Starkweather: Depravity, Dystopia, And The Death Penalty In The Heart Of America

On this date in 1959 the state of Nebraska executed the death sentence upon Charles Starkweather, an admitted, notorious spree killer and mass murderer. Certainly, when “Charlie” (as he was known) was captured after a shootout in Douglas, Wyoming there was little doubt and by the end of his trial it was certain that he had committed a shocking and brutal series of murders in and around what was then a sleepy college town and state capitol, Lincoln, Nebraska. The only real question that remained through the trial, which persists to this day, is whether Caril Ann Fugate, whose family Charlie murdered, accompanied him willingly during his spree, whether she cooperated in or even committed some of the murders, or whether she was a hostage (as she later claimed) and suffered from Stockholm Syndrome wherein, in order to survive captivity, one comes to sympathize with one’s captors. Patty Hearst is a famous example of this syndrome.

The Starkweather case is notable for a number of reasons. First, because he is considered one of the fist of the modern spree killers and mass murderers. Second, because he was accompanied (willingly or unwillingly) by his 14-year old girlfriend. Third, because it symbolized to many a troubling undercurrent in the new rock and roll music and rebellious youth culture that Charlie seemed to embrace and embody. A short, pugnacious, nasty, bow-legged, banty rooster of a teen, he posed as Lincoln’s answer to James Dean. He wore his hair like Dean, he strutted about with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his tee-shirt sleeve, his jeans rolled up a bit, and with a cigarette dangling from his pouting lips. Fourth, because of the way he selected his victims. Had anyone thought to commit a mass school shooting in 1958, Charlie would have been the guy to do it.

The Odd Couple

Few crimes have shocked a community and even an entire region the way Starkweather’s did. He grew up in my hometown, Lincoln. He was born to parents of modest means but he does not seem to have been abused. If anything, in some ways, he might have been spoiled. He had a bad time in school, however. He had a speech impediment. He almost certainly had a learning disability and his eyesight was poor. School can be Darwinian. The other kids spotted Charlie’s weaknesses and they capitalized on them. He responded with rage. He got into a nasty fight very early on at school and continued fighting until he finally dropped out. He developed a reputation in town as tough guy, who would fight and exact revenge if wronged (or if he felt wronged). There was a fairly strong class system in Lincoln in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and Charlie was definitely part of the underclass and he felt it very keenly.

He moved out of the house and worked odd jobs but mainly worked hauling trash. In those days a young man would ride on the back of the trash truck and jump down at each house to grab the trash cans and throw the contents into the back of the truck. It was dirty, hard work. It took him, however, on a daily trip through the wealthy old-money (south) side of town in and around the Country Club area. Charlie’s resentment of the Sheridan Avenue folks simmered.

He took up with a 14-year old girl, Caril Ann Fugate. Much of what we know about his relationship with Caril comes from Charlie and his version of the story was, of course, manipulative and self-serving. Her defenders, however, have tried to re-write the narrative in later years but have argued their case poorly, relying on emotional appeals (its own form of emotional manipulation) and question begging (assumptions that have not been shown to be necessary and true). Caril herself has only spoken rarely the media whereas Charlie was happy to talk.

Caril lived on the wrong side of the tracks, just north of Cornhusker Highway, on the edge of the North Bottoms, in Lincoln. It is a working-class neighborhood but her house was rough. Charlie was 5 years older than she when they started dating. It was off and on but Charlie was smitten. She seemed to accept him, bow-legs, stammer, and all.

Helter Skelter

On November 30, 1957 Charlie asked a gas station attendant, whom he knew, for credit. The attendant refused. Charlie, who was chronically short of money, became enraged. He returned at 3:00 AM the next day and murdered his first victim, Robert Colvert. He shot him with a 12-gauge and dumped his body on a county road north of the gas station. It is unclear whether Caril knew about the murder but if she did, she did not report it.1 Indeed, she had multiple opportunities to escape and to call for help. She did neither. At one point she was witnessed sitting alone in Charlie’s car with a shotgun across her lap (not all that unusual in 1950s Lincoln). Here is where the Stockholm defense rests. After all, Patty Hearst robbed a bank with the Symbionese Liberation Army.

He was no longer just a brooding thug. Now he was a cold-blooded killer. When her parents tried to put an end to the relationship, on January 21, 1958 Charlie brutally murdered them, Marion and Velda Bartlett, and their two-year old daughter, Betty Jean. Caril came home from school and stayed with Charlie for six days in the house where the murders had occurred. When people came to check on her she taped a note to the front door claiming that they were all “sick with the flue” (sic). On the sixth day a suspicious relative called the police. They fled in Charlie’s car just before the police arrived to find the grisly scene.

Charlie and Caril fled to the Bennet farmhouse of a family friend, August Meyer, where Charlie had hunted as a boy. As news of the murders emerged fear gripped the area. According to Charlie, Meyer came out of his house with a shotgun and Charlie killed him right there. As they were leaving, their car got stuck in the mud and two unfortunate local teens, Robert Jensen and Carol King, stopped to help. For their trouble Charlie murdered them but only after attempting to rape King in a cellar. Charlie later claimed that Fugate murdered King in a fit of jealousy.

Charlie was not intelligent but he was crafty. He took Jensen’s car and, counter-intuitively, went back to Lincoln, even though the town was now on a razor’s edge. Charlie had murdered 7 people since December 1 and he was not yet done.

He settled on the Ward home, near the Lincoln Country Club, on his old trash route. He knew that Mr Ward would be at work and that their quiet maid, Lillian Fencl, posed no threat. They entered through the back door and proceeded to terrorize Miss Fencl and Mrs Ward. Charlie (and possibly Caril) stabbed Miss Fencl and Mrs Ward to death. When Mr Ward returned home, Charlie took him in the basement and shot him to death. The body count was now at 10 but Charlie was not done.

Upon the discovery of the Ward and Fencl murders Lincoln was in a state of panic. Parents carrying long guns walked their children to school. The governor declared a state of emergency and stationed Nebraska National Guard troops on corners in downtown Lincoln. By now the authorities conducting a full-fledged manhunt for Charlie and Caril.

Starkweather and Fugate fled Lincoln in Lauer Ward’s Packard. They got all the way to Douglas, Wyoming without detection. Outside of Douglas they found salesman Merle Collison sleeping in his car. According to Charlie, he murdered Collison and tried to take his car but he had trouble with it and it stalled. When a passing motorist stopped to help, Charlie tried to murder him too. There was a struggle. Just then a sheriff’s deputy happened by and Caril ran to him screaming that it was Starkweather in the car. Charlie fled in Ward’s Packard even running through a roadblock but gave up after another deputy put a round through Starkweather’s rear windshield causing some glass to nick his ear. On that day, January 29, 1958, the two were arrested and jailed in Douglas until they could be extradited to Nebraska for murdering 10 people there. The Wyoming murder charges were dropped in favor of prosecution in Nebraska.

By today’s standards the Starkweather trial was remarkably swift. What might, after appeals, take a decade or more today was accomplished in about 18 months in 1958–59. Starkweather was convicted of first-degree murder. Carol Ann Fugate was sentenced to life in the women’s prison in York, NE (about 45 minutes due west of Lincoln) and Starkweather was sent to death row in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, in Lincoln.

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?

If ever there seemed an unlikely place for America’s first modern murder spree, that place would be Lincoln, Nebraska. When I moved there in 1975 it was still essentially a small town. My neighbor, Rose Baker, a retired nurse used to chase little Charlie Starkweather out of her front yard on 11th and Peach, on the near south side. Downtown closed promptly at 5:00 PM Monday–Friday. Liquor was not easy to buy. Lincoln had a complicated “off-sale” system that remains a mystery. There were at least 52 United Methodist Churches in town. It was the insurance capitol of America. Home to the state government, Lincoln was full of state employees and boasts two universities (the University of Nebraska and Nebraska Wesleyan) as well as two smaller colleges (Union and Doane). The town was full of university professors, college staff, administrators, and students. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s there was little violent crime in Lincoln. Murders tended to be crimes of passion, not random or spree killings.

In short, Lincoln Nebraska in 1958–59 was a quiet, almost idyllic town. It was Everytown USA. It could have been the backdrop to Leave It To Beaver. It was as quiet, well behaved, and as buttoned up as Mayberry. So, whence Charles Starkweather? How was one troubled twenty-year old able to turn a bucolic town into an armed and fearful camp?

St Augustine used two words to describe the human heart after the fall: pravitas, crookedness and vitium, corruption. The first is the noun from which we get our English word depravity. The prefix de is an intensifier. We get our English word vitiate from the second. This is what sin has done to the world. Where there was order, holiness, and righteousness we, through sin, brought disorder, crookedness, and corruption. Sin is universal and pervasive. It affects all of us and all we are and do.

It is ubiquitous, even in Lincoln, Nebraska. What would make Lauer Ward ever think that he would return home to two bloody murders, to two bloody criminals, and to his own death? In 1959, in Lincoln, there was virtually no abuse of hard drugs, and not much weed (and that was impotent). What gangs there might have been (if they even existed in Lincoln) carried chains and maybe switchblades, not semi-auto handguns. There were no home-invasion robberies. Twenty years after the Starkweather murders, one could still bicycle at 1:00 AM, through what were purported to be the roughest parts of town and see not a lick of motion let alone crime. I know because I did it regularly coming home from work.

Underneath the apparent order and tidiness of Lincoln, however, lay the potential for this or something like it. That potential lies in the heart of every human. Cain was not corrupted by his environment. He was not maltreated. He simply believed that he deserved to be more highly regarded than he was. He was enraged at God and his brother. He could not kill God so he murdered God’s image bearer, Abel.

Starkweather’s environment did not make him a murderer. He did not grow up on the posh side of town but he was not starving. He grew up in the wake of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl. Lots of people in Lincoln grew up in relative poverty. Some of them went into the military. Some of them went to work for the railroad (Burlington Northern is a major employer in Lincoln), or at the Goodyear factory. Those are decent, honorable jobs that paid a decent wage. The people who stuck with those jobs, who saved their money, were able to to buy a decent starter home and later a nicer home, and later an even nicer home. In other words, Charlie did not have to become a criminal. He chose to be a petty criminal and then a murderer.

Yes, the kids at school could be mean. There is a Darwinian aspect to school. Like pack animals, children find a weakness in other children and they exploit it—mainly to hide their own insecurities. Most kids, however, do not become spree killers. They work out their frustration on the athletic field or in the music room. They persevere and find a way to fit in. Children usually grow up. They get over their bitterness. Charlie never did. He nursed his sense of mistreatment. After all, who was Robert Colvert not to give him credit? Who were Caril’s parents to try to separate them? Why did August Meyer have to come out with a shotgun? Charlie was a sociopath and a Narcissist but he was that because of sin. It corrupts everything deeply.

Lincoln seemed like a quiet little Eden but it was not. It gave birth to Charlie Starkweather and to Caril Ann Fugate. Dystopia does not suddenly appear as much as it arises from beneath the surface the way magma boils up through the earth’s crust. It was always there but we only see it sometimes. So it was with Charlie.

We know that he committed most of the murders. He admitted to several and tried to blame Caril for others but his story was inconsistent. Was she a victim or a manipulative little vixen who goaded Charlie into getting rid of her Mom and step-father? Her behavior during the trial and after resolved little. She remains a cipher to this day. People see what they want to see.

We know that she was a model prisoner, who always maintained her innocence. She became a trustee while in prison and made regular, unsupervised trips into town. She was paroled in 1976 (a life sentence does not always mean life), worked as a nurse, and years later married a man in Michigan, who knew about her past. That aspect of her story supports the theory that she was a victim but there are parts of her narrative (e.g., her claim that she did not know that her family was dead—they lived in the house for six days) that do not make sense, that do not explain her behavior. We will likely never know the truth.

Charlie And The Justice Factory

The prosecution relied on Starkweather’s story to convict Fugate. A shaken jury probably did not need a lot of incentive in 1959 to put her away. Whatever doubt lingers about Caril’s role in the spree, there is no doubt that Charles Starkweather murdered most of the eleven victims. He is a classic case for the death penalty.

We live in an age of a renewed call for “social justice.” Here is a case of actual social justice. Charles Starkweather took what was not his to take: the legally innocent lives of human beings. None of his victims was a threat to him. He confessed that he was just angry. He wanted to lash out and then he murdered to cover up his crimes and enable himself to flee prosecution. His crimes were wanton, gruesome, senseless, and aggravated. Charles Starkweather is the definition of a menace to society. In prison, on death row, he professed to have come to faith in Christ. For his sake we should hope that to be true but it is just as likely another manipulative lie told by a sociopath to gain favor and to control those around him.

I once stole and ate some grapes from the Hinky Dinky in Dundee (Omaha). Justice demanded that I make restitution to the grocer. He was merciful and Mom was a little embarrassed. Charlie took more than grapes. He took legally innocent lives which cannot be repaid with any number of dollars. The only just payment for his crimes was his own life. He forfeited his right to life when he took Robert Colvert’s. After that, every murder he committed only further justified the death sentence. Indeed, putting Starkweather to death is the definition of social justice. He broke a fundamental law in the social covenant in which we all live. Every culture knows by nature, because we are made to know it by nature, in our consciences, that it is morally wrong to take the life of another human unjustly. For all his mental illnesses, Charlie knew that what he was doing was wrong and he did it anyway. Weak and powerless, with a gun and a knife he became a big man who was going to make others pay.

In civilized society, individuals provisionally cede to the state their right to exact justice on their behalf. The effect of justice executed is to re-affirm our decision to cede to the state the right to exact justice. It also protects those who keep the social covenant. In order to maintain the integrity of the social covenant, however, the state must exercise justice. When the state refuses to protect its citizens, when it places theoretical and therapeutic goals ahead of justice, it brings into question its very reason for existence.

The state is not essentially an agency of therapy, of healing. Doctors heal. The state punishes. Here is a thought experiment: try refusing to pay your taxes. What will the IRS do? Will they send a therapist to see what troubles you, to discover why you will not pay your taxes? No. They will go to court (a legal, not therapeutic agency). They will file a lien and take your house. If you refuse to leave your house the court will send armed deputies to remove you from your house. If you resist with violence, you will be met with violence, subdued and possibly and justly killed. That is the nature of the civil justice. It enforces justice with force, even with violence when necessary.

When the state refuses to remove from society those who have transgressed the social covenant, who have forfeited their right to be in civil society, and even more when the state releases back into society those who have demonstrably and confessedly violated the social covenant, it fails to perform its most basic task: to do for us what we are not allowed to do for ourselves. The relatives of the Bartlett family did not hunt down Starkweather and Fugate. They let the state do it for them because they knew that the state would. Charlie was tried. Evidence was presented and a jury convicted him. There are ambiguous death penalty cases but Starkweather’s was not one of them.

On this date he was removed from civil society permanently. Starkweather never hurt another person. He was not allowed to hurt anyone and he paid a just price for his theft of the lives of 10 people because the state executed a just sentence.

In our time in particular it is necessary to re-calibrate our sense of justice. That word has become disconnected from reality. Through abuse and inflation it has lost its genuine meaning. So, it is useful to rehearse the Starkweather story, to re-learn the Christian doctrine of sin, to remember what real justice is, and to be reminded of that from which Christ saves his people, not proximate, civil justice but divine retribution which awaits everyone who has not Christ as his substitute and Savior.

Christian, give thanks that righteous Jesus unjustly underwent the death penalty at the hands of Pilate for you. Give thanks for those ministers of civil justice (Romans 13) who tirelessly hunted for a brutal murderer. We should be especially thankful for those officers in Wyoming who actually captured Starkweather and stopped his murder spree. If you are not a Christian, it is not too late. Sin is a reality. Starkweather’s bones are buried in Wyuka Cemetary, in Lincoln. His grave is monument to the corrupting effect of sin in all of us. The good news is that Jesus saves sinners. Why would you wait to acknowledge your sins to God, turn from them, and flee to Jesus in trust and hope? Civil justice in this life is too often delayed or denied. God’s final justice will be not be late nor denied as Charlie knows now, one way or the other.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


1. For most of this account of the Starkweather case I have relied on my own reading and research into this case over the years (see below) but for the chronology of the murders, a few details, and for one quotation I have used the Murderpeida entry on the Starkweather case.

For more on the Starkweather case see:

  1. Allen, William. Starkweather: The Story of a Mass Murderer. New York: Avon Books, 1977.
  2. Allen, William. Starkweather: Inside the Mind of a Teenage Killer. Cincinnati, Ohio: Emmis Books, 2004.
  3. Battisti, Linda M. Twelfth Victim: The Innocence of Caril Fugate in the Starkweather Murder Rampage. Addicus Books, 2014.
  4. Beaver, Ninette, B. K. Ripley, and Patrick Trese. Caril. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.
  5. Dyer, Earl. Headline: Starkweather: From Behind the News Desk. Lincoln, NE: Journal-Star Print. Co, 1993.
  6. O’Donnell, Jeff. Starkweather: A Story of Mass Murder on the Great Plains. Lincoln, NE: J & L Lee Publishers, 1993.
  7. Reinhardt, James Melvin. The Murderous Trail of Charles Starkweather. Springfield, Ill: Thomas, 1960.


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One comment

  1. Scott,

    My wife’s family is from Bennet. My mother-in-law was six months pregnant with my brother-in-law as Starkweather carried out his crimes. She fled to her parent’s home until he was apprehended. I think she knew some of his victims. Thanks for bringing this up and for the focus on human depravity.

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