Natural Born Killers?
Updated: May 11
Exploring the killer couple Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, who inspired Oliver Stones 1994 film Natural Born Killers, the explosive couple were also the inspiration for 1973s movie Badlands & 2004 depiction Starkweather.
Hollywood portrays this couple as two crazed lovers full of bloodlust and madness, but was this really the case? Were they really two ruthless killers madly in love like the surreal scenes of Mickey and Mallory.
Lets explore the criminal behaviours of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
It begins in Lincoln, Nebraska Charles Starkweather was one of seven children, he was born November 24th 1938 to parents Guy and Helen Starkweather.
Charles was born with a condition called Genu Varum causing him to be bowlegged and later on in life he also developed a speech impediment. He claimed this had made his life very difficult growing up and he was often teased.
Over time he developed a bit of a chip on his shoulder and started to bully his peers made notably easier as he got older.
Once reaching puberty he started excelling in sport and other physical activities so became stronger than he was as a young child and used this strength to intimidate others.
After leaving school at 18 Charles Starkweather got a job as a refuse worker, not long after this he met 13 year old Caril Ann Fugate, the two of them took a liking to one another and soon became very close and started dating.
Carils parents however seemed to disprove of the relationship and did not want them seeing each other due to the fact Caril was only 14.
Starkweather eventually got fired from his refuse job for not putting in the work, and told he was lazy.
At this time he also lost his rented room due to unpaid rent.
It was shortly after this things would start to take a turn for the worse.
The Murder Spree
On December 1, 1957, Starkweather abducted employee, Robert Colvert, 21 from a Lincoln gas station after the employee had refused to allow Starkweather to get something on working credit (when a person works in exchange for an item). Starkweather took Colvert to a secluded area on Lancaster County road and shot him in the head.
On Sunday January 19th 1958 after they had been dating for some months Caril said she broke up with Charles and told him she no longer wanted to see him, however Starkweather wasn't going to give up at the first hurdle and pursued the relationship with her.
On Tuesday 21st January 1958 Starkweather goes to Carils family home and an argument breaks out between him and her parents, at this point Starkweather becomes angry and proceeds to kill the family, her Step father Marion Bartlett, her mother, Velda Bartlett and Caril’s 2-year-old half sister Betty Jean Bartlett. He then hides the bodies in an outhouse at the back of the property.
Returning from school the same day Caril arrived home to what seemed to be an empty house, but once inside she found Charles Starkweather alone, her sister and parents were not there.
It's at this point she claimed Starkweather tells her that her family are being held hostage and if she doesn't cooperate with him they will be killed.
Caril and Charles then spend the next 6 days in the home during this time relatives came by on two occasions to see where the family were as it was unusual that no one had seen them.
The first visit was from Carils older sister Barbara Von Busch who attempted to visit the property on January 25th 1958, Caril answered the door but wouldn't let her in due to family sickness. Barbara found Carils story somewhat odd and after leaving the property contacted the police and asked them to do a welfare check, which they did and were met by Caril with the same story. Thinking nothing of it they left.
A few days later on the 27th of January, Velda Bartletts mother, Pansy Street (Carils Grandmother) also attempted to visit the family but was turned away by Caril this made her very suspicious so upon leaving she also contacted the police and detectives were called to investigate.
When detectives arrived they saw Caril had placed a note on the front door saying the family were sick and signed it Miss Bartlett which was her 2 year old sisters name not hers which is Miss Fugate.
The note they found on the front door read:
"Stay a way. Every Body is sick with the flue. Miss Bartlett." - Lincoln Star, 28 January 1958.
They knocked a few times but got no answer so looked for other ways to gain entry.
By the time they gained access to the Bartlett property via a window Charles and Caril were gone.
The bodies of her family were discovered later that evening by a family member checking the back of the house as the police had not checked the backyard.
They found the body of 57-year-old Marion Bartlett in a chicken coop, wrapped in old rags. Nearby, in an outdoor toilet, they found the body of 35-year-old Velda also wrapped up. Marion and Velda had died of small-caliber bullet wounds to the head.
The remains of Betty Jean, Marion and Velda’s 2-year-old daughter were found in the outdoor toilet, placed inside a cardboard box. Betty Jean had a skull fracture.
The investigation and hunt for Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate had begun.
Charles and Caril left the Bennett property on the 27th of January it is believed shortly after her Grandmother had left and they headed 20 miles east of Lincoln towards Bennet, Nebraska to the farm house of seventy-year-old August Meyer.
He was shot dead by Starkweather that same day, after they had a disagreement. They spent the night at the Meyers house and the next day hitched a ride with two teenagers 17-year-old Robert Jensen and 16-year-old Carol King after Charles and Carils car got stuck in mud. Starkweather held them at gun-point once in the car, telling them to go towards the Meyers farm, both were shot and robbed, Carol King was stabbed multiple times in the stomach and groin area, and left naked from the waist down, there were no signs of sexual activity.
They took Robert Jensens car and fled from Bennet to the home of industrialist, C. Lauer Ward, in a wealthy part of Lincoln, Starkweather knew about the area from his refuse collection days.
Charles used his gun to threaten Lillian Fencl the wards' maid, to gain entry to the property. The only other person home at this time was Clara Ward.
Both women were led upstairs, Mrs. Ward's body was in a bedroom on the floor, she was stabbed in the chest, back and neck. The Wards' maid, Lillian Fencl, was found in another bedroom, she had cuts on her arms and legs, she was stabbed in the chest and stomach. Both women were bound and gagged.
Mr Ward wasn't home during the murder of his wife and maid he returned later that day and was subsequently killed shortly after returning home.
Mr. Ward's body lay inside the front door. He had been shot in the left temple and the back on the right side and stabbed in the neck.
Caril and Charles fled the property in the Wards car after robbing the house of small valuables, heading west for Washington where Starkweathers brother lived.
While driving Starkweather decided they needed to get a new vehicle as he knew the one he was in would soon be on police radars, noticing a parked car on the side of the road by the turnoff to Ayers Natural Bridge, Charles stopped the car and got out and walked towards the car where Merle Collison, a 37-year-old salesman from Great Falls, Montana lay napping inside.
Waking up Collison, Starkweather tells him to get out when he doesn't Starkweather fires multiple rounds into the car. A by passer Joe Sprinkle notices Charles and the two parked cars so walks over to offer assistance, Charles said he needed help with the emergency brake as Joe Sprinkle approaches the car he notices Merle Collisons body stuffed under the dash board, by the time he looks up Starkweather has a shotgun pointed at his face. Thinking quickly Sprinkle grabs the gun and starts trying to wrestle it from Starkweathers grip. It is at this point Natrona County Deputy Sheriff William Romer drove up.
He got out to investigate, and a young girl comes flying out from Collison’s car running towards him screaming that Starkweather was a mad man. and that he was going to kill her.
“He’s going to kill me. He’s crazy. He just killed a man.” Casper Tribune-Herald, quoting Caril Fugate 30 Jan 1958
Starkweather was already making his get away by the time Dept. Romer had a chance to react to what was going on Starkweather had already begun to quickly drive away to evade capture.
Romer radioed for help and his colleagues immediately set up a road blocks to try to stop Charles, after Caril confirms Starkweathers identity.
After Charles breaks through one of the road blocks a car chase ensues eventually leading to Charles car being shot at by the police forcing him to slam the breaks on. Eventually he surrenders himself when put under direct fire and is bought into custody for questioning and conviction.
Arrest and Trials
Initially Charles admits everything and claims that Caril was a victim that he had held hostage but later on he changes his story multiple times attempting to implicate Caril after he finds out she has turned on him. In his later statements he claims she was a willing participant in the crimes.
Carils statement of events hasn't altered she maintains to this day that she went along out of fear and because she thought she was protecting her family who were being held hostage. She claims she didn't know her family had already been killed until the evening that they were both arrested, it is noted on records that she was prescribed a sleeping aid by the on duty Doctor while in custody because she wouldn't stop crying after learning about the death of her family and was allegedly inconsolable.
There has been much debate over the years and in court regarding Carils role in the events of those 60 days spanning from 21, December 1957 - 29, January 1958
From May 5th to the 23rd, 1958 Starkweathers Trials took place, he was found guilty on 1 count of murder for Robert Jensen and sentenced to death. He wasn't tried for the other murders as he was executed at 9.45am 25th June 1959.
Caril was sentenced to life imprisonment. Her trial took place from October 27th to November 21, 1958. She served 18 years and was released from prison in 1976.
Is this a true case of a spree killer couple with a taste for blood and carnage or is this a case of a spree killer and his young impressionable hostage girlfriend.
When looking at some of the behaviours of both Caril and Charles you get a partial look into the dynamics of their situation.
After they are arrested Charles changes his version of events multiple times, his initial statement corroborates the statement Caril had given and also the evidence the police had at that time, however later on he changes his statement on a few occasions.
He then pleads not guilty, and also does his best to implicate Caril as a driving force and instigator in regards to what had occurred.
Although this idea that Caril is the driving force to the murders does not account for Starkweathers first victim Robert Colvert, Caril was not present at this mans murder and had no influence over it whatsoever. This demonstrates that Charles was already capable of killing by his own devices without the influence of other people such as Caril.
It also doesn't account for what happened as the sheriff arrived at the scene of Merle Collisons murder, Caril ran towards him in hysterics this is very telling of the situation when you compare her reaction at the sight of the Sheriff verses Starkweathers they were not the actions of a person who was happy or seemingly willing to be in that situation. Whereas Charles sped off at the sight of the Sheriff this is behaviour indicative of guilt and of someone who doesn't want to be found or caught.
Charles also has a history stemming from childhood of intimidation and bullying which has been recounted in public statements by those who personally knew Charles, whereas Caril wasn't known for violent or aggressive behaviours.
Caril has always maintained her innocence her version of events has never changed, there are many instances where she gives examples of times she had tried to alert people in subtle ways so that Charles wouldn't realise what she is doing to avoid him getting angry. An example of this is the note she wrote and placed on the front door of her home which she had signed as Miss Bartlett in the hopes someone would realise something wasn't right. A two year old wouldn't of been capable of writing such a note.
Police evidence and witness statements also corroborate many of these claims suggesting she was not as willing of a participant as it would first seem.
Although Caril Ann can come across as quite an emotionless person and was often criticised because of this, it also didn't go in her favour during her trials.
However after many years of study on how hostages react in times like this regarding emotions and compliance, we now know this behaviour is quite normal and is a symptom of PTSD some of the psychological effects are "shock and numbness; fear and anxiety (but panic is not common)" - The Psychologist.2004;17:118–19.
"helplessness and hopelessness; dissociation (feeling numb and ‘switched off’ emotionally); anger (at anybody – perpetrators, themselves and the authorities); anhedonia (loss of pleasure in doing that which was previously pleasurable); depression (a reaction to loss); guilt (e.g. at having survived if others died, and for being taken hostage)" - Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,102(1), 16–21
She has still been emotionally affected by the events that occurred in 1958. This can be seen a few years later during an interview for a documentary. Caril is questioned about her family and the families of the victims. She becomes quite emotional (by her standards) and attempts but fails to hold back the tears and apologises for it happening but maintains that she did not kill anyone.
"I'm deeply sorry it happened, and I swear to almighty god I never killed any of them and I only went because I had no choice" - Caril Ann Fugate, Growing up in Prison.
It has also been theorised that the couple were suffering from shared delusions. It is thought the suspected folie à deux/ shared psychosis allowed Starkweather to neutralise and justify his actions because he found another person who somewhat accepted it helping him to rationalise his crimes. This becomes evident in the statements he gave to the police.
But in order for this theory to apply, they would of had to be in a state of shared psychosis.
Keeping that in mind it also has to be considered that this was a Dominant - submissive relationship. If this was the case research shows that on many occasions in these types of relationships the submissive person will go along with things even if they don't feel completely comfortable with the situation. When put in the same situation alone their choices will differ to the choices they make when in the company of their dominant partner. This stems from the type of codependency these couples have. The submissive person is driven to please the dominant person, and the dominant person is driven by that desire to please them, reaffirming each others actions.
So with that in mind Caril could of also seemed to be okay with what was happening even if she wasn't, but due to her drives to please Charles she didn't attempt to stop or prevent what he was doing.
The possibility of fear induced compliance is also very relevant in this case, Caril knew by the point of Charles killing August Meyer that he was definitely capable of murder, previous to this she had also claimed that Starkweather had told her he had her family hostage and he would kill them. So after knowing of the murder of August Meyer, her experiences with Starkweather had reinforced that he was a dangerous man and could kill her if he wanted to. This knowledge will of impacted her actions when it came to making decisions such as trying to escape. She would of only attempted this at a time she would deem to be safest for her.
Overall the idea that Caril was in a position that was more of a hostage situation than a shared psychosis is very plausible based on the evidence of the case and current knowledge on the psychological and emotional impacts on behaviour, that these type of traumatic events have on people.
Knowledge they didn't have at the time of conviction.
If this was the case much of her behaviour after her arrest would be easier to explain in regards to her trying to rehabilitate and become part of society again and her willingness to be productive and a functioning member of the community.
That said we always have to consider that Starkweather was being truthful and she was a willing accomplice in his reign of terror in those early months of 1958.
Article from Crime Does Not Pay Vol 2 issue No:7 1969
Timeline of crime associated behaviour
Charles Starkweather began the murder spree on December 1 in Lincoln, 1957 He shot a gas station attendant Robert Colvert 21.
January 21 Marion Bartlett, 57; Velda Bartlett, 36; and Betty Jean Bartlett, 2 ½, family of Caril Ann Fugate, killed.
January 27 August Meyer, 70, killed in Bennet farm home.
Robert Jensen, 17 and Carol King, 16, killed near Bennet.
January 28 C. Lauer Ward, 48, Lincoln businessman, his wife, Clara, 46 and their maid, Lillian Fencl, 51, killed in their Lincoln home.
January 29 Merle Collison, 37, Great Falls, Montana shoe salesman, killed near Douglas, Wyoming; Starkweather and Caril captured near Douglas.
Total of 60 days at large Killing Spree spans from 21, December 1957 - 29, January 1958
Starkweather goes to trial for the murder of Robert Jensen May 5-23, 1958 found Guilty receives the death penalty.
Caril Fugate goes to trial October 27th - November 21st, 1958 found Guilty recieves life imprisonment
Charles Starkweather executed at 9.45am 25th June 1959
Caril Fugate released 1976 served 18 years
Ninette Beaver, B.K. Ripley, and Patrick Trese, Caril (Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott Co., 1974), p. 29.
Lincoln Star, 28 Janaury 1958-25 June 1959.
Omaha World Herald, 28 January 1958-25 June 1959.
“No Charges Placed Against Girl,”Casper Tribune-Herald, 30 Jan. 1958,p. 1.
Drury J. No need to panic.The Psychologist.2004;17:118–19.
Alexander, D. A., & Klein, S. (2009). Kidnapping and hostage-taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience.Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,102(1), 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1258/jrsm.2008.080347
https://lincolnlibraries.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/StarkweatherTimeline.pdf - Retrieved 18/04/2020
Muel Kaptein & Martien van Helvoort(2019)A Model of Neutralization Techniques,Deviant Behavior,40:10,1260-1285,DOI:10.1080/01639625.2018.1491696 - Retrieved 18/04/2020
Charles Starkweather. (2010).Biography.com. Retrieved 23:27, 3/04/2020 fromhttp://www.biography.com/articles/Charles-Starkweather-233080
Fugate v. Gaffney, 313 F. Supp. 128 (D. Neb. 1970)