In life, Nebraska misfit Charles Starkweather was a nobody. In death, he would be remembered as the killer behind one of the most chilling murder sprees in American history.
His crimes inspired the movies Badlands and Natural Born Killers, among others. Bruce Springsteen wrote ‘Nebraska’ about him and Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance owes something to his crimes. Stephen King openly admits to a youthful obsession with Starkweather, who appears in his books under numerous guises.
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska on November 24, 1938, Charles Raymond “Charlie” Starkweather was a small-town rebel typical of the era. He identified with the silver screen defiance of James Dean—an actor whom he idolised. As a teen, Starkweather wore white T-shirts, jeans, and a biker jacket. He combed his hair into a pompadour and even smoked his cigarettes like the Hollywood star. But there were differences between the two.
James Dean was an exceptional student; Starkweather dropped out of high school. The actor wasn’t obsessed with guns, and he didn’t exhibit increasingly psychopathic tendencies. He didn’t murder 11 people and kill two dogs because he could.
Charles Starkweather did.
Starkweather’s first victim was gas station attendant Robert Colvert on November 30, 1957. Colvert refused to sell him a stuffed toy for his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Enraged, Starkweather shot him before robbing the gas station and whatever cash could be found on Colvert’s body. It was his first known murder, but it was far from the last.
Fugate’s family was next. Her parents Marion and Velma Bartlett loathed Starkweather, seeing only trouble. They also disliked their 14-year-old daughter having a 19-year-old boyfriend, especially Lincoln’s resident hooligan. On January 21, 1958, after Marion and Velma Bartlett told Starkweather yet again to stay away, he shot them to death and then stabbed and strangled their two-year old daughter Betty June.
Caril Ann Fugate came home soon after the murders were over; she helped Charlie hide the bodies. The couple then hid out at the house for the next six days, refusing all visitors. When Fugate’s grandmother grew suspicious and finally threatened to call police, the pair fled.
Together, Starkweather and Fugate hit the road. August Meyer was the next to go. Starkweather killed his dog, robbed his home, and stole his car. Needing a less conspicuous car, the couple hitched a ride with Robert Jenson and Carol King. Both were later found in an abandoned storm shelter, shot dead.
Another home invasion followed. Local businessman C. Lauer Ward, his wife Clara, and their maid Lillian Fenci all died when the young couple dropped by unexpectedly. Fenci was knifed repeatedly and the Wards were shot and stabbed. Starkweather again killed the family dog.
The killer’s quest for notoriety and his indifference to life had cost ten human lives in two months—nine in the previous few days alone. There would be one more death before the end.
Starkweather’s last victim was Merle Collison, shot when they found him sleeping in his car outside Douglas, Wyoming on January 29, 1958. By now a manhunt pursued the couple; having wrecked Ward’s car, they needed another. Collison probably never knew what hit him. A passing motorist did notice something wrong, as did passing Sheriff’s Deputy William Romer. The couple sped off in Collison’s car and Romer gave chase. One of Romer’s bullets smashed Charlie’s windshield wounding him with flying glass splinters.
But rather than go out in a bloody blaze of glory, the frightened Starkweather stood down. He surrendered to police.
Mercifully, the spree was over. Charlie initially claimed full responsibility, stating:
“Don’t be rough on the girl. She didn’t have a thing to do with it.”
Capital punishment was legal in Nebraska and Wyoming. In Nebraska it was the electric chair, in Wyoming, the gas chamber. What Charlie didn’t know was that Wyoming’s then-Governor was an opponent of the death penalty who often commuted death sentences. Nebraska Governor Ralph Brooks was far less likely to commute. Not knowing this, Charlie chose extradition to Nebraska. To his shock, he and Caril Ann Fugate were tried as adults. Both faced certain conviction, the only question being whether one or both would ride the lightning.
Of course, the couple was separated and held at different prisons throughout the trial. When Starkweather learned that Fugate’s lawyers were urging her to blame him entirely—most likely in an attempt at self-preservation—his once-chivalrous attitude changed. While he initially claimed Fugate was blameless, the man’s bitterness now knew no bounds. He began incriminating her in the rampage.
Neither judge nor jury had any time for Starkweather, however. The jury of eight women and four men found him guilty. Nebraska juries could also set their preferred punishment. Their choice was to be expected.
Starkweather was shipped under heavy guard to Nebraska State Penitentiary’s Death Row, just outside Lincoln itself, where he awaited an almost-certain date with Old Sparky. If he’d been vengeful before, his world-view wasn’t improved by impending electrocution.
Testifying at Fugate’s trial, he claimed that she’d not only shot Carol King, but given a ‘be sure’ shot to Merle Collison. The prosecutors portrayed Fugate as a gangster’s moll, not a hostage, chipping away at her claim that she’d only stayed with Starkweather out of terror. Few believed the young woman’s story, especially when Charlie said:
“She could have escaped any time she wanted.”
He further incriminated her by stating:
“If I fry in the electric chair, she should be sitting in my lap.”
Fry in the electric chair he would. Caril Ann Fugate received a life sentence, but kept a spotless prison record and gained parole in 1976. To this day, she refuses to discuss Charlie, though she still maintains her innocence.
As expected, Governor Brooks did not intervene in Starkweather’s execution. When the time came, just after midnight on January 25, 1959, the killer was unrepentant. He gave no final statement as guards strapped him into Old Sparky. He walked in at midnight and was wheeled out less than ten minutes later. For the Starkweathers, the Fugates, and the families of his many victims, Charlie’s legacy persists. Ironically, he was buried at Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, sharing it with five of his victims.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons