By December 1957 Starkweather had just turned 19, and was desperate to escape from the drudgery of his impoverished life. He convinced himself that crime was his only route to financial gain and, within a week of his birthday, he took his first victim. Robert Colvert was a 21-year-old petrol station attendant who refused Starkweather credit to buy a stuffed animal for Fugate. Starkweather was incensed by this refusal and returned to the petrol station the following day, 1 December 1957, in the early hours, and held Colvert up with a shotgun. Colvert surrendered about $100 from the till, most of which was in change. He then took Colvert to a deserted area, and shot him twice with the shotgun.
Despite bringing attention upon himself as a possible suspect, by spending large sums of small change on new clothing and other items, police were convinced that a transient had been responsible for the murder and robbery, and local investigations were minimal. Buoyed by his newfound wealth, Starkweather confessed to Fugate that he had committed the robbery, although he claims to have denied the murder but, given that the two events were inextricably linked, she must have suspected the truth. Enjoying the fruits of the robbery cemented their relationship further, and the power associated with having escaped undetected fuelled Starkweather’s belief that crime did indeed pay.
The euphoria and cash soon disappeared, and his dismissal from his refuse collecting job meant that by mid-January he was broke, evicted from his boarding house, and in trouble with Fugate’s parents, who were convinced that she was pregnant. Driving over to her parent’s house on the afternoon of 21 January 1958, he got into a heated argument with Fugate’s mother and stepfather, Velda and Marion Bartlett. He shot them both dead with a .22 rifle that he had carried with him to the house, also killing Fugate’s two-year-old half-sister, Betty Jean, by striking her on the head with the butt of the rifle. Fugate was present at the time and claimed that she had been terrorised by Starkweather, but this seems unlikely, as she assisted Starkweather in hiding the bodies in the outhouse and the yard and cleaning the blood from the house. She then remained in the house with him for another week afterwards, without making any attempt to escape, despite numerous visits from friends and relatives, who were concerned at the Bartlett’s disappearance. She concealed the crime by telling people that her parents were sick with the flu.
Fugate’s grandmother, not convinced by the flu story, contacted the police, but a cursory inspection of the property, which didn’t include the yard, drew no cause for concern. When further requests were made that the police investigate further, including one from Starkweather’s father, a more thorough search revealed the three bodies, and a police bulletin for their arrest was issued. By this time Starkweather and Fugate, unnerved by the first police visit, had already escaped in his battered old Ford.
Their first port of call, on 27 January 1958, was the farm of a 72-year-old Starkweather family friend, August Meyer. For some reason, Meyer and Starkweather had an argument, and Meyer was shot. Starkweather hid his body, stole food and money, and then he and Fugate spent the night at Meyer’s farm.
The next day, they were forced to hitch a ride from Meyer’s farm, as Starkweather’s car had become mired in mud, and they were picked up by a teenage couple: 17-year-old Robert Jensen and 16-year-old Carol King. Starkweather repaid their kindness by holding them at gun-point, forcing them to return to the farm, where they were robbed, both were shot, and then King was stabbed multiple times in the stomach and groin area, and left naked from the waist down, although there were no signs of sexual activity. Starkweather claimed later that Fugate had stabbed Carol King in a jealous rage, when he had implied that he found King attractive. Fugate denied this, claiming that she had been in the car while the attack took place. When Starkweather’s car, described in the police bulletin, was spotted at Meyer’s farm, a search revealed the three bodies and a major manhunt was initiated.
Inexplicably, given their fugitive status, Starkweather and Fugate decided to return home to Lincoln in Robert Jensen’s car, even driving past Fugate’s home, where the police cars outside made it obvious that the bodies in the yard had been discovered. Seeking refuge, they randomly chose the home of wealthy industrialist, C. Lauer Ward, in an affluent part of Lincoln, which Starkweather knew from his refuse collection days.
When the Ward maid, 51-year-old Lillian Fencl, answered the door, Starkweather threatened her with his gun, gaining access and also taking Ward’s wife, Clara, hostage. Fencl was locked in the basement and Clara Ward made food for him and Fugate, who had come into the house by that time. Ward then asked to go upstairs to her room. Starkweather claims that she returned with a gun, tried to shoot him and missed. He overpowered her, stabbing her repeatedly with a knife.
Starkweather and Fugate then ransacked the house, loading Mrs Ward’s Packard car with valuables. During the afternoon a newspaper was delivered to the house, and Starkweather and Fugate’s pictures were on the front page: both fugitives were thrilled at their notoriety. When Mr Ward returned home that evening, he was greeted by Starkweather, who shot him dead. With regards to the killing of the maid, Starkweather and Fugate’s accounts diverge yet again: each claiming that the other was responsible for her death. She was tied to a bed and stabbed to death.
The death of the industrialist and his wife, both friends of the State governor, galvanised the law enforcement agencies, and the National Guard and the FBI were called in. In addition, a $1000 reward was offered for the capture of Starkweather. Aerial searches for the stolen Packard were also initiated. Clearly lacking any sense of preservation, the fugitives decided to return again to Fugate’s home but, recognising the danger there, they decided to drive to Washington State, to seek refuge with Starkweather’s brother, who lived there.