“A Crime To Remember”: Teenage Spree Killer Charles Starkweather

Charles Starkweather's mug shot [Nebraska Penitentiary]

What do the movies The Sadist (1963), Badlands (1973), Kalifornia (1993), and Natural Born Killers (1994) have in common?

They were all inspired by the murder spree of 19-year-old Charles Raymond Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Bruce Springsteen’s renowned song Nebraska is also based on the duo’s crimes, narrating the events from Starkweather’s point of view.

Who was Charles “Charlie” Starkweather?

Starkweather was born on November 24, 1938, in Lincoln, Nebraska, as the third of seven children. Although poor, they were a respectable family, and Starkweather himself was thought of as a kind, well-behaved boy in his younger years. But he was teased mercilessly by his classmates for a genetic condition that caused his legs to be misshapen, as well as a speech impediment and learning difficulties.

James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" [Wikimedia Commons]

James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” [Wikimedia Commons]

Eventually, Starkweather would eschew academics to focus on his physical achievements, until he became strong enough to bully the kids who bullied him. As a teenager, he became obsessed with James Dean’s rebellious persona, and started styling himself to resemble the actor and espousing more nihilistic views. Little did he know that his own character would later inspire so many other artists, including author Stephen King, who kept a scrapbook on Starkweather in his youth.

“His eyes were a double zero,” King said of the killer. “There was just nothing there.”

Relationship with Fugate and First Murders

By 16 years old, Starkweather dropped out of school. At 18, he started dating Fugate, who was only 13. Starkweather started plotting bank robberies around that time, and it was likely money that motivated him to rob and kill his first victim — a gas station attendant — on December 1, 1957. Some reports also indicate that the crime was personally motivated, as the victim had refused Starkweather when he tried to purchase a present for Fugate on credit.

Fugate’s parents never approved of her relationship with the older hooligan, and when they later refused Starkweather entry to their home, he killed both of them as well as Fugate’s two-year-old sister. The couple lived with the bodies in the house for six days, claiming that the rest of the family were sick with the flu.

Charles Starkweather, 19, admitted mass-slayer, is flanked by sheriff Merle Karnopp (left) and chief deputy Les Hasson (right) as he is led from place of confinement to the courtroom, 1958. [Getty Images]

Charles Starkweather, 19, admitted mass-slayer, is flanked by sheriff Merle Karnopp (left) and chief deputy Les Hasson (right) as he is led from place of confinement to the courtroom, 1958. [Getty Images]

Killing Spree

When Fugate’s suspicious grandmother threatened to call the police, Starkweather and Fugate fled to Bennett, Nebraska, where family friend August Meyer lived. The 70-year-old man offered hospitality to the couple, but Starkweather repaid him by shooting him and killing his dog.

Later that same night, another teenage couple would offer Starkweather and Fugate a ride. Their bodies were found in a storm cellar, both of them shot and their car gone. Seeking a hiding place, Starkweather and Fugate stayed with a prominent businessman in Lincoln, C. Lauer Ward. The next day, Ward, his wife, and their maid were all found dead.

The murderous couple stole Ward’s car and drove toward Washington state, where Starkweather’s brother lived. They saw a traveling salesman napping in his car along the highway, and Starkweather shot him. Before they could drive off in the dead man’s car, another man, Joe Sprinkle, approached the vehicles to see if they had broken down and needed assistance. Sprinkle was alerted to the danger of the situation when he spotted the dead body in the car just in time, and he wrestled with Starkweather over the weapon, managing to grab it.

A deputy sheriff happened to drive along, and that prompted a high-speed chase that ultimately ended in Starkweather’s surrender. Both he and Fugate were arrested and charged with multiple counts of murder.


Starkweather pleaded innocent to all the crimes by reason of insanity. Ultimately, he was convicted, and within a year and a half of the murders he had been executed by electric chair. The fate of his girlfriend was more uncertain — and more controversial — as her role in the murders wasn’t clear. By the time she went to trial, she claimed that she’d been a victim of Starkweather’s, in fear for her life. But some of her statements didn’t support that innocence, including her knowledge of her family’s murders and how she’d lived with Starkweather for those six days after.

Caril Ann Fugate the girlfriend and confederate of teenage murderer Charles Starkweather in jail, 1958. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Caril Ann Fugate, the girlfriend and confederate of teenage murderer Charles Starkweather, in jail, 1958. [Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images]

“Don’t be rough on the girl,” Starkweather had said when they’d been arrested. “She didn’t have a thing to do with it.”

Later, he would change his tune. “If I fry in the electric chair, she should be sitting in my lap,” he said. However, because of her young age, Fugate was sentenced only to life in prison, and was paroled in 1976. She is alive today, living under a different name, and refuses to discuss Starkweather or the crimes she committed with him.

Watch new episodes of A Crime to Remember Tuesdays at 9/8c on Investigation Discovery and with ID Go.

Read more:


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Main photo: Charles Starkweather’s mug shot [Nebraska Penitentiary]

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