Born To Kill

Published July 26, 2021
Born To Kill

The Wild Ride of Starkweather and Fugate

On this date, January 21, 1958, Charles Starkweather, age 19, claimed his first three victims – relatives of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, at her family’s home in Lincoln, Nebraska. The slayings started a murderous roadtrip through the American badlands of Nebraska and Wyoming that ended with seven more people dead. It was an American horror story that ended in the electric chair for Charlie Starkweather and with a ruined life for his young girlfriend.

Charlie Starkweather – the James Dean wanna-be. 

Charles Raymond Starkweather was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the third of seven people to Guy and Helen Starkweather. They were an ordinary family from a working-class background, with well-behaved children and nothing to suggest that one of the children would become one of America’s most feared murderers. Guy Starkweather was by all accounts a mild-mannered man; he was a carpenter who was often unemployed due to rheumatoid arthritis in his hands. During Guy's periods of unemployment, Starkweather's mother supplemented the family income by working as a waitress.

Charlie attended Saratoga Elementary School, Everett Junior High School), and Lincoln High School. In contrast to his family life, Starkweather possessed no kind remembrances of his time of going to school and his early childhood. He was born with genu varum, a mild birth defect that caused his legs to be misshapen. He also suffered from a speech impediment, which led to constant teasing by classmates. He was considered a slow learner and was accused of never applying himself, although in his teens, it was discovered that he suffered from severe myopia that had drastically affected his vision for most of his life. The only thing in school that Charlie really excelled in was gym class. It was there that he found a physical outlet for his growing rage against those who bullied him. Starkweather used his newfound physicality to begin bullying those who had once bullied him. That inner rage soon grew to reach anyone he happened to dislike. Charlie went from being considered one of the most well-behaved students in school to one of the most trouble – and most feared.

A high school friend named Bob von Busch later recalled:

“He could be the kindest person you've ever seen. He'd do anything for you if he liked you. He was a hell of a lot of fun to be around, too. Everything was just one big joke to him. But he had this other side. He could be mean as hell, cruel. If he saw some poor guy on the street who was bigger than he was, better looking, or better dressed, he'd try to take the poor bastard down to his size.”

After viewing the film Rebel Without a Cause, Charlie developed a James Dean fixation and began to groom his hairstyle and dress himself to look like Dean. Starkweather related to Dean's rebellious screen persona, believing that he had found a kindred spirit of sorts, someone who had suffered torment similar to his own whom he could admire.

In 1956, Charlie, then 18, met a 13-year-old girl named Caril Ann Fugate. He soon developed a fixation on the girl, who returned the older boy’s attentions. In order to be close to Caril, he dropped out of Lincoln High School in his senior year and started working at the Western Union newspaper warehouse. It was the perfect job for him since it was located near Whittier Junior High, where Caril was a student. Being close by, he was able to visit her every day after school. Starkweather was considered a poor worker, and his employer later recalled that he was terrible at his job, having to be told things two or three times so that he’d get it right. But it wasn’t stupidity that made Charlie bad at his job – it was his obsession with Caril.

Charlie taught Caril how to drive and one day she crashed his 1949 Ford into another car. Mr. Starkweather paid the damages, since he was the legal owner of the car, but this caused a fight between Charlie and his father (just like the fight between James Dean’s movie father in Charlie’s favorite movie) and he kicked Charlie out of the house.

Charlie quit his job at the warehouse and began working as a garbage collector. Unhappy, angry and belligerent, he used the garbage route to begin plotting bank robberies and finally conceived his own personal philosophy by which he lived the remainder of his life: "Dead people are all on the same level".

On November 30, 1957, Charlie committed his first murder. He became angry at a local gas station attendant named Robert Colvert for refusing to sell him a stuffed animal on credit. Starkweather returned several times during the night to purchase small items, then finally – brandishing a shotgun – forced Colvert to hand over $100. He forced the man into his car and drove him out to a remote location. When Colvert realized that Charlie planned to kill him, he fought back, but was injured by the younger, stronger man. Starkweather shot him in the head and left him to die in an empty field. He later claimed that by killing Colvert he believed he had transcended his former self, reaching a new plane of existence in which he was above and outside the law.

On January 21, 1958, Charlie went to Caril’s home. She wasn’t there but her mother and step-father, Velda and Marion Bartlett, were. Out of the young girl’s earshot, they took the opportunity to Charlie that he needed to stay away from the young girl. Charlie responded by shooting both of them to death. He then killed their two-year-old daughter Betty Jean by strangling and stabbing her.

The area behind the Bartletts’ home, where Charlie and Caril hid the bodies of the family

When Caril came home, they hid the bodies behind the house. For the next six days, they lived there together until shortly before the police arrived on January 27. They had been alerted by Caril’s suspicious grandmother, who had been unable to reach Velda and Marion for days.

Charlie and Caril went on the run. They drove first to the Bennet, Nebraska farm house of 76-year-old August Meyer, a family friend. Looking for money, food and a place to hide out, they broke into the house and Charlie killed Meyer with a shotgun blast to the head. After ransacking the house, they ran again.

Investigators guard and examine the car Charlie was driving on January 27, 1958, the day he and Caril killed three people and got stuck in the mud near Bennet, Nebraska.

Fleeing the area, Starkweather and Fugate drove their car into mud, and abandoned the vehicle. When Robert Jensen and Carol King, two local teenagers, stopped to give them a ride, Starkweather forced them to drive back to an abandoned storm shelter in Bennet, where he shot Jensen in the back of the head, then attempted to rape King, but not being able to perform, became angry with her, so shot her to death. According to reports, Caril mutilated Carol King’s genitalia in an apparent jealous rage. Starkweather later admitted shooting Jensen, claiming that Fugate shot King. The two fled Bennet in Jensen's car.

The Ward house in Lincoln

Starkweather and Fugate drove to a wealthy section of Lincoln, where they entered the home of industrialist C. Lauer Ward and his wife, Clara. Both Clara and maid Lillian Fencl were fatally stabbed, and Starkweather snapped the neck of the family dog. Starkweather later admitted throwing a knife at Clara; however, he accused Caril of inflicting the multiple stab wounds that were found on her body. He also accused Caril of fatally stabbing Fencl, whose body also had multiple stab wounds. When Lauer Ward returned home that evening, Starkweather shot him. Charlie and Caril filled Ward's black 1956 Packard with stolen jewelry from the house and fled Nebraska.

It was the murder of the wealthy industrialist that caused an uproar in Lincoln. Every law enforcement agency in the region began a house-by-house search for the killers. Governor Victor E. Anderson contacted the Nebraska National Guard, and the Lincoln chief of police called for a block-by-block search of the city. Frequent sightings of the two were often reported but the teenage killers stayed one step ahead of the law.

In need of a new car –thanks to the high profile of Ward’s stolen Packard – Charlie and Caril found traveling salesman Merle Collison sleeping in his Buick along the highway outside Douglas, Wyoming. After they woke Collison, they shot him. Starkweather later accused Caril of finishing the salesman off after his shotgun jammed. He claimed that she was the "most trigger happy person" he had ever met.

Merle Collison’s body – a man that Charlie claimed was murdered by Caril after his own shotgun jammed.

The salesman's car had a push-pedal emergency brake, which was something new to Starkweather. While attempting to drive away, the car stalled. He tried to restart the engine, and a passing motorist stopped to help. Starkweather threatened him with the rifle, and an altercation ensued. At that moment, a deputy sheriff arrived on the scene. Caril ran to him, yelling something to the effect of: "It's Starkweather! He's going to kill me!" Had she suddenly grown a conscience? Or did she believe that Charlie was inevitably going to be caught and saw this as a way to escape the legal ramifications of their string of crimes?

Caril waits for medical treatment for her shock at the Converse County Sheriff's Office after her "surrender" to the police.

Charlie sped away, pursued by the police. In a chase that exceeded speeds of 100 miles per hour, a stray bullet managed to shatter his windshield, slicing him with flying glass. Covered in blood, he finally stopped the car and surrendered to the police. Converse County Sheriff Earl Heflin said, "He thought he was bleeding to death. That's why he stopped. That's the kind of yellow son of a bitch he is."

Under questioning, Charlie first claimed Caril had been kidnapped by him and had nothing to do with the murders. However, he changed his story several times, finally testifying at Caril's trial that she was a willing participant. Caril Fugate has always maintained he was holding her hostage by threatening to kill her family, claiming she was unaware they were already dead. Judge Harry A. Spencer didn’t believe her story. She had many chances to escape, he said and she was given a life sentence on November 21, 1958. Her sentence was eventually commuted, allowing her to be paroled in June 1976.

Charlie Starkweather, on the other hand, received the death penalty for the murder of Robert Jensen (the only murder for which he was tried), and was executed by electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska, at 12:01 a.m. on June 25, 1959. Starkweather is buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln along with five of his victims: the Bartlett family and the Wards.

Caril was paroled in June 1976 after serving 17 ½ years at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska. She moved to Lansing, Michigan after her release, where she changed her name and worked as a janitor at a Lansing hospital. Fugate married in 2007 but (aside from a brief appearance on a radio talk show in 1996) has refused to speak about what happened during the murderous crime spree.


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