The 13th Floor

The Grisly Crime Spree of the Real-Life NATURAL BORN KILLERS

Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were a pair of teenagers who went on a killing spree through Wyoming and Nebraska in the last week of January 1958. In nine days, they killed ten people. Their names may not be familiar, but they have been depicted in films over and over, most notably in Oliver Stone’s 1994 film, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis.

Starkweather was the third of seven children, born to a poor but hardworking family. Father Guy and mother Helen were, by all accounts, mild-mannered. There was no abuse at home, but Starkweather was bullied at school due to a mild birth defect in his legs and a speech impediment. He soon realized that he was stronger than most kids, and turned the bullying on to other kids.

Starkweather dropped out of high school in his senior year and took a menial job at a newspaper warehouse. The warehouse was located near a junior high school, where he met Caril Ann Fugate, then thirteen. Fugate’s role in the murders is murky at best. Some say she was a willing accomplice; others say she was kidnapped and acted out of fear that her family would be murdered. Fugate claims the pair dated for a few months, then she broke up with Starkweather on January 19, 1958. When she came home from school on January 21, Starkweather was there; her family was not. When Velda and Marion Bartlett, Caril’s mother and stepfather, found the older teen at their door, they told him to leave. Instead, Starkweather shot both parents, then strangled and stabbed their two-year-old daughter, Betty Jean, to death.

Fugate claims that when she got home, her family wasn’t there and Starkweather threatened her to go along with him or else he would kill her family. Others say that Fugate knew her family was dead and helped hide the bodies. Either way, the pair holed up in the house for nearly a week, telling people via a note on the door that “Miss Bartlett” and her family had the “flue” (a sign that some people claim was Caril’s “cry for help”). When Fugate’s grandmother threatened to call the police, the pair went on the run.

On January 27th, the couple went to the home of August Meyer, a family friend of Starkweather’s, 15 miles away. Starkweather shot Meyer and beat his dog to death. On their way out, their car got stuck in the mud. A pair of hapless teenagers, Robert Jensen and Carol King, stopped to help them. Starkweather shot Jensen in the head, then raped and killed King. They took Jensen’s car and went looking for a hideout. They found it in an upscale neighborhood. Starkweather and Fugate killed C. Lauer Ward, his wife Clara, their maid, Lillian Fencl, and the family dog.

That night, the pair stole Ward’s car and all the jewelry they could find in the house, and set out on the road to Washington state, where Starkweather’s brother lived. They stopped first in Wyoming, looking for a less recognizable car. They found a traveling salesman, Merle Collison, asleep in his car on the side of the road. Starkweather shot him dead, but had a hard time with the parking break. Joe Sprinkle pulled off the road when he saw Starkweather struggling to get the car started, and offered his help. By the time he saw the dead body beneath the dash, Starkweather already had his gun trained on Sprinkle. The two men struggled over the gun. During the fight, the deputy sheriff, William Romer, saw the altercation and pulled over. When he did, Fugate bolted from the car and raced to the sheriff, screaming, “He’s going to kill me! He’s crazy! He just killed a man!” Fugate stayed with the officer while he called for backup. Starkweather had already jumped into the car and sped off.

A high-speed chase, at some points going over 100 MPH, ensued. The police chasing Starkweather fired guns at him as they drove. One of the cops’ bullets shattered Starkweather’s window, and a shard of glass struck Starkweather. Suddenly he slammed on his breaks. After some more exchange of gunfire, Starkweather surrendered. He was out of bullets and the glass nicked him and he thought he was bleeding to death.

Initially charged with Collison’s murder, the Wyoming courts extradited Starkweather to Nebraska for trial. Starkweather didn’t care where he stood trial; he assumed he would get the death penalty no matter where he was tried. He didn’t know at the time that the Wyoming governor was anti-death penalty and had he been sentenced to death, the governor likely would have commuted the sentence. For technical reasons, Starkweather only stood trial for the murder of Robert Jensen. He was convicted, and died via electric chair on June 25, 1959.

Fugate’s trial was a little bit more complicated. Initially Starkweather claimed that Fugate was innocent, but he quickly recanted. While Starkweather took responsibility for most of the murders, he claimed that Fugate participated in several as well. It seems a reasonable conclusion, as several victims were both shot and stabbed. Fugate maintained her innocence throughout the trial, but the judge decided that she had multiple opportunities to escape. She was convicted to life in prison, but was described as a model prisoner and paroled after 17 years. Fugate changed her name and moved to Michigan, where she remarried. Aside from a 1996 radio interview (during which a childhood acquaintance called in to express her belief in Fugate’s innocence, and others shared their own experiences with abusive boyfriends), Fugate has stayed away from press.

Few criminals have received as much notoriety for their crimes, yet their names are virtually unknown. I consider myself to be well-versed in true crime, and while I knew that NATURAL BORN KILLERS was based loosely around real people, I didn’t know their names. Obviously NATURAL BORN KILLERS was not a direct retelling of the Starkweather murder spree. Oliver Stone (along with David Veloz) rewrote much of Quentin Tarantino’s original script, changing the film from a straight-forward action film to a dark satire of the way that the news media has an effect on criminals.

BADLANDS (1973), while still a fictionalized account of the Starkweather spree, is often considered to be far closer to the truth than any other film. Written and directed by Terrence Malick and starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as Charles and Caril (renamed Kit and Holly for the film), Spacek’s portrayal is seen as far more innocent and sympathetic than any other portrayal. Fugate suggests that the gentle portrayal was what helped convince the parole board to grant her her freedom three years later.

STARKWEATHER (2004) was a direct-to-DVD remake of the story, while MURDER IN THE HEARTLAND (1993) was a made-for-TV biopic. Other movies that are loosely based on the story include THE SADIST (1963), STARK RAVING MAD (1983), and KALIFORNIA (1993), which again places Juliette Lewis in the Caril Ann Fugate role. Bruce Springsteen also got in on the Starkweather/Fugate act with his album, NEBRASKA (1982). The entire album deals with challenges and the bleak outlook faced by blue-collar workers and criminals alike. The title track is a first-person narrative of Charles Starkweather’s crimes, ending with his death by electric chair.

 

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