These Midwestern Teen Lovers Were The Original 'Natural Born Killers'

Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were only teens when they embarked on a murderous journey that terrified the nation.

By Brittany Du Bois
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Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were perhaps the country’s first killer couple to achieve infamy. Decades after that oft-mythologized duo’s death came a new young pair of lethal lovers: Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.  

While Bonnie And Clyde were known more for their sticky fingers, Starkweather and Fugate were out to kill. The teenage couple were involved in a string of horrific murders in the late 1950s that inspired at least two notable films — Terrence Malick’s 1973 “Badlands” and Oliver Stone’s 1994 “Natural Born Killers.” 

Before the new season of Oxygen’s hit series, catch up on one of the original “Killer Couples” — whose story can still chill to this day. 

The Beginning Of A Murder Spree 

Charles Starkweather was a 19-year-old high school dropout with an IQ four points below the normal range, the Atlantic reported. He was described as tough and provocative, having once wrote of himself: “Nobody knowed better than to say nothin' to me when I was a-heavin' their goddam garbage.” 

Caril Fugate was 13 years old when she first met Starkweather, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. The two became a couple, and the crimes that terrified Nebraska and Wyoming would follow soon after. Starkweather had already committed a murder on Dec. 1, 1957, when he killed gas station attendant Robert Calvert in Lincoln, Nebraska. Fugate found herself involved in Starkweather’s bloodlust in 1958, when she arrived home and found that Starkweather had killed her mother, stepfather and 2-year-old sister on Jan. 21. 

The two disposed of the bodies and stayed in the Lincoln home for several days. The bodies would later be found by police in bizarre places: Marion Bartlett, Fugate’s stepdad, was stuffed in their chicken coop; Velda Bartlett, her mother, was hidden in the outhouse, and baby Betty Jean Bartlett was near her mother, stashed in a cardboard box, according to the Atlantic. 

After neighbors became suspicious, Starkweather and Fugate abandoned the home and set out on a violent odyssey. 

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The Killer Couple Hits The Road 

The teenagers’ first murder as a couple on the run took place in the small town of Bennet. Starkweather killed 70-year-old August Meyer at his own home on Jan. 27. Starkweather shot him and beat Meyer’s dog to death. Meyer was a Fugate family friend, according to the New York Times. That same evening, Starkweather fatally shot a teenage couple, Robert Jensen and Carol King, after they offered Starkweather and Fugate a ride. Starkweather allegedly tried to rape King before ending her life in a rage, according to the Casper Star Tribune

They then stole the car their victims were driving and returned to Lincoln the following day for their next home invasion: The house of C. Lauer Ward, former president of the Capital Bridge Company and the Capital Steel Company. Ward’s housekeeper, Lillian Fencl, let the murderous couple into the Ward house while Ward was out at work, according to the Atlantic. Ward’s wife, Clara, and Fencl were stabbed to death, and when Ward came home later that night, he was shot in the head. 

Starkweather and Fugate then fled to Wyoming on Jan. 29, killing 37-year-old Merle Collison, a Great Falls shoe salesman who was parked alongside a road near Douglas to take a nap, the Atlantic reported. Collison’s body was stashed under the dashboard of his own vehicle. 

The End Of The Line

The murder of Merle Collison would be their last. Just when Starkweather and Fugate were about to continue their road trip, a man approached the car, thinking the couple needed help, Rolling Stone reported. The driver noticed Collison’s corpse, and that’s when Starkweather’s reign of terror reached its end. He and the stranger fought, and a deputy sheriff spotted the altercation. After an intense police chase, including a roadblock and gunfight, Starkweather surrendered. Fugate was left behind during the chase. 

Starkweather was only tried for the murder of Robert Jensen, according to the Casper Star Tribune, although notes from a Nebraska deputy sheriff outlined in great detail the other murders he is widely understood to have committed. He was sentenced to death, dying in the electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in June 1959. 

Fugate, who was 15 by the time her boyfriend died, was sentenced to life in prison for her involvement in the barbaric spree. She was paroled in 1976 after serving 18 years, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. Fugate has since married and moved to Ohio, continuing to claim she was innocent and a hostage of the dangerous Starkweather. At the time, she was the youngest female to be convicted of first-degree murder in the United States, and her link to Starkweather as an accomplice is a legacy she reportedly loathes.

“She regrets everything that ever happened to everyone who died in Nebraska,” her stepson, Tommie Clair, told the Lincoln Journal Star. “There have been many times we sat and cried. You can’t change the past, but she wishes she had never got involved with that guy.” 

For a fresh collection of the most twisted real-life lovers who killed, don’t miss the season premiere of “Killer Couples,” Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. 

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