Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Team Killers, Part Three

Sudden Death

Caril Fugate & Charles Starkweather (CORBIS)
Caril Fugate & Charles Starkweather (CORBIS)

Before the murderous couples depicted in Badlands, True Romance and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, there were Charles Starkweather, 19, and Caril Ann Fugate, 14. These real-life killers, who in part inspired all three films, cut a swath of murder through Nebraska in 1958. They killed family, friends and strangers. At times they did it for utilitarian reasons and at other times there was no apparent reason at all.

Videocovers Natural Born Killers, Badlands & True Romance
Videocovers Natural Born Killers, Badlands &
True Romance

The couple became a cultural archetype of youthful alienation and random violence. Between them, they had 11 victims, and from their respective confessions, it's difficult to tell who actually did what. But there's little doubt that, although neither was raised in an abusive family, Charles was angry and trigger-happy, while Caril Ann was young and indulgent, so together they made for a dangerous team.

"I had hated and been hated," Starkweather once said, "I had my little world to keep alive as long as possible and my gun. That was my answer."

The male-female couple who indulges in random violence against family and strangers is a particular sort of team killers. In Natural Born Killers the protagonists kill to satisfy their anger and their inclination to exercise power over those they consider their inferiors. The female, abused by a dominating and disgusting father, appears to engage in the violence as an extension of her eroticism and her freedom, while the male simply likes to exercise power. They are predators who love to kill.

Two other films featuring murderous couples, Badlands and True Romance, demonstrate how the pair can develop a murderous drive together, partly from individual impulses to act out and partly because there's someone next to them who sees them at their worst and who nevertheless loves and encourages them. A woman with low self-esteem feeds off any positive attention and a "lone wolf" male is happy to have an admirer. The violence is rewarded, the more the better. Sometimes in these couples the female is merely a passive presence, and sometimes she is as active and mean as the male. Unlike in these movies, however, somewhere along the line, "true love" typically breaks down.

The following account of Starkweather and Fugate is largely culled from three books: Michael Newton's Wasteland: The Savage Odyssey of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, J. M. Reinhardt's The Murderous Trail of Charles Starkweather and J. Sargeant's Born Bad: The Story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. These authors provide a detailed picture of what happened with these two, before, during and after their spree.

Born in 1938, the third of seven children, Charles R. Starkweather lived all of his young life in abject poverty in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father worked as a handyman. Even worse than having no money was the fact that young Starkweather was short, myopic, red-headed, and bowlegged. He also had a speech impediment. Inevitably taunted by classmates with nicknames like "Red Headed Peckerwood," he lapsed into what he later described as "black moods," developing "a hate as hard as iron" against anyone who humiliated or ostracized him. Even the little that he could accomplish, such as artwork, the other children ridiculed. A turning point came in 1956 when he saw James Dean play a disillusioned adolescent named Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. That character expressed the same emptiness and isolation that he felt, and they very nearly shared the same last name. Starkweather had found his hero.

Starkweather's twin passions were cars and hunting, but he claimed that he would "rather hear the crack of a firearm than have or drive the finist [sic] car in the whole wide world." He dropped out of the ninth grade to work in a warehouse. There Starkweather was struck in the head just above his left eye by a machine lever. He developed continual headaches and periods of confusion. It's possible that this incident contributed to the lack of inhibition he was soon to experience regarding violence. (Other killers have had brain damage.) He then took a job hauling garbage, but so resented the wealthy people in neighborhoods in which he worked that he'd curse them from his truck. The one person in whom he took comfort was sassy Caril Ann Fugate. In Charles's rented room, they danced, made love, and practiced throwing knives.

Yet Caril Ann's family, unnerved by Starkweather's habit of carrying a rifle wherever he went, forbade her to see him. She didn't obey and continued to see him.

On December 1, 1957, in need of money, Starkweather robbed a gas station in Lincoln. He abducted the attendant, 21-year-old Robert Colvert, drove him to a rural area and killed him with a shot to the head at close-range. The robbery netted Starkweather $108. The murder, he later confessed, made him "feel different" and his headaches cleared up. When he realized that no one suspected him of this deed, Starkweather confided to Caril Ann that he had robbed the station but had not killed Colvert. He quickly spent most of the money.

Then, less than two months later, on January 21, 1958, Starkweather was thrown out of his apartment for nonpayment of rent. That was the date that the killing spree began in earnest. He went to Caril Ann's home while she was at school and got into a violent argument with her mother, Velda Bartlett. As Starkweather recalled, "They said they were tired of me hanging around," and blows were exchanged. Bartlett slapped him, an act which humiliated and enraged him. It is not clear whether he waited for Caril Ann's return from school or went ahead without her, but he killed the woman with a single shot from a .22 caliber rifle. Afterward, he stabbed and shot her husband. Starkweather then threw a knife at two-year-old Betty Ann, hitting her in the throat. He finished her off by using his gun butt to crack her skull.

Robert Colvert, Mr & Mrs Bartlett & Betty, victims
Robert Colvert, Mr & Mrs Bartlett & Betty,

Dragging the bodies outside, he hid them in unused outbuildings. Caril Ann had either witnessed all of this or was told about it when she came home. In either case, rather than react to the slaughter and turn him in, or at least run away, she stayed with him. She had opportunities to escape, but she failed to do so. The couple stayed in the house for the next six days, hanging a sign on the door to ward off police and family: "Stay a Way Every Body is Sick With the Flue." Whenever Caril Ann did venture out to speak with someone who knocked, she claimed that her mother's life would be in danger if she let them in. Oddly, no one took action on these strange communications.

The bodies were discovered on the morning of January 28, but the two lovers were already on their way to Bennett, 16 miles south, to hide out on the farm of a family friend, 70-year-old August Meyer. Starkweather's car got bogged down on the property and Meyer and Starkweather got into a fight that climaxed with Starkweather shooting Meyer and his dog "in self-defense." Leaving their car stuck in the mud, Starkweather and Fugate walked to the highway and got a ride from high school sweethearts, Robert Jensen, 17, and Carol King, 16.

Carol King and Robert Jensen, victims
Carol King and Robert Jensen, victims

At gunpoint, Starkweather robbed Jensen of $4. Caril Ann took the bills from the boy's wallet. He then made Jensen drive to an abandoned schoolyard, ordering him onto the steps of the storm cellar, where he shot the boy six times in the head. He fell to the foot of the stairs and was left there. King was also shot to death, and her genitals viciously slashed with a knife, but Starkweather blamed Caril Ann for the crime, citing jealousy as the motive. She said that he had done it. The truth was never clear, although there was reason to believe that he had tried to rape King, but had been unable to perform and, enraged, had slashed her. He dumped King's half-nude body on top of Jensen's in the cellar and stole Jensen's car. He later claimed that he had killed Jensen in self-defense, but since he shot Jensen from behind, it seems unlikely.

Returning to Lincoln on January 30 to acquire a less conspicuous car, the couple invaded the home of a banker, C. Lauer Ward. Ward wasn't home, so they tied up his wife Clara and a deaf maid, 51-year-old Lillian Fencl and viciously stabbed both women to death in a bedroom. Starkweather also broke the neck of the family dog and then waited for Ward to return. They struggled with the gun and Starkweather pushed Ward down the cellar steps before blasting him several times. Then Starkweather and Fugate stole clothing and money, and fled in Ward's Packard, intent on escaping to Washington state.

Mr & Mrs Ward and Lillian Fencl, victims
Mr & Mrs Ward and Lillian Fencl, victims

On February 1, they reached Douglas, Wyoming, after slipping through a dragnet that included 200 members of the Nebraska National Guard. Starkweather felt they needed to switch cars. He spotted a Buick parked beside the road and inside, asleep, was shoe salesman Merle Collison. Starkweather pumped nine bullets into the helpless victim, into his face, neck, hand and legagain, "in self defense." As Starkweather struggled to remove the body, another motorist happened by. They grappled over Starkweather's gun and were spotted by a patrol officer. The deputy sheriff stopped and Caril Ann jumped from the car and ran toward him, pointing at Charles as she cried, "He killed a man!"

Startled and outnumbered, Starkweather fled in the Ward car, topping speeds of 120 mph, as his pursuers radioed ahead for a roadblock. Concentrated gunfire drove him off the road, and Starkweather surrendered. He made a full confession of his crimes, sometimes taking the blame and other times sharing equal responsibility with Fugate.

How do these couples get to the point of such wanton massacre, especially when the violence seems to be spurred on by just one of them?

Let's look at the typical dynamic.

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