Revisiting Starkweather murder spree was personal for true crime author Harry MacLean

Best-selling true crime author and Nebraska native Harry MacLean knew he’d one day examine the most infamous crime in Nebraska history, the 1958 Charles Starkweather murder spree. 

But MacLean’s reluctance to revisit his own fraught upbringing in Lincoln, where most of the murders occurred, kept pushing that day further away. 

Until now.

MacLean offers his own take on one of the nation’s first mass media serial killings in his book “Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree That Changed America,” published in November.

An attorney by training, he set out to make the most thorough review yet on the culpability of  Starkweather’s 14-year-old accomplice, Caril Ann Fugate, the extent of whose participation has long been debated.

The spree – which claimed 11 lives, gripped much of the state in a panic, and sparked a manhunt that ended with the duo’s capture in Wyoming – became embedded in popular culture thanks to the film “Badlands,” Bruce Springsteen’s song “Nebraska” and scores of books and articles. 

MacLean retraced the footsteps of these mythologized outlaws whose paths intersected with his and his brother Mike’s at various Lincoln haunts the two parties frequented, though they never met.

Despite being from a stable middle class family, the MacLean brothers were juvenile delinquents, Harry MacLean says, acting out and deeply traumatized after losing their father when Harry was 7. The boys set fire to a residential garage, drawing a response by firefighters. They took a joyride in a stolen car and, with Harry at the wheel, crashed it into a tree. 

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The incidents brought them into the orbit of Lincoln detective Gail Gade, who a few years later oversaw one of the Starkweather crime scenes, and Hulda Roper, a Lincoln policewoman assigned to incorrigible youth. She counseled Fugate around the same time. 

The brothers were one more incident away from the Kearney reform school. Support got them on the straight and narrow. The specter of dredging it all up is why MacLean, who lives in Denver, said he “walked up to doing” the book several times until finally starting. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to come out of it the way I went into it,” he said, “and I was right. With any book you do, the deeper you get into it the better the writing. So I had the writer’s immersion but then the immersion into my own past added to it. It was like 24-hours-a-day, particularly the last three or four months. … All that process was very intense.”

Author and Nebraska native Harry MacLean said researching and writing his latest book, “Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree That Changed America,” was a more personal undertaking than previous works. Courtesy photo by Lisa Christianson

He visited Lincoln attorney Jim McArthur, whose father John McArthur was Fugate’s defense attorney. Jim handled her later appeals. His basement contains boxes of old trial files. 

MacLean’s many hours sifting through them proved “extremely valuable,” he said.

The files revealed the biased law enforcement and judicial systems arrayed against Fugate in a hostile environment that saw her rights violated, MacLean said. She was interrogated for hours without legal counsel and while heavily sedated. No consideration was given to the trauma she endured before, during and after Starkweather’s capture. 

“They didn’t even do a social evaluation of her where they went back to look at her childhood, talk to classmates, teachers, neighbors,” he said. “There is (a social evaluation report) on Charlie because his counsel entered an insanity plea.”

If authorities had bothered to try to understand her, he said, they would have discovered her father was a violent alcoholic and a pedophile. As it was, she received no psychological evaluations and treatment despite being kept at a mental hospital awaiting trial.

MacLean entered his project prepared to lean in whatever direction the evidence led.

“It didn’t matter to me as a writer which way the story went. Guilty or innocent, it was going to be more thorough than had ever been done before. I’m talking facts. Not inferences, not speculation, not rumors.”

He concluded she should never have been tried as an adult and given life imprisonment based on the evidence and the inconsistent testimony of her homicidal boyfriend. Starkweather, who was 19 at the time of the killings, originally confessed to all the murders, stating Fugate had nothing to do with them, only to change his story.

Caril Ann Fugate, 14, of Lincoln, Neb., sits in the Converse County sheriff’s office in Douglas, Wyo., Jan. 30, 1958. Miss Fugate was captured with Charles Starkweather, accused murderer of 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming. (AP Photo)

Ultimately the facts could only take MacLean so far. He theorized, in part from writings the killer made in his jail cell while awaiting execution, that Starkweather felt driven to go out in a blaze of glory as a way to fulfill dark visions he claimed to have.  

“Those sorts of creative insights were much more intense, much more exciting in this than in any other book I’ve ever written. That was a brand new experience for me.”

The book alternates between objective descriptions of the legal proceedings, reconstructions of the murders and MacLean’s interpretations of Starkweather’s and Fugate’s mindsets.

Perception played a role in Fugate’s conviction. Much was made of her cold, remorseless demeanor. MacLean believes she suffered a dissociative break. 

In the harsh rush to judgment against Fugate, he said, the only one who expressed public outrage initially was John McArthur.

That changed over time. Based on a book of the same name, the 2023 Showtime docuseries “The 12th Victim” painted a more sympathetic portrait of Fugate. 

Starkweather’s conviction and execution were certain given the overwhelming physical evidence against him. Fugate admitted to holding a gun at some crime scenes and to warning him of victim Lauer Ward’s arrival home. She said she only did this because she was ordered to and was afraid for her life.

Her actions, even coerced, still constituted felonies, MacLean conceded.

The state was convinced she took a hands-on role in some of the killings. Prosecutor Elmer Scheele believed that, despite her denials, she was present when Starkweather killed three members of her family, that she was involved in the killing of the Wards’ maid, and that she participated in the robbery and killing of a young couple, Bobby Jensen and Carol King. Fugate only admitted to the robbery.

MacLean is certain the evidence shows she was not home when Starkweather killed her mother, stepfather and 2-year-old half-sister. As for any involvement in the other murders, he doubts she did more than what she said she did under duress.

Caril Ann Fugate, 14, obligingly flashes a smile for photographers from the back seat of a car after arriving in Lincoln, Neb., from Douglas, Wyo., Jan. 31, 1958. She and her boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, were convoyed here by authorities after their arrest in Wyoming. Both have been charged with the murder of 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming. (AP Photo/William P. Straeter)

A nagging question incriminated her in the eyes of many: Why didn’t she escape when she, by her own admission, had the opportunity to?

“Most of the rationalizations for the hostility to her was that she could have run,” MacLean said. “Well that ignores the whole trauma psychology fight, flight or freeze analysis that I go through in the book.”

He pointed to Fugate’s claim that she screamed but couldn’t make a sound or move when Starkweather killed Bennet-area farmer August Meyer. 

“That’s what dissociated people say. She was saying that 30 years before it was in the contemporary language, which to me gives her credibility.”

MacLean is convinced classism worked against Fugate, who was perceived as “poor white trash” and “a bad girl.” Her admission to being sexually active with Starkweather was used to impugn her character, even though by law she was the victim of statuary rape. 

“Having sex at 13-14 offended people in a way that was completely different than their take on Charlie.” 

MacLean believes Fugate, a model prisoner at York Women’s Reformatory, was both a victim of trauma and a miscarriage of justice. The case against her appeared based more in moral condemnation than fact. He hopes to have given crime historians a fuller, fairer picture of her.

Courtesy of Counterpoint

He did not interview Fugate. After receiving parole in 1976, she led a productive life in Michigan, married and legally changed her name to Caril Ann Clair. 

She and her husband got into a serious car accident that killed him and crushed her legs. She later suffered a stroke that largely robbed her facility for speech. Now 80, she resides in a nursing home.

“I’ve read so many explanations, her testimony, her statements over the years that I don’t think there’s anything she could have added that I didn’t already know,” MacLean said. “I also didn’t want to run the risk of re-traumatizing her.”

He finally met with her when his book was nearly done, though he had no intention of mentioning the book.

“When I did I thought there might be a very negative reaction because she doesn’t feel she has been portrayed accurately or fairly. So when finally toward the end I told her she became very interested and did not shut down like I suspected she might.” 

MacLean knows his book is now part of the Starkweather subculture. If it begets a docuseries or movie – he confirmed producers are expressing interest – it will only inspire more fodder for true crime fans.

The crime’s sinister legacy may be different for Lincoln natives who remained than it is for MacLean, who left. He feels anyone even remotely touched by it lost a sense of innocence. On visits back, even all these years later, he detects resentment by those old enough to remember that the murders tainted Lincoln’s small-town charm.

He expects Fugate doubters to “come after my book – I don’t expect to go unchallenged.” 

In 2020, the three-member Nebraska Pardons Board unanimously rejected her request to have her murder conviction pardoned. Several family members of one of the victims heralded the decision, according to the Lincoln Journal Star

A spokesman for then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, a member of the board at the time, told the newspaper that Clair, formerly Fugate, continued to change her story and that the crimes she participated in “were horrific and depraved, and created immense public fear.”

MacLean thought he might get pushback at his Lincoln signing in November. The fact no one took issue with him, he said, may indicate a softening. At least he hopes so.

“Nebraskans are nice, kind, forgiving people,” he said. “I think some of that’s finally wound into it, too, where they’re able to say, ‘Look, she was 14 when this happened, and if she did do something we don’t know what it was, but for God’s sake let it go at this point.’”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

By Leo Adam Biga

Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga has been telling stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions for four decades. The Omaha native and UNO graduate is a freelance contributing writer for various print publications and online media platforms. His work has been recognized by the Omaha Press Club, the Nebraska Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association He is the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" and "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden."

8 Comments

As a 16-year-old in Cozad, Nebraska, in 1958, I remember thinking that
Ms. Fugate was more a victim than participant in Starkweather’s crimes. I look forward to reading this book. My thanks to the Flatwater Free Press’s story about it.

While researching this article, did you see or consult the book “Caril” by Ninette Beaver, B.K. Ripley and Patrick Trese? Ninette was a co-worker at KMTV with my husband, Ben Cohen. The book is very supportive of Caril Fugate and was published in 1976. Just curious. I was living in Omaha when these horrendous events took place. Everyone was scared to death. The banker couple in Lincoln (Wards?) were friends of my aunt and uncle.

I was 12 years old when this happened, living in Ralston, NE at the time. I never believed that Caril Ann had anything to do with what Starkweather did. Some years ago I read Ninette Beavers’ book, “Caril,” and was convinced that she was innocent. I will be reading this book, and hoping that someone reads it out loud to former Governor Ricketts. Or to current dictator Pillen. I know that neither one of them will read it. Thank you for sharing this story!

I remember when I visited my aunt on the farm, we kept the door locked and being scared of playing outside when there- I heard that Starkweather was on the loose and killing.

We owned property adjacent to the highway where they were captured in the badlands east of Douglas. I personally think she was very fortunate to have been paroled at all and have no sympathy for her. Too many people are excused for their actions because of a difficult childhood.

I was a young child living on a farm an hour from Lincoln. We listened to the news — somewhat, but not completely, relieved — as Starkweather and Fugate moved further west. Later in the UNL theater department, I met Charlie’s brother. I was surprised he hadn’t changed his name, although not everyone recognized it. Fair and handsome, like his brother, he seemed, on the contrary, very clean-cut. I always felt for Fugate, many did, especially with some passing of time.

It’s rather clear that sexism, pure & simple, is driving the growing sympathy for the pos accomplice of the pos. And no, I will no longer being using the names of these evil pos’s , and I encourage others to stop using their names. The time has come to forget their humanity as they forgot the humanity of their innocent victims.

BTW, notice that neither this author nor FFP named the victims of this evil? For some reason, we have elevated evil above innocence/innocents. NOT IN MY NAME! No dollars for a book about evil.

My god, what have we become?

My parents said she should have been executed with Charles Starkweather. I know I would never go with anyone who killed my parents even if I feared for my life. Sometimes you have to take a stand for what is the right thing to do even though you lose your own life.

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