Charles Starkweather and his partner, Caril Fugate were the inspiration for such movies as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Terrence Malick’s Badlands
“The more I looked at people, the more I hated them because I knowed there wasn’t any place for me with the kind of people I knowed…A bunch of God-damned sons of bitches looking for somebody to make fun of…" Charles Starkweather
THE EARLY YEARS
The saga of Charles Starkweather begins in 1938 in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was the third child of seven children that his parents, Guy and Helen Starkweather would bring into the world.
His father was a carpenter
by trade and his mother worked as a part-time waitress
in order to help make ends meet. His family, while not overtly poor
, were considered more of the level of the lower middle class
. By all accounts, his home life didn’t suffer as a result of their social status
and was rather regarded as a well adjusted, happy, normal family. All was going pretty well until Charles started going to school.
Small in stature, suffering from a minor speech impediment and bow-legged, Charles soon became a favorite object of ridicule among his classmates. He also suffered from a severe case of myopia and it wasn’t long before he was labeled as a slow learner.
He compensated for his so called lack of ability in the classroom by excelling in gymnastics. He was well coordinated and very strong for his size. While these attributes provided him with some sense of self-esteem they also provided him with an opportunity to physically confront his taunters and Charles got a reputation as one of the tougher kids in and around the school.
It was also during this time that Charles began to become aware of his family’s social status. He began to feel confined to a lifetime of poverty from which there was no escape. He pictured his life as meaningless in which he would eventually find himself a menial job, marry some local girl, have a boatload of kids and then simply fade into oblivion. Basically, it was to repeat the same lifestyle that had befallen his father. In essence, he felt doomed.
The year is now 1956 and Charles is now barely seventeen. One of his few close friends began dating a girl by the name of Barbara Fugate and eventually introduced Charles to Caril Fugate. She was all of thirteen at the time.
Caril Fugate was considered pretty for her age. While not overly intelligent (she had failed a grade in elementary school), she was quick witted and rebellious. She also possessed a quick temper. Charles was smitten.
He soon quit high school and took a job loading and unloading trucks at a local warehouse. The warehouse was in close proximity to Caril’s school and the couple began to see each other on a daily basis. He soon taught Caril how to drive (even though she was underage) and responded by taking his “hotrod” and getting into a minor accident. Unfortunately, Charles’ father was part owner of the vehicle and he wound up having to pay for the damages incurred by Caril. This caused a huge rift between Charles and his father that eventually blossomed into fisticuffs. He was booted out of the house and forced to go it on his own.
Left to his own devices, Charles soon made Caril the center of his life. He soon began spreading the word about town that he and Caril were going to be married. He also stared telling his friends that Caril was pregnant with his child. In order to spend more time with Caril, he soon quit his job at the warehouse and took work as a garbage man. The pay was even worse and he soon realized that he wasn’t making enough money to support himself, not to mention Caril. Visions of a lifetime of poverty soon returned and Charles began looking for a way out.
THE MURDER SPREE BEGINS
The time is now late November of 1957. Charles is tooling around Lincoln and comes upon a stuffed toy dog in a gas station that he wanted to buy for Caril. Realizing that he was short on money he asked the attendant, one Robert Colvert, age 21, for credit. Colvert refuses and allegedly ridicules Starkweather about his predicament. Starkweather leaves the station embarrassed and ashamed.
The next evening Charles returned with revenge on his mind. He returned to the station at about 3:00 AM. With him he brought a 12- gauge shotgun that he had stolen. Robert Colvert was again on duty and sold him a pack of cigarettes. Starkweather left and returned a few minutes later. This time he bought a pack of gum and once again got in his car and left. The third time he returned he was ready for business. He had tried to disguise himself by covering his face with a bandana and his hair with a hunting cap. He marched back into the station only this time he carried with him the shotgun and a bag to carry the money.
Colvert was working on a car at the back of the station and wasn’t even aware that Starkweather had returned until he felt the cold steel of the shotgun pressed against his back. Starkweather demanded that he open the safe but Colvert replied that he didn’t have the combination. Frustrated, Starkweather made him empty the register and was about to make off with the hundred bucks or so when he got another idea.
He told Colvert that they were going for a ride and proceeded to drive the both of them to a house that was known to the locals as Bloody Mary’s. The name denoted the residents penchant for shooting a shotgun full of rock salt at anybody who dared to trespass on her property. Starkweather forced Colvert out of the car and later claimed that the two of them got into a scuffle and Colvert was shot accidentally. The only downside to this was that Colvert was shot twice, once in the back of the head.
The town of Lincoln, Nebraska was not generally known for violent crime and the local newspapers had a field day with the story. Starkweather began to get nervous and started taking precautions to cover up his act. He went so far as to paint his car a different color and tried to set up an alibi. After a while, the newspapers and law enforcement officials blamed the crime on transients and Starkweather thought he was in the clear.
It was also during this time that he admitted to Caril that he had indeed robbed the gas station but that someone else was responsible for shooting the attendant. Caril being no fool, did not believe him but did nothing to turn him in.
Caril’s family by now was dead set against her relationship with Charles and had done everything in their power to break the couple up. Charles’ family was also not pleased with Caril and did the same. Both families thought that Caril was now pregnant with Charles' baby.
Starkweather was becoming desperate. On January 21, 1958 he drove over to Caril's house on the pretense that he wanted to patch up any bad blood that existed between him and her family. With him he carried a .22 caliber rifle and some extra ammo. He greeted at the back door by Caril’s mother.
Who knows what really happened next. Anybody that was in the house was soon dead. Starkweather’s own account goes something like this…
The reason he had the rifle was that he wanted to go hunting with Caril’s stepdad and talk over and possibly repair their relationship. Upon his arrival, both Caril’s mom, stepfather and her two and a half year old sister were home. It wasn’t long before an argument broke out in which Caril’s parents reiterated their feelings about his relationship with her. He felt frustrated and left, leaving the rifle behind. He later claimed that he drove around for awhile and decided to return in order to recover the gun.
Upon his return, Caril’s stepfather allegedly threw him out of the door. Its at this point that Starkweather went to a pay phone, called the stepfather’s office and stated that he was sick and wouldn’t be at work for a couple of days. He then returned to Caril’s house and waited for her to come home.
Upon her return, he told her of the events that had transpired and she became livid. She and Starkweather entered the home and the argument ensued. He claims that Caril’s mother began beating him about the head and its at this point that he went to get the gun. The stepfather had apparently seen enough and began to approach Starkweather with a hammer in his hand. At this point he shot him in the head. Next he claims that Caril’s mother approached him with a large hunting knife and he was forced to shoot her in the face. For good measure, he then rammed the butt of the rifle into her head a couple of times. By this time, the baby was screaming and in order to quiet her down, he decided to bash her with the rifle butt too.
Starkweather was now faced with a dilemma. What was he going to do with the bodies? Well, Caril’s mom was later discovered to have been dragged to an old outhouse and shoved down the toilet. Her baby sister also suffered the same fate only she was placed in a box first. Her stepfather was later found on the floor of a nearby chicken coop.
What did the loving couple do? Well, for starters they had themselves a couple of Pepsis and a bag of chips. They wound up staying in the house for about a week, all the while discouraging any visitors by claiming that the family was sick. They even went so far as to post a sign on the door of the house that said “Stay a way Everybody is sick with the Flue.” Even the police paid them a visit and were persuaded by Caril that all was well.
THE MURDERS CONTINUE
I guess that Starkweather and Caril began to get nervous and decided it would be best to skip town. They showed up at an old family friend of the Starkweather’s by the name of August Meyers, age 72. He was later found dead, wrapped in a blanket and shot in the head. His place had been ransacked, his guns and his money stolen.
While trying to make their escape from Meyers' farm, their vehicle got stuck in the mud and they were forced to hitchhike. They were picked up by seventeen year old Robert Jensen and his sixteen year old girlfriend Carol King. They forced the couple to return to the farm where Jensen’s body was eventually discovered with six bullet holes in his head. King had been shot once in the head and she was left half naked. She had also been repeatedly stabbed throughout the abdomen and pubic area. No evidence of rape was discovered. They did however make use of the dead couple’s car.
Starkweather and Caril then inexplicably drove back to Lincoln to check to see if the bodies they left had been discovered. When they drove past the Fugate household and saw it surrounded by the police, they had their answer. They then drove to the richest part of town, parked the car and fell asleep.
The next day, the couple drove up to the home of one C. Lauer Ward, a friend of the governor. His wife Clara, their maid Lillian Fencl and a couple of pets were the only ones home. While Caril waited in the car, Starkweather approached the house with gun in hand. The maid answered the door and he forced his way inside. He ordered her to lock up one of the pets in the basement and called for Caril to join him. He then asked Clara to make them some coffee. She obliged and eventually asked the couple’s permission to go upstairs in order to change her shoes. After a couple of moments, Starkweather went upstairs to check on her. She was later found with dead with multiple stab wounds throughout her neck and chest. He broke the other pet's neck with the butt of his gun.
They decided it was time to escape and loaded up the Ward’s car with food. Unfortunately, Mr. Ward had decided to return home. He was later found shot to death. The maid was then tied to a bed where she was found stabbed to death. Their bodies were discovered the next day and at the Governor’s request, a massive manhunt was underway. The FBI was called in and rewards were offered.
So where did the couple go? Back to the Fugate house but they discovered that it was still surrounded by police. It was then that they decided to head west to Washington.
On the 29th of January, they crossed over into Wyoming. Figuring that by now the authorities had a description of the car they were driving they decided to steal another vehicle. They came across one Merle Collison, a traveling shoe salesman who was asleep on the side of the road. Charles approached the car and shot him in the head, neck, arm and leg.
As he and Caril piled into the car looking to make their getaway he encountered some problems. First of all, Collison was still dead in the front seat. Second of all, Charles couldn’t figure out how to release the emergency brake to get them on their way.
It was at this point that they were approached by someone who thought that Starkweather was merely experiencing some minor car trouble and was offering his assistance. Starkweather and the man began to struggle.
I guess this is where Caril figured she’d had enough. She jumped out of the car and ran towards screaming towards a man, asking to be taken to the police. The man, one William Romer, happened to be a deputy sheriff.
Starkweather ran back to his vehicle and tried to make a getaway. Romer radioed for help and a chase in excess of 100 miles per hour ensued. Eventually, the rear window of Starkweather’s car was shot out and he came to a stop. As the officers approached the car they ordered Starkweather to get out. He complied and they told him to get down on the ground. When he refused, they fired shots at his feet. When he started to reach around his back they shot at him again. Starkweather decided to lie down and give up.
Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate were extradited back to Nebraska at the end of January 1958. By the time all was said and done, ten people had been killed.
The trial of Charles Starkweather began in May of 1958. He was all of nineteen years old. For their part, his defense lawyers tried to enter a plea of insanity but Starkweather insisted that this wasn’t the case. He claimed that the murders were done in self defense.
For her part, Caril Fugate maintained that she was innocent because she was actually being held hostage throughout the ordeal and that Charles had threatened to kill the rest of her family if she didn’t accompany him. In the beginning Charles even tried to help her cause. He was quoted as saying "Don’t be rough on the girl. She didn't have a thing to do with it." Later, as the trial progressed, he changed his tune.
It didn’t take the jury long to find Starkweather guilty of first degree murder. Twenty-four hours to be exact. He was sentenced to death and was electrocuted on June 25th 1959.
Caril Fugate was also found guilty but because she was only fourteen years old at the time of the crimes she was spared the death penalty
. Instead, she was sentenced to life imprisonment
. She was eventually paroled in June of 1976