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The 'Natural Born Killers', Caril Ann Fugate And Charles Starkweather

When she was just 13 years old, Caril Ann Fugate met Charles Starkweather. Though he was five years older than her, Fugate was enamoured by his charms and James Dean-like style. Soon enough, she trailed him incessantly—across town in cars, then spanning the country, and accompanying him on all his mischievous exploits. — even when they ended in murder.

In 1957, aged 19, Starkweather committed his first murder. On November 30, he went to a petrol station and tried to buy a stuffed dog toy for Fugate. When he found that he wasn't carrying enough money, the manager, Robert Colvert, refused to let him buy it on credit and threw him out. At 3:00 a.m. the next day, he returned with a shotgun. First, he entered the store twice and bought first a package of cigarettes and then a package of chewing gum. The third time, he came in dressed with a bandanna and a hat to cover his face and held him at gunpoint with the shotgun.

Caril Ann Fugate in prison in 1958, after being arrested along with Charles Starkweather.

After forcing him to open the store's safe and robbing it, he forced Colvert outside to his own car, made him drive to a nearby remote area and shot and killed him. Later that day, he told Caril about the robbery, though he left out the part when he killed Colvert. Starkweather later lost his job as a garbage collector and was evicted from where he lived because he couldn't pay his rent. On January 21, 1958, he went to Fugate's family's home with a rifle and ammunition. The details of what happened that day are sketchy, but the outcome of his visit was that Fugate's stepfather, Marion Bartlett, and mother, Velda Bartlett, were both shot to death with the rifle he brought and their baby daughter, Betty Jean, was fatally stabbed and strangled. After putting up a sign on the house's door saying the whole household was sick with the flu, they spent a few days living in the house with the bodies of Fugate's family still in there.

Police arrived on the 27th after Fugate's grandmother became suspicious and called them, by which time she and Starkweather had already gone to a farm in Bennet, Nebraska and killed the owner, August Meyer, and fled. They hitched a ride from two teenagers, Robert Jensen, and Carol King, and killed them after forcing them to drive them to a nearby abandoned storm shelter.

The next day, by which time they had already left the area, the duo's old car, which had gotten stuck in the mud, was found along with the bodies of Meyer and the teenagers. Starkweather and Fugate then fled to a wealthier part of Lincoln with Jensen's car and attacked the home of a wealthy industrialist named C. Lauer Ward. Only his wife, Clara Ward, and their maid, Lillian Fencl, were home at the time. After killing Ward and one of the household's two dogs, they forced Fencl to make them breakfast.

When Mr. Ward himself came home that afternoon, he was shot to death. Fencl was then tied to a bed and killed as well. They then left in the Wards' Packard. When the bodies were found, a full-scale manhunt began seriously and the police started a house-by-house search of the area and even called in the National Guard. The FBI was also brought in. The mayor of Lincoln offered a reward of $1,000. When Starkweather and Fugate realized that the Packard they were driving would attract attention, they approached a Buick owned by Merle Collison, a traveling salesman, near the highway close to Douglas, Wyoming, shot him to death, stole the vehicle and drove away.

Because the car had a parking brake, which Starkweather wasn't accustomed to, the car wouldn't move when he started it. A bypasser offered to help, only to be threatened by Starkweather with a knife. A nearby deputy sheriff, William Romer, noticed the exchange and called for backup, setting off a pursuit. Fugate got out of the car, crying and saying that Starkweather had killed someone, while Starkweather ran back to the Packard and started driving towards Douglas. Police picked up the chase and fired at the car, which stopped in the middle of the road; a bullet had shattered a windshield, cutting Starkweather near the ear enough to make him bleed. Thinking he had been mortally wounded, he pulled over and surrendered so he could get medical attention. Both he and Fugate were then arrested and tried in Nebraska. At first, Starkweather stated that he had forced Fugate to come with him, but then started changing his story repeatedly, finally asserting that she had been a willing accomplice who had actually committed some of the murders. Fugate maintained that she had been held hostage, though she wasn't believed.

Starkweather was only tried and found guilty of the murder of Robert Jensen and sentenced to death. Because there was evidence suggesting that Fugate had had opportunities to leave Starkweather that she hadn't taken, she received a life sentence as his accomplice. At noon of June 25 the next year, Starkweather was executed by electric chair.

Caril Fugate and Charles Starkweather before their killing spree.

Caril Ann Fugate, the youngest female to be charged with first-degree murder at the time, claimed that she had been innocent and that all of the killings had been done by Starkweather. She also claimed she had been an innocent bystander, swept up by Starkweather’s charms.

Whether the jury believed that she was innocent or they were swayed by the fact that she was just a 14-year-old girl, Caril Ann Fugate escaped the death penalty and was instead sentenced to life in prison.

Caril Fugate in prison in 1973, shortly before her release.

Fugate's life sentence was commuted and she spent 17 years at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska before being released early for good behaviour. A retired medical aide, she was last known to live in Hillside, Michigan. In 2007, she married a man named Fredrick Clair. They were in a car accident together in 2013 when their SUV went off the road. Fugate survived with serious injuries, but Clair died.

Fred and Caril Clair

Over the years, several movies have been made that are inspired by the famous crime spree, including Badlands and Natural Born Killers. Her life with Charles Starkweather even inspired Bruce Springsteen to write the song Nebraska about it, forever immortalizing the pair as a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo.

To this day, however, Caril Ann Fugate still maintains her innocence.


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