Nebraska denies pardon for killer Starkweather’s ex-girlfriend

Grant Schulte
Associated Press
John S. Berry Sr., center, attorney for Caril Ann Clair, attempts to comment during the Nebraska Board of Pardons hearing in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

Lincoln, Neb. — Nebraska’s pardons board refused Tuesday to pardon the murder conviction of the ex-girlfriend of Charles Starkweather, the infamous killer who went on a rampage in the 1950s that was later immortalized in movies, books and two hit songs.

The board voted 3-0 to deny the application from Caril Ann Fugate, even though some relatives of Starkweather’s victims lobbied in her favor. The board is composed of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and Secretary of State Bob Evnen, all Republicans.

This 1993 photo shows Caril Ann Fugate. She was 14 when she accompanied her 19-year-old boyfriend, Charlie Starkweather, on a bloody journey that left 11 people dead, including her mother, stepfather and baby half sister, before the pair was arrested in Wyoming.

Fugate, 76, who now lives in Hillsdale, Michigan, was 14 when Starkweather, then 19, went on a killing spree in 1957-58 that left 11 people dead in Nebraska and Wyoming, including her mother, stepfather and baby half-sister.

The murders stoked so much fear around Lincoln that law enforcement conducted a house-by-house search of the city and the governor contacted the Nebraska National Guard. It also formed a loose basis for the 1973 movie “Badlands,” with Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, as well as other films. The killings were the subject of Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Nebraska,” and referenced in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Fugate spent 18 years in prison on a murder conviction before she was paroled in 1976. She has since married and lives under the name Caril Ann Clair.

After her release from prison, she moved to Michigan and worked 20 years as an orderly for Ingham Regional Medical Center. She led a quiet life in Michigan but was haunted by what happened when she was a teenager, said relatives.

Starkweather was executed in 1959 at the age of 20.

Fugate wrote in her pardon application that the perception that she willingly joined Starkweather on a murder spree is “too much for me to bear anymore.”

“Receiving a pardon may somehow alleviate this terrible burden,” she wrote.

After the vote, Peterson said he denied the application because the purpose of the pardons board is to restore a felon’s rights, and Fugate’s request was “much, much broader” than what board members could offer.

“That’s not the role of the pardons board,” he said.

But the vote infuriated some of Fugate’s allies, who were denied a chance to testify. Fugate applied for a pardon once before, in 1996, and was rejected. This time, she had an unusual ally, the granddaughter of two of Starkweather’s victims.

Liza Ward of Duxbury, Massachusetts said she became convinced that Fugate was innocent after researching the case and visiting all the sites where people were killed. Ward is the granddaughter of S. Lauer and Clara Ward, who were killed in their Lincoln home in December 1958.

“There are a lot of people who support her, and we’re going to let her know that however we can,” Ward said through tears after the board’s vote. She said she started investigating the case to discover what had happened to her grandparents, and “the more I learned, the more I realized that something wasn’t right.”

Fugate’s attorney, John S. Berry Sr., said his client sought clemency to bring her some closure in the case.

“She’s not after anything else other than to clear her name,” said Berry, who also co-wrote a book arguing that Fugate’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

But Dave Ellis, a relative of another victim, said he was pleased with the board’s decision. Ellis said he believes Fugate killed his first cousin once removed, Carol King, because King’s body was partially mutilated after Starkweather raped her. Ellis said he thinks Fugate mutilated her out of “female rage.”

Ward said she could find no evidence of Fugate’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and noted that Starkweather was the prosecution’s main witness against her, even though he had changed his story multiple times and was likely angry because Fugate had told him she never wanted to see him again.

Ward said she believes Fugate was a victim of Starkweather’s and that the public’s perception of her guilt is based on misinformation and hearsay about the case.