Charles Starkweather

Charles Starkweather Biography.com

Murderer(1938–1959)
Nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather embarked on a murderous rampage in January 1958 that left 10 people dead.

Synopsis

Born on November 24, 1938, in Lincoln, Nebraska, Charles Starkweather was bullied as a child and dropped out of high school at age 16. He killed a gas station attendant in late 1957, and in early 1958 he embarked on a spree with girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate that left 10 people dead. The two were caught after a high-speed car chase, and Starkweather was executed on June 25, 1959. His grizzly murders have since been remembered though music, film and books.

Early Life

A child of the Great Depression era, Charles Raymond Starkweather was born on November 24, 1938, in Lincoln, Nebraska, the third of seven children of parents Guy and Helen. Starkweather's family had little money, and as a child he was bullied for his bowlegged walk and speech impediment. 

Starkweather left school at the age of 16, taking work as a lorry loader for a local newspaper business. Inspired by the 1955 James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause, he tried to emulate the look and style of its star. He also became romantically involved with a kindred rebellious spirit, Caril Ann Fugate, who was only 13 years old at the time.

Murderous Rampage Begins

Starkweather left the newspaper haulage job to find work as a refuse collector, but the injustice of his poverty, as he saw it, began to consume him, and he convinced himself that crime was his only route to financial gain. In the early hours of December 1, 1957, Starkweather took his first victim, gas station attendant Robert Colvert, for $100. 

On January 21, 1958, Starkweather drove to Fugate's house, where he was denied entry by her mother and stepfather, Velda and Marion Bartlett. Following an altercation, he killed both of them, as well as Fugate's 2-year-old half-sister, Betty Jean. Starkweather and Fugate lived in the house for six days, with Fugate telling visitors that the rest of the family was bedridden with the flu, but they fled after other family members grew suspicious.

Starkweather drove to the farm of a family friend named August Meyer and killed him, though his car got stuck on the property. He and his girlfriend hitched a ride with another teenage couple, Robert Jensen and Carole King, eventually killing them as well and taking the car.

Starkweather and Fugate drove to a suburb of Lincoln, where they sought refuge at the home of a wealthy industrialist, C. Lauer Ward. They killed both Mr. and Mrs. Ward and their maid, then headed to Washington state, where Starkweather's brother lived.

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Surrender, Trial and Sentencing

By this point, the National Guard had been notified of the killing spree. Seeking to switch vehicles, Starkweather killed shoe salesman Merle Collison, but had trouble operating the unfamiliar car. Encounters with passerby drew attention and a high-speed police chase ensued, ending after Sheriff Earl Heflin shot out the car's back window.  

Charged with multiple counts of murder, Charles Starkweather pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to death and executed by electric chair in Lincoln on June 25, 1959. Fugate claimed that she was a hostage, but the jury found her guilty. Because she was only 14 years old when she participated in the murders, she received a life sentence. She was paroled in June 1976.

Pop Culture References

The killing spree shocked the nation, and reverberated throughout society for years to come with references in art and popular culture. Badlands (1973) and Natural Born Killers (1994) were among the movies based on the murders, while Bruce Springsteen recorded a track in 1982 called "Nebraska," an account of events from Starkweather's point of view.

In 2004, Liza Ward, the grandaughter of two of the victims, wove the story of the murders into her novel Outside Valentine. Seven years later, Christian Patterson published Redheaded Peckerwood, a photographic chronicle of the people and places Starkweather and Fugate encountered while on the run.

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