed away four years prior, so there was no way to verify how legitimate that confession was. That meant the case would remain wide open. All that’s left were popular theories of the motive behind the murders.

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The most famous theory is that Martin, Marilyn, and Sue were involved in a love triangle. Sue supposedly tried to convince Marilyn to leave her abusive husband, so Martin got Bo’s help to silence Sue for good. This would explain why the two young boys were spared.

The Sheriff’s Thoughts

According to investigators who reopened the case, the murder is linked to a much bigger plot, namely, a drug-smuggling scheme – Martin was a known drug dealer. Given the fact that many mobsters had ties to the local police, it makes sense that the police were supposedly corrupt.

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While Martin and Bo aren’t around anymore, Sheriff Greg Hagwood revealed his own chilling theory: “It’s my belief that there were more than two people who were involved in the totality of the crime – the disposal of the evidence and the abduction of the little girl. We’re convinced that there are a handful of people that fit those roles who are still alive.