Charles Starkweather was born in Nebraska
, the son of a respected working class family. His family life was good, but his school life was difficult; he had a mild congenital defect that misshaped his legs, as well as a speech impediment, both of which drew the bullying of fellow students. He also suffered from severe myopia that went undiagnosed for most of his early life, and had a major effect on his ability to learn in class, which frustrated him. In high school he became much more troubled, and began to bully other students using his physical strength. Around this time he also developed an obsession with actor James Dean
, connecting to his portrayal of a disaffected teenager in the film Rebel Without a Cause
, he began to emulate Dean in action and dress. At eighteen he met the 13-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, with whom he became infatuated. He dropped out of school and sought employment at a warehouse near her school so he could visit her after school. He was thrown out of his family home after allowing Fugate to drive his father's car, which she crashed into another car. He then quit his job at the warehouse and took work as a garbage collector. During this time he began to develop a nihilistic view of life, frequently expressing the view that dead people were all equals.
At the end of November 1957 he attempted to purchase a gift for Fugate from a gas station. The attendant refused to allow him to buy the toy on credit, enraging Starkweather, who left. He returned the following day in possession of a shotgun and entered the store twice, each time purchasing a small item before leaving. He returned to the store a third time and held the attendant at gunpoint, obtaining $100 from the register before forcing him into his car and driving him to a remote area. There, after a brief scuffle during which the attendant was accidentally shot in the knees, he shot him in the head, killing him. He went to Fugate and confessed his crime, though claimed that someone else had killed the attendant. She did not believe him, suspecting he had shot the attendan, but remained in a relationship with him nonetheless. Just under two months later, in late January of 1958, Starkweather went to visit Fugate. Finding her not at home, he instead encountered her mother and stepfather, who ordered him to stay away from Fugate. Enraged, he shot both, then strangled and stabbed Fugate's two-year-old half-sister. Fugate returned home to find her family slaughtered, and assisted Starkweather in hiding the bodies, then wrote a note advising visitors to the house that they should not enter because the occupants of the house had the "flue." They remained in the house for seven days, fleeing ahead of the arrival of the police, contacted by Fugate's grandmother. The pair fled to the farmhouse of a family friend, who was shot by Starkweather, later claiming self defence for the otherwise apparently motiveless killing. The pair then left the farmhouse, and were soon forced to abandon their vehicle after driving it into mud. They were picked up by two teenagers, who they forced to drive to a secluded location and shot, with Starkweather claiming he killed the boy while Fugate shot the girl. They stole the couple's car, and drove to a wealthy area in their hometown of Lincoln. There, they entered the home of a wealthy businessman, where they found the man's wife and maid. Starkweather later claimed that Fugate was responsible for stabbing both women to death, though he admitted to shooting the businessman when he arrived home. After killing the man, they stole some jewelry and his car, fleeing the state and travelling to Wyoming. Needing to ditch the car, as it was too flashy, they spotted a travelling salesman sleeping in his car. Rousing him, they then killed him, with Starkweather claiming that Fugate delivered the killing blow, and stole his car. However, the car had a push-pedal brake, and as they attempted to drive away Starkweather, unfamiliar with it, accidentally stalled the vehicle. While attempting to restart the vehicle he was approached by a passerby who offered to help. Starkweather threatened the man with the rifle, and the pair struggled, which was put to a stop by the arrival of a deputy sheriff. At this point Fugate fled the car, calling for assistance. Starkweather fled from police in the businessman's car, but gave himself up after the back window was shattered by a bullet and he believed he had been shot, when in fact he had been wounded by the glass from the window.
Immediately after his arrest, Starkweather claimed that Fugate had been a hostage, and had been an unwilling accomplice. However, in the time leading up to his trial he modified his account greatly, eventually claiming that she was totally complicit, and had committed some of the murders. Starkweather was only charged with one murder out of the eleven total committed during the spree. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed by electric chair in the early hours of June 25th, 1959. He was 20-years-old.
In Other Media
Starkweather's case has been extremely influential in pop culture. Notable films based on the case include The Sadist
and Natural Born Killers
, while films explicitly featuring his case include Starkweather
, where he is played by Brent Taylor, and the TV movie Murder in the Heartlands
, where he is played by Tim Roth. His story was also the basis for an episode of the television series Criminal Minds
, entitled "The Thirteenth Step." He appears in the books Outside Valentine
and Not Comin' Home to You
, as well as having several characters based on him throughout the works of Stephen King
. He is the central character of the song "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen
and the song "Badlands" by Church of Misery.