The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Immortalized in Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska,’ the former girlfriend of notorious killer Charles Starkweather asks for pardon

In this 1958 photo released by police, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate are shown when the teenagers were wanted for questioning in a killing rampage that claimed 11 lives in Nebraska and Wyoming. (AP) (Uncredited/AP)
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Caril Ann Fugate was 14 years old, an eighth-grader in Lincoln, Neb., when her boyfriend whisked her into a stolen 1956 Packard to accompany him on one of the most terrifying killing rampages the Midwest had ever seen.

She was on the brink of 40 when she immortally became the girl in the Bruce Springsteen song “Nebraska,” “standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton.”

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

But now Caril Ann Clair — who, since married, no longer goes by Fugate ― is 76 years old, and the legacy is weighing on her. It’s been more than six decades since her boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, killed 10 people in Nebraska and one in Wyoming, including Clair’s own family, and was later executed by electric chair.

Clair was convicted of first-degree murder as Starkweather’s accomplice in 1958 and served 17 years of a life sentence for the killing of Robert Jensen, a high school student.

Now, insisting she was never a willing participant, which she has maintained since the moment she escaped from Starkweather in 1958, Clair is asking for a full pardon. She said she can’t bear the burden any longer.

“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 the pardon application, which was obtained by The Washington Post and reported earlier by the Omaha World-Herald. “Receiving a pardon may somehow alleviate this terrible burden.”

Clair’s pardon application, first filed in 2017, is set to go before the Nebraska Board of Pardons on Feb. 18. It is the second time she has sought a pardon. The board denied her a hearing in 1996.

Her attorney, John S. Berry, told The Post Thursday morning that he hopes officials overseeing a more enlightened justice system will see Clair as a child victim, coerced into the car by a manipulative boyfriend. She was convicted in what Berry called “the bad old days,” before defendants had Miranda rights, and long before the justice system acknowledged the vulnerability of juveniles. At her trial, Starkweather, by then sentenced to death, served as the chief witness against her, claiming she was a willing participant — something Berry says he believes never should have happened.

“There are people in Nebraska, the ones who remember this — they can’t quote Chief Standing Bear or Willa Cather. But by God they can quote Charles Starkweather, when he said, ‘She should be sitting on my lap [in the electric chair],' ” he said.

Clair’s guilt or innocence has been a subject of great debate in the decades after the infamous murders. The 1973 film “Badlands,” which was loosely based on the crimes, didn’t help Clair’s case, depicting a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like rampage through the Badlands.

But by Clair’s telling, she was “terrified and did whatever he wanted me to, as he told me his gang had my family held hostage and they would be murdered if I didn’t do what he said,” as she wrote in the pardon application.

At the time of the murders, Starkweather was 19, a “flame-haired, bowlegged” high school dropout working as a garbage truck driver in Lincoln, as the Lincoln Star described him in 1958.

He killed his first victim, a gas station attendant, on Dec. 1, 1957, and stole $100. He told the Beatrice Daily Sun in a 1958 interview that he only killed the man for money, “so that he and Caril could run away” — but then realized he wanted to kill again.

On Jan. 21, 1958, he chose his next victims: Clair’s own family.

He killed her mother, her stepfather, and her 2-year-old half sister, Betty Jean. By Clair’s telling, she came home from school to find an empty house and Starkweather pointing a rifle at her, she says in her pardon application. The story he told, she claims, is that two boys in his gang were holding her family members hostage in the back shed. She has said she didn’t know her family was dead until after she was arrested.

“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,” she said.

They took off on the rampage on Jan. 27, 1958, when Starkweather killed a farmer and two high school students: Carol King and Jensen. Clair admits being present but not by choice, and acknowledges at Starkweather’s instruction she took a wallet out of Jensen’s pocket as he lay bleeding. The next day, Starkweather killed a couple and their housekeeper, and then they fled in the Packard to Wyoming, driving all through the night.

Law enforcement at the time cast doubt on Clair’s account by questioning why she didn’t escape from Starkweather at several opportunities. Berry, however, said that as soon as Clair spotted a police officer in Wyoming, she immediately ran away.

It was the middle of the night on a dark county road a few miles outside Douglas, Wyo., a cattle town that had once prided itself in being “the home of the jackalope.” It was about to become the site of a notorious gun battle.

Starkweather pulled over behind a Buick parked on the side of the road. The man inside, a traveling shoe salesman from Montana, was asleep in the driver’s seat. Starkweather shot him — just as a geologist from Casper, Wyo., drove by. The geologist, believing two cars might have had a bad accident, got out to offer assistance.

“Can I help you?” he asked Starkweather, according to an account the geologist, Joe Sprinkle, gave the Lincoln Evening Journal three days later.

“Raise your hands,” Starkweather responded. “Help me release the emergency brake or I’ll kill you.”

Then Sprinkle saw the dead man at the wheel. He lunged at Starkweather, wrestling him to the ground in the middle of the highway and snatching away the rifle. A Wyoming sheriff’s deputy happened to be driving along the road and stopped.

Immediately, Clair ran to him.

She said, “Save me! Save me! He’s going to shoot me, too,” according to the deputy in an interview with the Evening Journal. She said Starkweather had “just killed a man,” and she had been his hostage.

“She just sat there in a high state of excitement as I radioed ahead to try and stop him,” the deputy said.

Starkweather, leaving the geologist standing there and his gun in the road, sped off in the Packard — the beginning of a dramatic police chase that reached speeds upward of 100 mph, police said then. Eventually police caught up, opening fire on him until suddenly Starkweather stopped in his tracks in the road, got out, and surrendered.

“I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done/At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun,” Springsteen sings in “Nebraska,” writing from the perspective of Starkweather.

In the years after Clair was released from prison, she remained mostly quiet, until the 25th anniversary of the killings, when her name was splashed in headlines again. Desperate for vindication, she went on a lie-detector TV show. The former Lincoln police chief insisted that positive results “wouldn’t convince me she was not a willing companion of Charlie.”

“I have been told that because of what happened, I’m public property, and there’s nothing you can do if someone wants to keep doing this to your life,” Clair told the Lincoln Journal in 1983.

“And all these years, I have kept quiet,” she said. “But no more.”

Clair would go on to live and work as a hospital orderly in Michigan. Her husband died in a car accident in 2013.

In Clair’s pardon application, Clair’s stepsons, a former Nebraska prison warden, and the granddaughter of a husband and wife whom Starkweather killed were among those who submitted letters of support, while a relative of Carol King, Dave Ellis, told the Lincoln Journal Star the murders were too horrific to deserve any pardon.

Liza Ward, the granddaughter, said she had been haunted all her life by what happened to her grandparents, C. Lauer Ward and Clara Ward. But after “extensive research” and deep thought, she felt Clair should be pardoned.

“Even if one were to remain unconvinced of Caril Fugate’s outright innocence in the murder of Robert Jensen,” Ward wrote, “perhaps one might find her not culpable, and by doing so thereby travel to a place in which she is found deserving of this pardon. I very much hope that Caril Ann Fugate departs this earth with some measure of peace in knowing that her side of the story has been heard and honored.”

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