Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Charles Starkweather, Nebraska's most infamous son and one of America's most shocking serial killers, terrorized the Great Plains in the winter of 1957–58 when he embarked on a brutal murder rampage with his fourteen-year- old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Put to death for his crimes, Starkweather, whose case received unprecedented national media coverage, shocked America out of its 1950s maltshop innocence and foreshadowed the modern spree killer, whose victims are chosen largely at random to satisfy some deep-rooted hatred of humanity and to settle some secret grudge against society.

Charles was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on November 24, 1938, the third of seven children of Guy and Helen Starkweather. Guy worked as a carpenter-handyman, Helen as a waitress. By all accounts they were good, decent, loving parents. Starkweather is said to have experienced an ordinary, normal childhood until he began his schooling. From prison, he reflected that his hatred for society was spawned on the kindergarten playground when on his first day of school his fellow classmates mocked his speech impediment and bowlegs, making him feel isolated and different. Starkweather wrote that on that fateful day his heart turned "black with hate and rage," and he vowed revenge.

Starkweather's life between the kindergarten incident and eleven gruesome homicides reflects his antisocial and deeply troubled mind. As a youth he had a hair-trigger temper and was constantly involved in fistfights. A loner and an outcast, Starkweather became obsessed with guns and hunting. He began to idolize and emulate actor James Dean, star of Rebel Without a Cause, the 1955 film classic about alienated youth. He adopted Dean's "live fast, die young" credo. He became increasingly disillusioned with his job as a trash collector and in the years before the killings began having terrifying nightmares and vivid, bizarre hallucinations during which he would converse with "Death." Also during this period Starkweather, the shy, withdrawn loner, found a girlfriend in Caril Ann Fugate.

Caril Ann and Charles were soon inseparable. She fit nicely into his paranoid, alienated worldview, willingly adopting and reinforcing his self-imposed exile from mainstream society. Strangely, instead of quelling Starkweather's murderous predilections, his storybook romance with Caril Ann seems to have driven him over the edge, convincing him that the end was near, that he must take action soon. In Starkweather's mind Caril Ann had finally given him "something worth killing for."

Starkweather's murder spree began on December 1, 1957, when he robbed a Lincoln gas station, kidnapped the attendant, Robert Colvert, and shot him to death on a lonely rural road. The murder gave Starkweather a feeling of power; he had operated outside of the law and gotten away with it. Violence erupted once again on January 21, 1958, when Starkweather fought with Velda Bartlett (Caril Ann's mother) over the teenagers' relationship. In a rage, he savagely beat, stabbed, and shot her to death, along with Caril Ann's stepfather and baby sister.

After Starkweather killed Caril Ann's family, the couple kicked off a weeklong frenzy of violence that resulted in another seven homicides. In need of money and supplies, Starkweather killed seventy-two-year-old August Meyer, a longtime family friend, at his rural Lincoln residence. Seventeen-year-old Robert Jensen and sixteen-year-old Carol King were the next victims when, on January 27, Starkweather and Fugate picked up the hitchhiking couple. Starkweather shot Jensen six times in the back of the head and shot and stabbed King repeatedly. Incredibly, Starkweather and Fugate then returned to Lincoln, where they invaded the home of C. Lauer Ward, a wealthy industrialist. Starkweather stabbed and shot to death Lauer, his wife, Clara, and the housekeeper, Lillian Fencl. Loading the Wards' 1956 Packard with food, the couple headed west across the Plains.

By now a major manhunt was in progress. The Nebraska National Guard cruised Lincoln streets in jeeps fitted with machine guns. Parents armed with guns escorted their children to and from school. Aircraft searched for the Wards' black car, while authorities initiated a block-to-block search. Meanwhile, Starkweather and Fugate made it to Wyoming on January 29 and were in search of a car that authorities would not recognize. Merle Collison, a traveling salesman who was sleeping in his car alongside the highway, became the final victim when he refused to surrender his car. Starkweather was captured shortly thereafter by Wyoming authorities and extradited to Nebraska.

Starkweather and Fugate were charged with first-degree murder, convicted, and sentenced, Fugate to life in prison, Charles Starkweather to death. He was executed in Nebraska's electric chair on June 25, 1959. Caril Ann Fugate was paroled on June 20, 1976, after seventeen years of imprisonment. She continues to proclaim her innocence, denying complicity in the killings.

Derrick S. Ward Ventura, California

Allen, William. Starkweather: The Story of a Mass Murder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Newton, Michael. Waste Land: The Savage Odyssey of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

O'Donnell, Jeff. Starkweather: A Story of Mass Murder on the Great Plains. Lincoln NE: J. and L. Lee Company, 1993.

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