Was Caril Ann Fugate Charles Starkweather’s Accomplice Or His Victim?

Published January 2, 2024
Updated January 25, 2024

Did 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate help Charles Starkweather kill 10 people across Nebraska and Wyoming in January 1958 — or was she one of his victims?

Caril Ann Fugate

Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesThough Caril Ann Fugate was convicted of helping Charles Starkweather murder 10 victims in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958, she maintains her innocence to this day.

When she was just 13 years old, Caril Ann Fugate met Charles Starkweather. He was five years older than Fugate and she was enamored by his charms and James Dean-like style. Before long, she was following him everywhere, in cars across town, then across the country, and on all of his delinquent escapades — even when they ended in murder.

Starkweather, a high school dropout and a garbage truck driver, started his murder spree on Dec. 1, 1957. From there, he quickly escalated — even killing members of Fugate’s own family — and eventually murdered 11 people before his arrest at the end of January 1958.

Both Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were charged with murder. Starkweather was executed, while Fugate was sentenced to life then paroled. But her exact role in his murder spree has been debated ever since. Was Caril Ann Fugate a victim of Starkweather’s, as she later claimed? Or was she his eager accomplice?

The Fateful Meeting Of Caril Ann Fugate And Charles Starkweather

Born July 30, 1943, Caril Ann Fugate had a normal childhood growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska — until she turned 13. Then, in 1956, her sister introduced Fugate to a friend of her boyfriend’s named Charles Starkweather. Though Starkweather was five years older than Fugate, the two hit it off.

Caril Ann Fugate And Charles Starkweather

Bettmann/Getty ImagesCaril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather before their killing spree.

Starkweather could be kind — he taught his younger girlfriend to drive a car, for example — but he had a dark side, too. Bow-legged, and with a slight stutter, Starkweather had been mercilessly bullied in school. He was a social outcast with an anger streak and Fugate later claimed that she’d tried to break things off with him.

“I told him I didn’t want to see him again but he came back,” she later claimed. “I kept telling him to leave. I told him to leave and I didn’t ever want to see him again.”

But Starkweather seemed infatuated. When he killed his first victim, a gas station attendant, on Dec. 1, 1957, Starkweather claimed he did so in order to steal $100 so that he and Caril Ann Fugate could run away together.

Inside The Teenage Couple’s Blood-Soaked Killing Spree

On Jan. 21, 1958, Charles Starkweather killed again. And this time, he targeted his girlfriend’s family. Starkweather murdered Caril Ann Fugate’s father, stepmother, and even her two-year-old half sister, Betty Jean.

Charles Starkweather Mugshot

Nebraska State PenitentiaryA mugshot of Charles Starkweather from 1958.

Fugate claims that she had no knowledge of her family’s murder. In her pardon application, as reported by the Washington Post, Fugate said that she came home to find Starkweather pointing a gun at her. She claims he told her that her family was being held hostage by two members of his gang.

“He threatened me by telling me that if I didn’t do everything he said that he would make one phone call and have his gang kill my family and it would be my fault,” Fugate said said.

Six days later, they took off together on one of the most infamous killing sprees in American history. They killed a farmer, two high school students, and a couple and their housekeeper. Fugate has maintained that she did not participate in any of the murders, but admits that she took a wallet from one of the high schoolers as they lay dying.

On Jan. 29, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate pulled up behind a traveling shoe salesman who was asleep in his Buick near Douglas, Wyoming. Starkweather shot him in order to steal his car, but the sight of two vehicles pulled over on the side of the road attracted the attention of another driver — and a Wyoming sheriff’s deputy.

As Starkweather and the third driver grappled for Starkweather’s rifle, the deputy pulled up. And Caril Ann Fugate saw her chance. She ran toward the deputy screaming: “Save me! Save me! He’s going to shoot me, too!”

Though Starkweather briefly escaped, police quickly caught up with him. Then, he and Caril Ann Fugate were both arrested and charged with murder.

Was Caril Ann Fugate Innocent?

Caril Fugate

Carl Iwasaki/Getty ImagesCaril Ann Fugate in prison in 1958, after being arrested along with Charles Starkweather.

Upon her arrest, Caril Ann Fugate claimed that she’d had no knowledge of her family’s death and that Charles Starkweather had orchestrated the entire killing spree. Starkweather, though he initially backed her up, later said that she’d been a willing participant in the murders.

“Well, by now, I’m sure he hates me for running away,” she said at a press conference when asked why Starkweather would claim she was his accomplice. “He’s trying to make it look like I’m just as guilty as he is.”

Starkweather was found guilty and sentenced to die by the electric chair. Fugate, the youngest female to be charged with first-degree murder at the time, was also found guilty after Starkweather testified against her. She was sentenced to life in prison. But though Starkweather was executed on June 25, 1959, Fugate served just 17 years of her sentence.

Caril Ann Fugate In Prison

Denver Post Archives/Getty ImagesCaril Ann Fugate in prison in 1973, shortly before her release.

After leaving prison, Caril Ann Fugate worked transitioned back to normal life. She worked as a medical technician and a janitorial assistant before she retired, and got married in 2007 (her husband died in 2013).

Over the years, several movies have been made that are inspired by the famous crime spree, including Badlands and Natural Born Killers. Fugate’s life with Starkweather even inspired Bruce Springsteen to write the song “Nebraska” about it, immortalizing the pair as a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo.

“Me and her went for a ride, sir, and 10 innocent people died,” Springsteen sings in the song.

But Caril Ann Fugate always maintained her innocence. In 2020, she applied for a full pardon in order to clear her name.

“The idea that posterity has been made to believe that I knew about and/or witnessed the death of my beloved family and left with Starkweather willingly on a murder spree is too much for me to bear anymore,” she wrote in her application according to the Washington Post. “Receiving a pardon may somehow alleviate this terrible burden.”

However, Fugate’s pardon application was denied. As such, perhaps no one will ever know exactly what happened between Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate during their brief but bloody killing spree. Was Fugate an innocent victim, as she claimed? Or a trigger-happy accomplice, as Starkweather testified?

Only Caril Ann Fugate herself knows for sure.

After learning about Caril Ann Fugate, Charles Starkweather, and the murders that shocked America, read about the gruesome deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. Then, learn about other serial killer couples.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Serena, Katie. "Was Caril Ann Fugate Charles Starkweather’s Accomplice Or His Victim?." AllThatsInteresting.com, January 2, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/caril-ann-fugate. Accessed May 23, 2024.