The students who worked with Paula Pace knew a quiet, friendly educator who helped them with test questions and homework assignments.
They didn’t know Paula Baniszewski, the woman who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the torture and death of a 16-year-old girl 47 years ago in Indianapolis.
For at least 14 years, Baniszewski has lived her life as Paula Pace, a BCLUW school district teacher’s aide who resided in Marshalltown. The BCLUW school board unanimously voted Tuesday night to fire Pace, 64, for falsifying information on her job application.
“She was a sweet lady (who) helped out any student she could that came into her classroom,” said Thaddeus Lawler, 27, who was tutored by Pace while he was a student at BCLUW High School. “She’d changed a lot from her past. She was a totally different person.”
But that “different person” as a teenager participated with her mother, family and neighborhood children in systematically torturing Sylvia Likens, 16, over a period of weeks in 1965, eventually killing her.
The case came to light in Iowa on Oct. 17, when the Grundy County sheriff’s office received an anonymous tip that Pace was Paula Baniszewski. That tip was forwarded on to the BCLUW school district, which suspended Pace. She had worked in the BCLUW district since 1998, most recently as a teacher’s aide at the high school in Conrad.
The torturous killing of Sylvia Likens has been called the most enduring nightmare in Indianapolis’ true crime history.
Likens, 16, and her 15-year-old sister, Jenny, were sent by their parents to live with Gertrude Baniszewski and her seven children in the summer of 1965. Paula, then 17, was the oldest child at the house.
The Likens girls were subjected to abuse at the hands of not only Gertrude, but also her children and other children in the neighborhood. The neighborhood children took turns practicing their judo skills on Sylvia, hurling her against the wall, kicking and beating her, and extinguishing cigarettes on her skin.
Toward the end of her life, Sylvia was locked in the cellar, fed crackers and forbidden from using a restroom. A movie based on Likens’ death, “An American Crime,” was released in 2007.
A quiet life in Marshalltown
Neighbors and others who knew Pace expressed shock when they heard of her past, but also said she shouldn’t be working with children.
Balinda Wallen, who has seven children in the BCLUW school district, was the only parent at Tuesday’s board meeting. She said she has known Pace for more than 30 years and considered her a friend. Wallen’s nephews went to school with Pace’s two sons, and the two moms crossed paths often at school sports games and birthday parties, Wallen said.
Pace separated from her husband a few years ago, and her sons are in their 30s now, Wallen said.
Pace was well-liked by students and in her free time volunteered with the Special Olympics, Wallen said. There was no reason to believe Pace was hiding such a big secret, she said.
Wallen, from nearby Liscomb, said she wishes Pace a quiet retirement, but said Pace shouldn’t be working with children. Wallen wants the district to conduct more thorough background checks, including fingerprint identification, of all potential hires. If not, “You might as well put up a sign that says ‘We hire convicted felons. Come work here,’ ” she said.
Pace’s troubled past has been buzzing around town for a few months, and rumors had been swirling, Wallen said.
Casey Stolzman, 28, was unaware that Pace lived down the street from him but remembered her from his time at BCLUW High School.
“I never saw anything that would raise a red flag,” Stolzman said.
“I even told my wife that, obviously, since I knew her growing up that I wouldn’t hesitate to send my kids to school with her being there.”
A Register reporter knocked on the door of Pace’s home Tuesday afternoon, but no one answered. A phone number listed for her has been disconnected, and she was not at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.
Pace’s light blue ranch-style home is in a working-class Marshalltown neighborhood. She lives a quiet life and mostly keeps to herself, one neighbor said.
Kelly Krukow has lived two houses down from Pace for 16 years. She talked to her on rare occasions, like last year when a winter storm toppled a tree in the Krukows’ yard and Pace came by to check on the family.
Krukow had no idea Pace had been convicted or played a role in the brutal murder nearly 50 years ago.
“It’s shocking that she lives just two houses down.”
Krukow expressed some remorse that Pace’s past is being brought to light. The crime happened when Pace was a teen and it seems like Pace’s mother was the primary perpetrator, Krukow said.
“But to be able to work around kids?” Krukow said about Pace’s employment at the school. “I don’t think so.”
State regulations and certifications
Paraeducators and teacher aides in Iowa do not require the same state licensure as classroom teachers, and individual districts are responsible for conducting background checks on those employees, said Duane Magee, executive director of the Board of Educational Examiners.
The BCLUW school district policy requires applicants to disclose if they have been charged with a felony or any offense involving “moral turpitude,” said Mike Smith, an attorney for the district. That policy would have been in place when Pace was hired in 1998.
A background check of prospective school district employees is conducted by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Smith said.
BCLUW Superintendent Ben Petty declined to comment on the situation Tuesday, and would not say what information Pace had falsified on her application.
There is no criminal investigation of Pace, and she has never had any run-ins with law enforcement in Grundy County, Sheriff Rick Penning said.
Pace is a registered Republican and has voted under her current name in 15 elections since 1986, including filling out a ballot for the upcoming Nov. 6 election, according to information provided by the Iowa secretary of state’s office.
Felons must have their right to vote in Iowa restored by a governor, but it’s possible Pace never made her conviction known to voting officials.
Sarah Reisetter, director of elections, said the office receives updates on convicted felons from clerks of court across Iowa but not from out of state. No one had raised questions about Pace’s eligibility to vote.
‘This is a case that won’t die’
Those who’ve followed the case closely say they were surprised to hear it still is making headlines nearly 50 years later.
John Dean, now known as Natty Bumppo, covered the killing for the Indianapolis Star and later wrote a book, “The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens’ Ordeal and Death.”
“This is a case that won’t die,” Bumppo said.
Most people with direct connections to the case have passed away. Pace’s mother died in 1990, and Likens’ younger sister died in 2004.
Forrest Bowman Jr. — who represented John Baniszewski, Paula’s brother, who was convicted of manslaughter; and Coy Hubbard, a neighbor to the Baniszewskis, who also was convicted of manslaughter — said he never got to know Paula Baniszewski. Her attorney, George Rice, has died.
In fact, Bowman said, ticking off the names of defendants, lawyers and the judge, nearly all of those directly involved in the case have died.
“I think she (Paula) and I are the only survivors of that case,” he said.
Reporter Diana Penner with the Indianapolis Star contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on press-citizen