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Teenage Spree Killer

Crime Files
Teenage Spree Killer

Charles Raymond Starkweather was the third of seven children, born to Guy and Helen Starkweather, on 24 November 1938, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The United States was still gripped by the Depression during his formative years, and the Starkweathers were poor, but the children were raised well and regarded as well-behaved within the local community. Starkweather, known as Charlie, struggled at school as a result of undiagnosed myopia, and his short stature, speech impediment and bowed legs made him the subject of bullying. He excelled at gymnastics, however, and used his strength to defend himself fiercely against all detractors, earning a reputation for toughness. Starkweather was a James Dean devotee, and Dean’s untimely death in 1955, when Starkweather was 16, only added to his mystique. Starkweather mimicked Dean’s hairstyle and dress, and identified strongly with his “Teen Rebel” persona, trapped as he felt within the poverty of small-town Nebraska life, with its limited options for advancement. Given his poor academic performance, Starkweather left school at 16, taking work as a lorry loader for a local newspaper business. Starkweather also became romantically involved with a kindred rebellious spirit, Caril Ann Fugate, who was only 13 years old at the time. Her youthful inexperience ensured that she cast him as the hero figure in her life, and he reciprocated by treating her like an adult, despite her young age. Understandably, her parents were not overjoyed at the union, and the pair revelled in their status as teen rebels. His rebellious lifestyle saw Starkweather thrown out of his family home, making Fugate even more central to his life. He left the newspaper haulage job to find work as a refuse collector, but his poor wage made it impossible to support his accommodation and living costs, as well as providing luxuries for his girlfriend. The injustice of his poverty, as he saw it, began to consume him. This perceived injustice led ultimately to a killing frenzy that saw Starkweather labelled as a spree killer. A spree killer is usually someone who commits multiple murders, within a short period of time, as a direct result of the circumstances in which they find themselves. In contrast, a serial killer is usually driven by some internal psychopathology who chooses specific victims, or types of victims, to satisfy preconditions of their psychopathology.


Born 24th November 1938The Victims 1 December 1957 - Robert Colvert, 21 21 January 1958 - Velda Bartlett, Marion Bartlett, Betty Jean Bartlett, 2 27 January 1958 - August Meyer, 72 28 January 1958 - Robert Jensen, 17, Carol King, 16, Clara Ward, Lillian Fencl, 51, C. Lauer Ward, 47 29 January 1958 - Merle CollisonArrested 29 January 1958Trial 5 May 1958Died 25 June 1959

The Crimes

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.

The Aftermath

Fugate’s defence was built around her hostage status, but the jury were unconvinced and returned a guilty verdict on 28 November 1958. Because she was 14 years old at the time, she received a life sentence and was sent to the Nebraska Centre for Women, where she remained until she was paroled in June 1976.Starkweather’s death penalty was enforced on 29 June 1959, when he was electrocuted to death at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. He is buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, Nebraska, the same cemetery as five of his victims: the three members of the Bartlett family and the Ward couple.

The Arrest

Starkweather and Fugate drove all night, crossing into Wyoming on 29 January 1958. Realising that the luxurious car they were driving would raise suspicion, they pulled over when they spotted a Buick parked on the shoulder of the road, whose inhabitant, shoe salesman Merle Collison, was sleeping inside. When Collison refused to swap cars Starkweather shot him multiple times at close range. Starkweather and Fugate made to leave in the car, with Collison dead in the passenger seat, but he didn’t know how to release the handbrake in the Buick. When another passer-by stopped to assist them, Starkweather pulled out his gun and threatened to kill him, if he didn’t show him how to release the brake. A struggle ensued and, when a deputy sheriff stopped to investigate, Fugate ran over to him and yelled that Charlie Starkweather was in the vehicle, and that he had just killed somebody.Starkweather jumped back in the Packard and drove off at break-neck speed, followed by the deputy sheriff who had radioed for help to set up roadblocks. A high-speed car chase followed and, when Starkweather’s back window was shot out by police gunfire, he brought the vehicle to an abrupt halt and surrendered: a shard of glass had nicked his ear, and he had thought he had been mortally wounded.

The Trial

Starkweather’s options were bleak: facing the death penalty in Wyoming, where Collison had been shot, entailed the gas chamber, while Nebraska used the electric chair for executions.Believing the latter to be the least bad option, he opted for extradition to Nebraska. This was a mistake for him; the single murder in Wyoming, which also had a State governor opposed to the death sentence, would probably have seen him serve a life sentence, whilst the multiple killings in Nebraska would definitely attract the death penalty.Starkweather’s trial began on 5 May 1958, with him trying to override his defence’s attempt to have him plead innocence by reason of insanity: he clearly felt that being insane carried a greater stigma than being a murderer. Initially, Starkweather had maintained that Fugate had been an unwitting participant in the crimes, but when he found out that Fugate was claiming to have been his hostage, he implicated her in a number of the murders, stating that she had inflicted all of the mutilations on Carol King.The jury were plainly convinced that Starkweather had been sane at the time of the murders, and took very little time in pronouncing him guilty, specifically asking for the death penalty.