Charles Starkweather: One of the Nation’s First Spree Killers

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Charles Starkweather was an American serial killer and spree killer who was active in the late 1950s. He committed 11 murders in Nebraska and Wyoming, all but one of them in a 1-week period in January of 1958. Starkweather’s crimes and subsequent trials received widespread media attention and were the subject of numerous books, songs, and films.

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Starkweather’s crimes and trial were seen as a symbol of societal decay and youth violence in the 1950s, and his case remains one of the most notorious in American criminal history. Additionally, after being implicated in Starkweather’s murder spree, the sentence handed to his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate sparked much controversy.

From Bullied to a Serial Killer: How Charles Starkweather Lost Control

Charles Starkweather was born on November 24, 1938, and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was red-haired and green-eyed, stocky with a height of 5’5” and wore glasses. Suffering from a speech impediment and being bow-legged, Charles was often bullied by his elementary school classmates. But when he used a knife to defend himself, he found relief from the taunting.

Starkweather’s upbringing was described as frugal. He was the third born out of 7 children. His father suffered from rheumatoid arthritis but tried to do carpentry when he could; his mother was a waitress. The combination of hard times, as well as his resemblance to James Dean, made him idolize the rebellious Hollywood actor.

In 1956, Charles Starkweather began dating Caril Ann Fugate, who was born in 1943 and 5 years younger. According to Fugate, she stopped dating Charles in January of 1958, prior to his murder spree. But in the meantime, Starkweather would drop out of high school and pick up work at a newspaper warehouse located near his girlfriend’s school. That enabled him to visit her daily until he quit working as a garbage truck collector.

But the garbage truck company eventually fired Starkweather, which put him in hard times. Struggling to pay his rent and facing eviction, he robbed a gas station on December 1, 1957. In doing so, he also made his first known kill: 21-year-old Robert Colvert, who was working at the time of the robbery. Starkweather abducted him and shot him in the head in a secluded area.

The Killing Spree Began with the Murder of Girlfriend Caril Fugate’s Entire Family

Described as a power-hungry, remorseless, and cruelly indifferent person with no care but to satisfy his own biological needs, Starkweather allegedly began plotting more robberies. Realizing that a gun could help him get what he wanted faster, his mind rapidly seemed to devolve into that of a cold-blooded killer.

On January 21, 1958, Caril Fugate arrived home from school to a nearly empty house. According to her, only Starkweather was in the house and her entire family was absent. However, according to prosecutors, she was there to witness her family’s massacre. Starkweather had an argument with her parents before shooting her mother, 36-year-old Velda Bartlett, in the head. He also shot her stepfather, 57-year-old Marion Bartlett. Both were killed. Next, Caril’s two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Betty Jean, was brutally clubbed to death while in her bed.

The bodies were hidden, and Charles and Caril remained in the house for several days. They locked the door and placed a note on it saying, “Stay away. Everybody is sick with the flu. Miss Bartlett.” Neighbors and a detective sent by Caril’s grandmother saw the note and turned away. Both Caril’s older sister and husband, and Charlie’s brother also stopped by. Caril would later say that she wrote it and that “Miss Bartlett” was meant to signal distress as only her younger sister was called by that name.

Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate Flee

After receiving threats from Caril’s grandmother that she would call the police and escalate the shady situation, the couple fled. Their first stop was a farm owned by Starkweather’s 70-year-old friend, August Meyer. He was killed with a shotgun and his dog was beaten to death. Caril later claimed that seeing the violence made her fear Charles, and thus obey his commands. Meanwhile, their car had gotten stuck in the mud and so they needed to find another form of transportation.

Sickeningly, Starkweather continued to murder every single person who crossed his path, even when they offered help. He killed two teenagers, Robert Jensen and Carol King, when they offered to give the couple a ride. He also raped Carol King. The two bodies were then hidden in a storm cellar.

Victims Seemed Random

Next was an entire upper-class family. Starkweather and Fugate needed a place to stay, so they murdered three people: a businessman named C. Lauer Ward, his wife, Clara, and their maid, Lillian Fencil.

Stealing the Ward family’s 1956 Packard, the diabolical duo headed toward Wyoming. But they decided to ditch the car when they saw a man napping on the side of the road. Shooting 37-year-old Merle Collison, they stuffed his body under the dashboard. But before they could continue on, a man named Joe Sprinkle approached them.

Sprinkle initially thought he saw fellow drivers in distress but then he spotted a body. Charlie pulled out his gun but Sprinkle, who towered over the murderer at 6 feet tall, managed to remove it from his hands. At that point, Natrona County Deputy Sheriff William Romer pulled up at the scene to see what was going on. According to Romer, Caril leaped out of Collison’s car screaming “He’s going to kill me. He’s crazy. He just killed a man!” Starkweather then sped off in the Packard.

Starkweather’s High-Speed Chase and Arrest

Romer radioed for help while staying on Starkweather’s tracks. What ensued was a high-speed chase straight out of a movie. Cops set up a roadblock close to Douglas city but he crashed right through it and continued at speeds of 100 mph.

More sheriffs joined the chase. Converse County Sheriff Earl Heflin was firing out his window and shattered the rear window of Starkweather’s getaway vehicle. The serial killer then screeched to a halt and surrendered himself. He later said, “They would never have caught me if I hadn’t stopped.”

Charles Starkweather was charged with first-degree murder of Merle Collison and later admitted to killing 10 other people. He was extradited back to Nebraska after Wyoming Governor Milward Simpson said he wouldn’t hand someone the death penalty. Starkweather’s attorneys tried to give the defense of insanity. But he was still found guilty and on May 23, he was sentenced to death.

Starkweather Was Electrocuted; Caril Was Made a Pariah

Starkweather told his dad that “If I want to make my atonement with God and be electrocuted, that’s my business.” He was killed by electric chair on June 25, 1959.

As for Caril, her story couldn’t be corroborated. Initially, Charles and she claimed she was his captive. But prosecutors said that was a hoax. Claiming that her cohort had “flipped” and that she herself was found with newspaper clippings of her family’s murder, they claimed she was also liable for the murder spree. Caril was sentenced to life in prison and remained in the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York for 18 years. She was paroled in 1976 and moved to Michigan. Decades later, she was doxxed by an anonymous member of the public.

Now going by Carol Ann Clair, the mysterious woman has asked twice to be pardoned and still says she was innocent. Both requests were denied.

READ MORE: Sharon Kinne: The Serial Killer Who Disappeared Without a Trace in 1969

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