June 6, 2018

The Murder Spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate

In recent years Hollywood has glamorized and romanticized Charles Starkweather and his rampage that took 11 lives at the end of 1957 and beginning of 1958, with cinematic depictions in Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Kalifornia.  Rather than being some kind of hero, as the fictional film portrayals suggest, Starkweather was nothing but a cold and cruel murderer.

He was born into a working class family in Nebraska, the third of seven children.  He had been born with a slight birth defect that caused his legs to be misshapen and, as a schoolchild, suffered with a speech impediment.  Being teased and bullied by other children, both due to his legs and his speech impediment, caused him to harbor a tremendous amount of rage which he eventually began to unleash on those he didn't like.  Coming  from a working class family, along with his diminutive size, led to an intense envy and hatred for those who had what he wanted and felt was his due.

Charlie dropped out of school during his senior year in high school and gained employment at a warehouse near Whittier Junior High School, where his new girlfriend went to school.  Caril Ann Fugate was thirteen; a petite and pretty girl, her older sister had been the girlfriend of one of Charlie's friends.  Caril Ann inadvertently led to Starkweather's being banished from his family home after she crashed his vehicle into another.  Charlie's father, the legal owner of the car, had to pay the damages and an altercation between the two erupted, ending with father kicking son out of the house.   Charlie quit his warehouse job in favor of employment as a garbage collector; his new job would give him the opportunity to scout out homes for robberies.  It was also during this time that he decided he wanted to be a criminal and that dead people were all on the same level.  He began to yell "go to hell," and other obscenities at strangers and persons he encountered on his garbage route.

Starkweather considered himself a brother of sorts to James Dean, a rebel without a cause -- although his personal cause was to create fear in others and alleviate his always smoldering anger.  He took to wearing a black motorcycle jacket, black and white cowboy boots and covering his naturally red hair with black shoe polish.

Robert Colvert
Photo:  Murderpedia
On November 30 - December 1, 1957, his antisocial behavior turned murderous.  Robert Colvert was 21 years old, recently discharged from the U.S. Navy.  Bobby had married his high school sweetheart a year earlier and the two were expecting their first child.  He worked nights at the Crest Service Station in Lincoln, pumping gas.  He was later described as a loving and caring man who, like his father, enjoyed carpentry.  He was easygoing and quick to laugh.  Unfortunately he crossed paths with a brewing killer.

Starkweather had gone to the Crest Service Station looking to buy a stuffed animal for Caril on credit.  Bobby had refused him.  Enraged, Charlie left but returned around 3 a.m. with a shotgun.  He demanded money from the register - - nearly $90 in bills and $10 in loose change - - and then abducted Bobby Colvert.  Starkweather drove him to a spot on Superior Street where some type of squabble occurred.  Bobby, likely figuring that Starkweather would not leave him alive, had fought for his life and was injured in the process.  It was then that Starkweather put the shotgun to Bobby Colvert's head and pulled the trigger.

Later on that Sunday, December 1, while Bobby lay in the field where he died, Charlie Starkweather went to a thrift shop where he bought shoes,  a jacket, shirts, undershirts, and jockey shorts.  He paid for them with the $10 in loose change he had scored from his robbery.  Rather than being scared by his slide into murder, Starkweather felt empowered.  He believed he had a new existence, a new reason for being, and that he could kill with impunity.  Perhaps coincidentally, his first murder and decision that killing was his reason for being happened the same week he turned nineteen.  He also confessed to Caril that he was the perpetrator of the robbery.

Police initially suspected that Bobby Colvert had been killed by a transient and, as a result, their investigation into his murder was minimal.

On December 12, 1957, after a service at the United Methodist Church, Bobby was laid to rest at Beaver Crossing Cemetery.

From left: Velma and Marion Bartlett; Betty Jean Bartlett
Charles Starkweather's high from his first murder would last until January of 1958, when he lost his job.  On Tuesday, January 21, he went to Caril Ann's home, reportedly looking for her.  (She was at school.)   Caril's stepfather, Marion Bartlett, 57, and mother, Velda Bartlett, 36, were home with their 2 year old daughter, Betty Jean.  Neither parent cared for the moody and malevolent Charles Starkweather and ordered him to stay away from Caril.

Later on, Caril would claim she had broken up with Starkweather on Sunday, January 19.  She would also claim that her family was dead when she arrived home and Starkweather, after telling her they were being held for hostage, told Caril herself she would be killed if she were not cooperative.

Marion Bartlett was shot in the head.  Velda Bartlett was shot in the face and bludgeoned with the rifle.  There is a dispute as to exactly when Betty Jean was killed.  Some say she was initially spared but her crying got on the nerves of both Starkweather and Fugate; Starkweather threw a knife at her, which struck and killed her.  Others say that Starkweather bludgeoned, strangled and stabbed Betty Jean before Fugate returned to the home.  Regardless of the death order, all three bodies were placed in outbuildings around the home -- Marion in the chicken coop, Velda in the outhouse and Betty Jean with some trash.

August Meyer as a young man
Photo:  FindaGrave.com
The teenage couple would then live in the house for the next six days, living like "kings," according to Starkweather.  The proximity of three dead bodies seemed not to concern them.   Caril turned away visitors and concerned family members, including her grandmother, sister and brother-in-law, and even Charlie's own brother, by claiming the entire family was sick with the flu.  She left a note on the door stating as much, signing it as "Miss Bartlett" and underlining it twice.  She would later claim this was a signal for help, as the only true "Miss Bartlett" in the home was her 2 year old half-sister.

It was only when Caril's grandmother threatened to call the police that Starkweather and Fugate decided to leave.  In Charlie's car, the two drove fifteen miles out of Lincoln to the small town of Bennet where a Starkweather family friend by the name of August Meyer lived.  Starkweather's car got stuck in the mud and he and Fugate headed to the farmhouse on foot.

August Meyer was a lifelong bachelor, a quiet and gentle man who lived simply as a farmer.  He offered his horses to assist Starkweather in pulling his car out of the mud and it was while the teenagers were following the 70 year old man to the barn that Starkweather shot and killed August Meyer and then beat Meyer's dog to death.  The beating caused the shotgun to break.

Fugate would later say the brutality of August Meyer's death and the beating of his dog convinced her that her only option was to obey Charles Starkweather.

Carol King and Robert Jensen
Later that same night of January 27, 1958, a kind and unsuspecting couple picked up Starkweather and Fugate, who were walking.  That couple was Robert Jensen, 17, and Carol King, 16.  Starkweather was at first charming but once he got in the couple's car, with Fugate in tow, he turned vicious.  He ordered Jensen to drive to an abandoned storm cellar in Bennet and the couple were forced from the car and into the cellar.  Robert Jensen was shot in the back of the head six times by Starkweather, who then turned his attention to Carol King.  An attempt at rape was unsuccessful.  She was shot once in the head before being stabbed in the abdomen and pubic area.  Starkweather would later claim that while he killed Jensen, it was Fugate who, in a jealous rage over seeing Starkweather's attention to the pretty King, killed her.  Fugate claimed she stayed in the car while Starkweather did all the killing.

C. Lauer Ward
Photo:  Lincoln Journal Star
 Starkweather and Fugate left Bennet in Robert Jensen's vehicle and headed back to Lincoln.  The plan was to find a suitable house in which to hide out.  It was now January 28, 1958.  The home of C. Lauer Ward, a wealthy industrialist, in the Country Club area of Lincoln, was chosen by Caril.  Lauer Ward and his wife Clara were the parents of Michael, who was away at school.  Like Caril Ann Fugate, he was just 14 years old.

Clara Ward
Photo:  Murderpedia
Starkweather and Fugate tied up Clara Ward, 46, as well as her deaf maid, Lilyan Fencl, 51.  They took turns sleeping, so their prey would remain guarded.  At some point, Clara Ward and Lilyan Fencl were killed.  Clara was stabbed in the neck and chest; Lilyan was tied to a bed and stabbed.  When Lauer Ward, 47, returned home, he was shot to death.   They became the eighth, ninth, and tenth victims.

Before leaving Lincoln in the Wards' 1956 Packard and with stolen jewelry from the house, Starkweather snapped the neck of the family dog.

He would later claim that while he threw a knife at Lilyan Fencl, it was Caril who had inflicted multiple stab wounds on the woman, killing her.

The plan had been to head for Washington state, where Starkweather's brother lived.

Lilyan Fencl
Photo:  Murderpedia
The discovery of the Wards' bodies and that of Lilyan Fencl created outrage in the community.  Law enforcement agencies throughout the region banded together, performing house by house searches, looking for the perpetrators.  When that failed to find any suspects, block by block searches of the city went underway.  Several citizens reported sightings of Starkweather and Fugate.

Starkweather realized that the Wards' Packard was hot and, some ten hours after fleeing Lincoln, began looking for a replacement car.  Traveling salesman Merle Collison, 37  and from Great Falls, Montana, was discovered sleeping in his Buick outside of Douglas, Wyoming.  Starkweather tapped on the window, awakening him, and demanded he leave the vehicle, firing a shot into a side window, before unloading on the man.

Starkweather would later claim that his gun jammed and it was Caril that issued the kill shots to Merle Collison, some nine in total.  

Merle Collison
Photo:  Lincoln Journal Star
Starkweather stalled Collison's Buick and attempted to restart the engine.  Passing motorist Joe Sprinkle, seeing the two cars stopped, pulled over to help.  Starkweather, confused by the new parking brake that came equipped on Collison's Buick, asked Sprinkle for assistance.  Sprinkle noticed Collison's body stuffed under the dashboard and was confronted with Starkweather's gun.  Larger by Starkweather by a good half foot, Sprinkle decided to put up a fight and managed to wrestle the gun away from the teenage killer.

It was then that Natrona County Deputy Sheriff William Romer came up on the scene.  As Romer exited his vehicle, Caril jumped out of Collison's car and ran toward the lawman, screaming, "He's going to kill me!  He's crazy!  He just killed a man!"

Starkweather, now unarmed, jumped into the Wards' Packard and headed back toward Douglas.   Romer, upon being told by Fugate that the escaping man was Charles Starkweather, stayed behind and radioed for help.  A roadblock was immediately set up at the Douglas city limits; Starkweather blew through it, leading authorities on a 100-mph chase through the streets of Douglas.  Officers fired shots at Starkweather's vehicle, finally striking it just east of town.  With the back window shattered, Starkweather slammed on the brakes of the Packard, coming to a screeching halt.  He sat that way for a few stressful moments, while the officers issued threats and fired more shots, before giving up.

Flying glass from the shattered back window had nicked Starkweather's ear and right hand, leading him to believe he had been shot.  The cold, indifferent killer who had no value for the lives of others apparently valued his own enough to surrender when death confronted him.

He would later state he gave up because he was out of ammunition.

The next day, January 29, 1958, Charles Starkweather appeared before a Wyoming justice of the peace to be charged with Merle Collison's murder.  Governor Milward Simpson had already publicly stated that were Starkweather to be convicted and sentenced to death by a Wyoming jury, he would commute his sentence.  Simpson was stalwartly opposed to the death penalty.  Faced with what they considered a dilemma, the Wyoming D.A. let it be known that he would defer to Nebraska prosecutors.  Even Simpson, as anti-death penalty as he was, agreed to sign extradition papers for Starkweather to be returned to Nebraska, a state that had no such issue with the death penalty.

On January 31, 1958, Starkweather was returned to Nebraska to face trial, which began in May.  Against his wishes, his attorneys offered an insanity defense.  The jury, however, didn't buy it and on May 23, 1958 he was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Robert Jensen.

Caril Ann Fugate's journey through the legal system wouldn't be as straightforward.  Nervous, upset and said to be in a state of shock at the time of her surrender, she was sedated at the jail in Douglas.  The following morning, she cried for her mother and wondered why she wasn't allowed to call her parents.  Converse County Sheriff Earl Heflin, who had been one of the lawmen to fire shots at Starkweather and whose shot had shattered the back window of the Packard, initially believed that Caril had no idea her family was dead.  On Friday, January 31, the same day Charlie was sent back to Nebraska, she was told her family had been killed and she was reported to have broken down.

Starkweather told law enforcement at this stage that Caril was a hostage and had nothing to do with the crime spree.  Natrona County Sheriff William Romer -- the man Caril surrendered to -- disputed this.  He stated that Caril had admitted to him that she knew her family was dead and had watched them die.  The sheriff of Converse County, Earl Heflin, backed up these claims by saying that when she was finally taken into custody, Caril had clippings in her pocket of her family's murders.   Nebraska prosecutors responded by charging her with murder.

By the time Caril went to trial, Starkweather had changed his story, now claiming that she was an active participant in the killings and had personally murdered some of the victims herself.    When her trial started in November of 1958, she became the youngest female in U.S. history to be charged with first degree murder.

Starkweather was brought from prison to testify against his former girlfriend.  Despite Caril's claims that she was an innocent victim, neither the judge overseeing her trial nor the jury believed her.  Caril was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison on November 21, 1958.

At 12:04 a.m. on June 25, 1959, Charles Starkweather was executed in the Nebraska electric chair.  He went to his death believing that if he deserved to die, so too did Caril.

Starkweather was buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln.  Five of his victims -- Marion Bartlett, Velda Bartlett, Betty Jean Bartlett, Lauer Ward and Clara Ward -- also count Wyuka Cemetery as their final resting place.

Caril in prison
While incarcerated, Caril Ann Fugate was considered a model prisoner.  She was paroled in 1976, after serving nearly eighteen years and left Nebraska for Michigan.  She worked as a janitorial assistant and chose to live quietly.  With the exception of a 1996 radio appearance she made after the state refused to pardon her, she did not speak of the events of 1958.  Sheriff William Romer continued to believe in her active participation and guilt in the crime spree.  He recalled that once in custody, Caril had told him that she and Charlie made up a story to make her look good, to evade punishment.  They even "planted" rope burns on her wrists, by tying her up and rubbing the ropes good, so she would look as if she had been restrained.

She married in 2007 and was widowed in 2013 when she and her husband were involved in a single vehicle accident.  She survived but suffered serious injuries.

In 2012, a copy of an investigative file on the Starkweather case was unearthed.  Belonging to Robert G. Anderson, a Lancaster County deputy sheriff in Nebraska, the file indicated that Starkweather and Fugate had come to a service station near Roca, Nebraska on January 27, 1958 around 1 p.m.   While Starkweather had been conversing with the mechanics about repairing a tire, Fugate had sat in the attached diner, waiting for her order of four hamburgers.  According to the waitress, the teen watched her intently but never indicated she had been kidnapped or was in any distress.  The waitress recalled that during the fifteen or so minutes Caril Ann Fugate sat at the diner counter, there were at least three men that were also sitting at the counter.  She said nothing to any of them; she only watched the waitress intently.  That morning, August Meyer had been murdered and after Starkweather and Fugate left, Robert Jensen and Carol King would become victims.

The Starkweather-Fugate killing spree was the first of its kind in the new era brought about by television.  Reporters and journalists flooded Wyoming and Nebraska, broadcasting to its viewers the horrible details of the violence Starkweather left in his wake.  With the help of these news broadcasts, Nebraska and its surrounding regions lived in a state of fear for the week or so Starkweather was loose.

Unlike many other murderers, Charles Starkweather wasn't particularly interesting, nor was he an enigma.  He wasn't particularly smart; he felt inferior to many people as evidenced by his courting of a thirteen year old girl.  He killed out of anger brought on by that inferiority and envy.  He despised those he targeted for their comfort, their normality but he also wanted that for himself.   He wanted to be seen as a tough guy but the first time he lost control, he gave in.  In the end, he was nothing more than a bully who enjoyed inflicting pain on others.

Caril Ann Fugate's part in the crimes was much more complex.  She was barely fourteen when the deadly rampage started and had been involved for months with the manipulative Starkweather.  She could have left Lincoln with him as a desperate means to stay alive, after watching him slaughter her family, as she asserted.  But she also could have been a willing participant, so long as they evaded arrest.

She claims she broke up with Starkweather on January 19, 1958.  He killed Bobby Colvert on the night of November 30 - December 1, 1957.  She claims she only knew about Starkweather robbing the service station but Colvert's murder would certainly have been in the newspapers and it would have been spoken about around town.  Why didn't she immediately break it off with him?  Why didn't she go to authorities then?  Ten lives would have been saved if she had.

The biggest question for me with regard to Caril is why she didn't flee when she had the opportunity.  According to her, she waited in the car while Charlie took Robert Jensen and Carol King to the abandoned storm cellar in Bennet to execute them.  She was left alone.  If he left the keys in the car, why didn't she take off?  Even without the keys, why didn't she run on foot?  On their return to Lincoln, they slept in shifts throughout the day in the Ward house.  Why didn't she run then, while he was asleep?

Did she play any part in the murders, other than Bobby Colvert's?  She says she did not but there was and is no one else alive to confirm or deny her statements.  Charlie Starkweather at first said that Caril was innocent in the crimes and then changed his story.  Not uncommon for a killer.  He admitted to those murders he did commit so was he telling the truth about the part Caril played?

The guilt or innocence of Caril Ann Fugate divided Nebraska, and the country, in 1958 and continues to be divisive today.  Even while incarcerated, she had a loyal and strong group of supporters who believed she had been a living victim of Charles Starkweather, that she had been young and impressionable and rallied for her parole.  There were also those, including the judge and jury in her trial, who did not believe she was a hostage and was fully complicit in the killings.

What do you think?  Was Caril Ann Fugate a victim of Charles Starkweather or a victimizer? Was her sentence just?


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