‘A meanness in this world’

Denver author sheds new light on killing spree that terrorized the heartland

Caril Fugate (left) and Charles Starkweather in Lancaster, Nebraska, January 1958. Courtesy: The 12th Victim

Before the American news cycle was dominated by mass shootings at schools, grocery stores and other public places, there was one killer who tore a hole in the fabric of Midwestern culture: Charles Starkweather.

In 1958, 19-year-old Starkweather murdered the parents and sister of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, at their home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Starkweather took Fugate with him on a killing spree ending in Wyoming that would leave 10 dead, shocking the nation and gripping the heartland in terror. Starkweather was convicted and executed at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1959, and Fugate was sentenced to life in prison the year prior. 

The story captivated the consciousness of the U.S. during a relatively prosperous and seemingly placid time in the country, later serving as inspiration for Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers and Bruce Springsteen’s somber masterpiece Nebraska, among other works of art.

Denver true crime author Harry MacLean, who grew up in Lincoln and was a teenager at the time of the murders, felt the Starkweather saga was fading from the country’s collective memory. He also thought there was more to be said about the guilt or innocence of Fugate, who was paroled for good behavior nearly two decades after her initial life sentence. 

So he set upon a two-year project that would become Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree that Changed America, published in November by Counterpoint Press

MacLean drew on his skills as an attorney, poring over court materials in his quest to better understand the tragic story. He had toyed with writing the book many times before, but didn’t commit until he read about Fugate’s denied request for a pardon in 2020, decades after her parole in 1976. In video clips from the hearing, Fugate broke down crying, insisting she wasn’t in the house when her parents were killed.

“That was the hook,” MacLean says. “Either she was telling the truth, or she was a great actress.” The lawyer side of MacLean kicked in, and he started looking for evidence that Fugate was also a killer. “That pulled me into the story: her guilt or innocence.”

Lisa Christianson
Denver true-crime author Harry MacLean taps into “people’s fascination with the dark side of the human personality.” Courtesy: Harry MacLean 

More to the story

There was another reason MacLean wanted to explore this story. He saw it as overly romanticized, often cast in the same light as the Bonnie and Clyde mythology or portrayed as a dramatic love story in the case of Terrence Malick’s Badlands.

“That I knew wasn’t true,” MacLean says. “There’s a whole reality behind it. I wanted to sink deeper into that.”

Part of that reality involves whether Fugate was an accomplice to the killings. She has maintained her innocence, despite Starkweather’s insistence until his execution that she was in on some of the murders.

By laying out the facts for the reader to interpret, MacLean argues that Fugate was “under duress” during the spree, in a state of PTSD and dissociation partly due to her age. 

“The trauma pretty much disabled her from making a decision to run and escape,” he says. 

The way MacLean tells it, Starkweather had told Fugate that her parents were still alive and being held captive by his “gang,” and she believed him at first. As it dawned on her that they were likely dead, the dire reality of her situation set in. 

Others have long argued that Fugate had multiple opportunities to get away from Starkweather before they were finally caught in Wyoming. But MacLean believes she was too terrified of a man on a murderous rampage, killing people at random in an attempt to become more in death than he ever would be in life.

“That randomness of what he was doing marked him as really the first sociopath who went out and without a particular vengeance, or sense of revenge, just started killing people,” MacLean says. “That’s what he wanted to do, and he did it. He got famous, which was also what he wanted.”

Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree That Changed America‘ was released Nov. 28, 2023. Courtesy: Counterpoint Press

‘What would it take?’

This leads to another key element of the story: Starkweather’s killing spree took place in the early days of mass media, when most families had a television in their home. According to MacLean, Starkweather had a sense that he would end up on national TV — which he did, all the way through the trial coverage and convictions.

“It was right into the living room,” MacLean says. “Which is a lot more powerful than reading a newspaper.”

Untangling the story surrounding this brutal chapter of American history is a continuation of MacLean’s knack as a true-crime writer for tapping into what he calls “people’s fascination with the dark side of the human personality.”

Although MacLean certainly doesn’t characterize Starkweather as “normal,” he says readers are interested in what causes seemingly everyday people to do terrible things. 

“How thin is the veneer [of civilization] and how easily would some of our values and norms dissipate if challenged,” he asks. “There’s a neighbor or a guy in the next town over who looks just like them who killed someone. That raises a question: What would it take?” 

ON THE PAGE: Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree That Changed America is out now in hardcover via Counterpoint Press.