Friday, June 25, 2010

Execution Day: Charles Starkweather 1938-1959 Spree Killer

Charles Raymond Starkweather (November 24, 1938 – June 25, 1959) was an American spree killer who murdered eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming during a two-month road trip with his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The couple was captured on January 29, 1958, with Starkweather being sentenced to death, and Fugate serving a 17-year prison sentence.

Early life

Starkweather was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the third of seven children to Guy and Helen Starkweather.[1] Starkweather claimed not to have any horrible memories of his home life; although his family was of working class background, he remembered always having shelter and other resources.[2] The community considered the Starkweathers to be a respectful family with well-behaved children. 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 these periods, Starkweather's mother supplemented the family income by working as a waitress.

Starkweather had attended Saratoga Elementary School, Irving Middle School, and Lincoln High School in Lincoln.[3] In contrast to his pleasant memories of his family life, Starkweather possessed no kind remembrances of his time during schooling.[3] Starkweather was born with Genu varum, a mild birth defect that caused his legs to be misshapen. He also suffered from a mild speech impediment, which caused constant teasing by classmates.[3] 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 which had drastically affected his vision for most of his life.

The sole aspect of school in which Starkweather excelled was gymnastics,[1] wherein he found a physical outlet for his growing anger against bullies. Starkweather used his newfound physicality to begin bullying those who had bullied him,[2] and soon his anger stretched beyond those who had been cruel to him to anyone whom he happened to dislike. Starkweather soon went from being considered one of the most well-behaved teenagers in the community to one of the most troubled. His high school friend Bob von Busch would later recall:
“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.”
Along with von Busch, Starkweather developed a James Dean fixation, and began to groom and dress himself to look like James Dean. Starkweather empathized with 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. Starkweather developed a severe inferiority complex and became self-loathing and devoid of morals, believing that he was unable to do anything correctly, and that his own inherent failures would cause him to live in misery.

Relationship with Caril Ann Fugate

In 1956, eighteen-year-old Charles Starkweather was introduced to thirteen-year-old Caril Ann Fugate. Starkweather dropped out of Lincoln High School in his senior year,[1][2] and became employed at a Western Union newspaper warehouse.[1] He sought employment there because the warehouse was located near Whittier Junior High School, where Caril was a student. His employment allowed him to visit her every day after school. Starkweather was considered a poor worker, his employer later recalled, "Sometimes you'd have to tell him something two or three times. Of all the employees in the warehouse, he was the dumbest man we had."

Starkweather taught Fugate how to drive, and one day she crashed his 1949 Ford into another car. Starkweather's father was forced to pay the damages as he was the legal owner of the vehicle. This caused a physical altercation between Starkweather and his father. Refusing to condone his son's behavior, he banished his son from the household.

Starkweather quit his job at the warehouse and was employed as a garbage collector for minimum wage.[1] One of the homes on his route was the residence of future talk show host Dick Cavett, and Starkweather had once met Cavett's father. Starkweather began progressing towards his amoral views on society and life, believing that his current situation was the final determinant in how he would live the rest of his life. He used the garbage route to begin plotting bank robberies, and finally conceived his own personal philosophy by which to live the remainder of his life: "Dead people are all on the same level."

First murder

On November 30, 1957, Starkweather went to a Lincoln service station where he tried to purchase a stuffed toy dog for Fugate on credit. Robert Colvert, the station attendant, refused and Starkweather left enraged. At 3:00 a.m. on December 1, 1957, Starkweather returned to the station with a 12-gauge shotgun. Initially he left the weapon in the car, entered the station, and bought cigarettes from Colvert, who was working alone. Starkweather left, drove down the road, turned around, and returned to the station, again leaving the weapon in the car. This time he purchased a pack of chewing gum, then once again left and drove away. He parked a distance away from the gas station, sported a bandanna underneath a hat, then walked to the station with the shotgun and a canvas bag. He held Colvert at gunpoint and stole $100 from the cash drawer before forcing Colvert to walk back to his car.[3] Starkweather drove Colvert to a remote area outside of Lincoln, and forced him out of the car, at which point Colvert struggled with Starkweather and attempted to get hold of the shotgun. The shotgun fired in the scuffle, knocking Colvert to his knees; Starkweather then killed the stunned Colvert with a shotgun blast to the head.[3]

Starkweather would later claim that in the aftermath of the murder, he believed that he had transcended his former self to reach a new place of existence in which he was above and outside the law. He confessed the robbery to Fugate immediately, claiming someone else had killed Colvert, which Fugate did not believe.

1958 murder spree

On January 21, 1958, Starkweather went to visit Fugate at her home in the Belmont neighborhood of Lincoln.[3] Not finding her at home, he argued with Fugate's mother and stepfather, Velda and Marion Bartlett, who refused to allow him to visit their daughter. Starkweather then fatally shot the Bartletts with his shotgun, and continued to strangle and stab their two-year-old daughter, Betty Jean, to death.[3]

After Fugate arrived at home, he told her of his recent actions, and they hid the bodies in various locations behind the house. The couple remained in the house for six days, turning people away with a note taped to the door, written by Fugate, that read: "Stay a Way Every Body is sick with the Flue. - Velda Bartlett [sic]"[3] Fugate's grandmother became suspicious and contacted Lincoln police. When police arrived on January 27, Starkweather and Fugate had fled the house.[3]

Starkweather and Fugate drove to the Bennet, Nebraska farm house of August Meyer, 70, a Starkweather family friend, whom Starkweather shot in the head.[3] As they were leaving 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 both were shot and killed.[3] Starkweather admitted shooting Jensen, and claimed Fugate shot King. They stole Jensen's car and left Bennet.

The two drove into a wealthier section of Lincoln, where they entered the home of industrialist C. Lauer and Clara Ward.[3] Both Clara Ward and maid Lillian Fencl were fatally stabbed. Starkweather later admitted throwing a knife at Ward, however, he denied inflicting the multiple stab wounds that were found in her body. He also denied he fatally stabbed Fencl, whose body also had multiple stab wounds. When Lauer returned home that evening, Starkweather shot him. Starkweather and Fugate filled Lauer's black 1956 Packard with loot from the house and drove into Wyoming.

The murders caused an uproar within Lancaster County,[3] with all law enforcement agencies in the region thrown into a house-by-house search for the killers. The governor of Nebraska contacted the National Guard and the Lincoln chief of police called for a block-by-block search of the city. Specious sightings of the two fugitives poured in with concomitant charges of incompetence lodged in against the authorities for their inability to capture the pair.

Needing a new car due to the high profile of their Packard, they found traveling salesman Merle Collison sleeping in his Buick along the highway outside Douglas, Wyoming. After waking Collison, Fugate shot him, although Starkweather later claimed Fugate performed a coup-de-grace after his shotgun jammed. Starkweather claimed Fugate was the "most trigger happy person" he had ever met. 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 ignite the car engine and a passing motorist stopped to help. Starkweather threatened him with the rifle and an altercation ensued. A deputy sheriff arrived at the scene at this moment. Fugate ran to him, yelling something to the effect of, "It's Starkweather! He's going to kill me!" Starkweather tried to evade the police, exceeding speeds of 100 miles per hour. A bullet shattered the windshield and flying glass cut Starkweather. Starkweather stopped abruptly and surrendered. 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." Both Starkweather and Fugate were arrested in Douglas.

Trial and execution

Starkweather first claimed Fugate had nothing to do with the murders, but changed his story several times, finally testifying at her trial that she was a willing participant. 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 did not believe that Fugate was held hostage by Starkweather, as she had many opportunities to escape. Starkweather received the death penalty for the eleven murders, and Fugate received a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 20 years.

Charles Starkweather was executed in the electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska, at 12:01 a.m. on June 25, 1959. Fugate was paroled in June 1976 after serving 17 years at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska. She settled in Lansing, Michigan where she worked as a janitor at a Lansing hospital. Fugate has never married and refuses to speak of the murders. Starkweather is buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, along with five of his victims: the Bartlett family and the Ward couple.

Cultural influence

Stephen King was strongly influenced by reading about the Starkweather murders when he was a youth, keeping a scrapbook about them[4] and later creating many variations on Starkweather in his work. Starkweather is said to have been a schoolmate of Randall Flagg in The Stand. King said in later interviews that the character The Kid, who appears in the complete and uncut edition of The Stand, is portrayed after Charles Starkweather.

The Starkweather-Fugate case inspired the films The Sadist (1963), Badlands (1973), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Starkweather (2004). The made-for-TV movie Murder in the Heartland (1993) is a biographical depiction of Starkweather with Tim Roth in the starring role, while in 1983, Stark Raving Mad, a film starring Russell Fast and Marcie Severson, provides a fictionalised account of the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree.

Liza Ward, the granddaughter of victims C. Lauer and Clara Ward, wrote the 2004 novel Outside Valentine, based on the events of the Starkweather-Fugate murders. The 1974 book Caril is an unauthorized biography of Caril Ann Fugate written by Ninette Beaver.

Bruce Springsteen's song "Nebraska," which is the title song of his solo album of 1982, is based on these events. It is a first person narrative in which he describes these events through the narrator's own perspective.


1.Robert Colvert (21), gas station attendant
2.Marion Bartlett, Caril Ann's stepfather
3.Velda Bartlett, Caril Ann's mother
4.Betty Jean Bartlett (2), Marion and Velda's daughter
5.August Meyer (70), Starkweather's family friend
6.Robert Jensen (17), Carol's boyfriend
7.Carol King (16), Robert's girlfriend
8.C. Lauer Ward (47), wealthy industrialist
9.Clara Ward, C. Lauer Ward's wife
10.Lillian Fencl (51), Clara Ward's maid
11.Merle Collison, traveling salesman


1.^ Charles Starkweather at
2.^ World of Criminal Justice on Charles Starkweather at
3.^ Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, retrieved (December 9, 2009)
4.^ The Stephen King interview, uncut and unpublished.

Allen, William. "Starkweather: Inside the Mind of a Teenage Killer". 2004, Emmis Books, 240 pages. ISBN 9781578601516.
Del Harding, reporter for the Lincoln, Nebr., Star, who covered the murders, the Starkweather and Fugate trials, and Starkweather's execution.
Newton, Michael. Waste Land: The Savage Odyssey of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. 1988, Pocket, 384 pages. ISBN 0671001981.
O'Donnell, Jeff. "Starkweather: A Story of Mass Murder on the Great Plains". 1993, J&L Lee Co. ISBN 9780934904315.
Encyclopedia of American Crime

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