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Backstory: Photos tell story of ‘James Dean wannabe’ on infamous murder spree through Nebraska and Wyoming

Charles Starkweather is taken from the Converse County Jail on Jan 1, 1958. Starkweather was involved in one of the area's most infamous killing spree that left 11 people dead, including a child. (Photo by Chuck Morrison, Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)

CASPER, Wyo. — Douglas, Wyoming is likely little known to people outside of central Wyoming, but in January 1958, the small town became a media epicenter with a terrifying week-long murder spree that started in Lincoln, Nebraska before ending in Wyoming.

Media at the time was transfixed by the story of a swaggering killer, his teen girlfriend, and the couple’s deadly road trip that ended in a high speed chase and shootout. After it was all done, 11 innocent people had been killed entirely at random.

Born poor, bow-legged and mercilessly teased for a speech impediment, Charles Starkweather stewed with anger through childhood. By 18, he had dropped out of school and delivered papers and hauled trash for income. He also became romantically involved with a 13-year-old girl named Caril Ann Fugate.

According to wyohistory.org, it’s parental disapproval of the relationship that sent Starkweather over the edge.

Described in later reports as a “swaggering good-for-nothing in blue jeans and a black motorcycle jacket,” Starkweather started his murder spree by killing gas station attendant Robert Covert, 21, on Dec. 1, 1957.

That murder went unsolved for the next several weeks as Starkweather’s violence escalated.

On Jan. 19, 1958, Fugate says she came home to find only Starkweather, who she said threatened to kill her stepfather Marion Bartlett, her mother Velda Bartlett, and her half sister, 2-year-old Betty Jean Bartlett. In reality, all three were likely already killed, bodies hidden in outbuildings on the property.

After seven days hiding in the home and sending off visitors, the pair drove 15 miles to 70-year-old August Meyer’s home in Bennet, Nebraska. Starkweather had bogged the car down in mud, and Meyer offered help. Instead, Starkweather shot the man in the head before breaking the weapon while beating Meyer’s dog to death.

Fugate testified later that his sadistic outburst made her believe her only option was to obey Starkweather’s every command.

The next round of violence came hours later when Robert Jensen, 17, and girlfriend Carol King, 16, offered the couple a ride. Starkweather raped King before shooting them both to death, leaving their bodies in a storm cellar.

Now driving Jensen’s car, the couple headed back to Lincoln looking for shelter. They ended up in the home of local businessman C. Laurer Ward, his wife Clara, and housekeeper Lillian Fencil, who all perished at Starkweather’s hands.

Driving Ward’s 1958 Packard, the couple fled Nebraska and headed to Washington State by way of Wyoming.

In Wyoming, Starkweather decided the stolen, new luxury automobile was too conspicuous and needed to be replaced.

Near the turnoff to Ayers Natural Bridge, he came upon traveling shoe salesman Merle Collison, 37, who had stopped for a nap in his car. When Collison refused to exit his vehicle, Starkweather shot him several times through the window.

Starkweather couldn’t figure out how to disengage the parking break in Collison’s car, stalling the vehicle several times while trying to leave the scene.

During this, Casper resident and Sinclair Oil man Joe Sprinkle stopped his vehicle to assist what he thought was a stranded couple.

When Sprinkle noticed Collison’s body, Starkweather grabbed his shotgun but was unable to shoot when Sprinkle put up a fight.

Just then, Natrona County Sheriff William Romer drove up to the scene. Fugate ran to the officer screaming while Starkweather jumped back into the Packard and started toward Douglas.

Romer gave chase and radioed for help. Douglas officers set up road blocks, which Starkweather blew through. The chase exceeded 100 mph through downtown Douglas. Converse County Sheriff Earl Heflin fired while in pursuit, shattering the Packard’s back window and spraying glass through the car.

Starkweather, slightly wounded and bleeding, stopped the car. More shots were fired before the killer surrendered.

Wyoming Governor Milward Simpson was known to be against the death penalty but deferred the case to Nebraska prosecutors.

On January 31, Starkweather was returned to Nebraska and stood trial in May. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, and on June 25, 1959, he died in the electric chair.

As for Fugate, Starkweather originally claimed she was a “captive” and had nothing to do with the murders. He later changed his tune. It also appeared when Fugate was taken into custody in Douglas that she didn’t realize her parents had been killed. When she as told of the murders days later, she “broke down, twisting tissues into tiny doll shapes.”

When Natrona County Sheriff officers testified against her, Fugate was sentenced to life in prison. She spent 18 years in the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women and was a “model prisoner” before being paroled in 1976.

She now reportedly lives in Michigan and still maintains she never willingly participated in the spree.

Photos from Starkweather and Fugate’s capture and arrest made by Casper Tribune-Herald photographers Chuck Morrison and Carl Ketchum are preserved at the Casper College Western History Center.

The full story of Starkweather’s rampage can be read in Lesley Wischmann’s article for wyohistory.org, where much of the information for this post was gathered.

Cutline from Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 31, 1958: “Killer Goes Home: Mass-murderer Charles Starkweather is led from Converse County jail in Douglas [Wyoming] by Sheriff Merle Kanopp of Lancaster County, Nebraska, and Captain Harold Smith of the Nebraska State Patrol. The handcuffed confessed slayer was returned to Lincoln to face first degree murder charges after Converse County Attorney William P. Dixon declined to prosecute here.” (Photo by Chuck Morrison, Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Original cutline: “Multiple Killer Confesses: Charles Starkweather, 19, of Lincoln, Neb., slouches in Converse County jail in Douglas after his gun-point capture Wednesday [Jan 29] afternoon. The confessed killer told officers he died his shabby red hair with black shoe polish to mislead his armed pursuers. Starkweather wrote a confession Wednesday night, but details of his story were not made known to reporters.” (Tribune-Herald Photo by Carl Ketchum, Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Cutline from Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958: “Deputy Sheriff Romer brings in the 15 year old companion [Caril Fugate] to the teenage killer after he chased Starkweather into the waiting arms of the Converse County peace officers. Romer carries the youth’s arsenal, emptied when Starkweather brutally shot a Montana salesman west of Douglas.” James Garrett is on the left in a leather jacket and on the far right is Douglas Police Chief Robert Ainslie. (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Deputy Sheriff Bill Romer inspecting a shotgun. Sheriff Earl Heflin is standing behind him and the unidentified officer with his back to the camera is possibly Douglas Police Chief Robert Ainslie. Caril Fugate stands to the far right. (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Cutline from Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958: “Girl in Separate Custody: Deputy Bill Romer turns Caril Fugate over to Converse County Undersheriff Bill Owens after the girl accompanied Romer on a wild pursuit of her killer-companion. She was placed under sedation when the excitement of the capture left her in a state of shock.” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Cutline from Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958: “Killer’s Companion Breaks Down: Caril Fugate, 15, sobs in the Converse County Sheriff’s office in Douglas [Wyoming] at the end of her 7-day ordeal with Starkweather. Deputy Sheriff William Romer, left, of Casper chased the killer to begin the end of his chain of murders. A deputy sheriff, right, stands by as County Attorney William Dixon interviews the girl. Starkweather gave Dixon a confession late Wednesday. Sheriff Earl Heflin, at telephone, kept the Nebraska youth under heavy guard all through the night as mobs of thrill seekers surrounded the jail.” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Cutline Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958: “Now It’s Over: Caril Fugate sits a moment of calm as she waits for medical treatment for her shock. Alternately sobbing hysterically and sitting quietly, she told officers ‘he made me sit in the car with that dead man.’ Witnesses said her eyes were surrounded by puffed red circles as if she had been ‘crying for days.’ When Deputy Romer approached the death scene, she broke from Starkweather and ran to Romer’s car. She accompanied him during part of the final chase.” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Deputy Sheriff Bill Romer, left, sits in a chair as Sheriff Earl Heflin, at his desk, talks on the phone. Calendar on the wall says “Wednesday, January 29, 1958.” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958, original cutline: “Douglas [Wyoming] Officials Tell Story: Converse County Attorney Bill Dixon telephones a report of the capture to Nebraska officials as Police Chief Bob Ainslie and Sheriff Earl Heflin stand by to fill in details. Both Ainslie and Heflin shot into Starkweather’s speeding car, causing him to surrender at the ‘sight of his own blood.” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Cutline Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958: “Officers Check Death Scene: Peace officers from Natrona and Converse counties, Douglas and Casper Police Departments, and Wyoming Highway Patrol check the death scene where a Montana salesman was brutally shot west of Douglas. The close-working teams of officers quickly threw up heavily armed cordons when they learned Starkweather was in the area.” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Caril Ann Fugate is seen in the back of a patrol vehicle. (Chuck Morrison, Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Cutline Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958: “Bullets Stop Starkweather: Douglas Police Chief Robert Ainslie points to one of two bullet holes he and Converse County Sheriff Earl Heflin shot into Starkweather’s stolen car. The impact of the high powered bullets splintered the glass, cutting the youth’s ear. Sheriff Heflin said later, ‘He turned yellow when he saw his own blood spilled.'” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Cutline Casper Tribune-Herald, Jan. 30, 1958: “Hot Seat: The bullets fired by pursuing officers narrowly missed Starkweather’s head, but shattered glass cut his ear. At one time during the chase, Police Chief Bob Ainslie hooked bumpers with the killer, but the attempt to force him into a downtown service station failed as the bumper on the 1956 Packard straightened out. All told, three bullets struck the car as the chase roared through quiet Douglas [Wyoming].” (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Back of Packard Starkweather used as a getaway car, showing shattered back windshield with a bullet hole in it. (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Funeral of Starkweather victim, with casket still above ground. (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
An unpublished image scanned from the original negative shows the stolen 1958 Packard in which Starkweather and Fugate were captured. (Chuck Morrison, Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
An unpublished image scanned from the original negative shows the stolen 1958 Packard in which Starkweather and Fugate were captured. (Chuck Morrison, Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
In a previously unpublished image scanned from the original negative, Douglas Police Chief Robert Ainslie is seen talking with a member of the press. (Chuck Morrison, Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Douglas officers are seen in their office in a previously unpublished image. (Chuck Morrison, Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
Unidentified people are seen standing next to a garage in an image made by newspaper photographer Chuck Morrison. The previously unpublished photo was included in Morrison’s coverage of the Starkweather story. (Chuck Morrison, Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)

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