In December of 1957, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather murdered a gas station attendant named Robert Colvert in cold blood. Though he stole money from the register, the motive seems to have been more from a desire to kill than simply robbery as the attendant did not resist, and Charlie took him for a ride before killing him. Though several people informed the police that they had suspicions about Charlie, the police never thoroughly investigated him as a suspect.
The following month, with the money he stole all spent, he was fired from his job, was unable to pay his rent, and he learned that he was going blind. To add to everything else, his girlfriend Caril Fugate broke up with him. A few days later, he murdered her mother, step-father, and baby half-sister. Caril Fugate walked home from school with a friend, and did not return to school the next day. For the following week, several family members came to the door asking to see the family. They were all sent away by Caril, who told them that everyone was sick with the flu. She placed a note on the door which read, "Stay a way. Everyone is sick with the flu." It was signed Miss Bartlett. The family members explained to the police that this was likely a hint that something was wrong, as the only "Miss Bartlet" in the home was the baby half-sister.
When the police refused to investigate further, Caril's brother-in-law and Charlie's brother broke into the house, then checked a chicken coop in the back. There, lying in a heap, were the bodies of Caril's mother and step-father. Her baby half-sister's body was found stuffed below the outhouse. She had been stabbed to death.
The following day, they found the body of a farmer near Bennet, Nebraska, August Meyer, and the body of two teenagers who had gone missing the night before, Robert Jensen and Carol King. They had all been shot to death. Even though Carol King's books were found along the highway in the direction of Lincoln, the police were sure Charlie had gone east toward Iowa, or toward Kansas, and investigated in that direction.
The day after that, three more bodies were discovered, this time in the affluent area of Lincoln, near the country club. C. Lauer Ward, his wife, and their maid were found murdered in their own large home. The entire city panicked. Gun stores were sold out within a couple hours. Posses formed, and the National Guard was called in, which went door to door searching for Starkweather.
But he had already left town, heading northwest through the Sandhills into Wyoming. There, he found a parked car with a man, Merle Collison, sleeping inside. Starkweather shot Collison, then found that his car did not start. Another man, Joseph Sprinkle, came along and, thinking it was Charlie's car that was having trouble, offered to help. Charlie pointed his gun at Joseph, but thinking quickly, Joseph grabbed the gun and they began wrestling for it in the middle of the street.
Caril noticed a police car behind a nearby milk truck. The officer inside did not see what was happening, so she ran to him screaming. She jumped in his car, and at last the officer, Bill Romer, understood one word: "Starkweather." He froze. Charlie at last saw what was happening, and jumped in his car. Romer called ahead for other officers to go after him, and soon a chase ensued that reached more than a hundred miles an hour. When a bullet nicked Starkweather's ear, he stopped and jumped out of his car screaming and holding his head.
District Attorney Elmer Scheele arrived in Wyoming with his legal team to take Charlie and Caril back to Lincoln. Both could fight extradition, but Charlie did not want to remain because Wyoming had a gas chamber and, as he put it, he did not like the smell of gas.
Caril was a different story. She continuously asked about her family, if they were okay, and where they were. She asked to see them several times. No one told her they were dead. Scheele and his team sat her down and questioned her for a long time, never offering an attorney, nor properly explaining to her that she was being charged for murder. As far as Caril understood, she was being asked questions about the events to be used against Charlie. She explained that she had left the note on the door and dropped the books out the window of the car as ways to get the attention of the police. She also showed them a note that was in her pocket which she had written asking for someone to help. Scheele had already determined her guilt, and was there only to gather information to be used against her. Thus, all the evidence she provided that proved her innocence was ignored, especially since there was no attorney present to represent her.
Despite all this, Scheele was still unable to gather much evidence against her. She did admit to holding a gun on the King girl, claiming that she did it, among other things, because Charlie had threatened to kill her family if she didn't. Half way back to Lincoln, Caril was finally told that her family was dead. When she arrived in Lincoln, young Caril Fugate, only 14-years-old, was at last informed that she was being charged for murder. She was told this by her court-appointed attorney, John McArthur.
Ever since his capture, Charlie had been telling the same story as Caril, that he had kidnapped her, and she had gone along to save her family. That all changed when Scheele went to visit him one day and told Charlie that Caril was telling the press that Charlie was crazy. It was the push-button issue for Charlie. He hated being called crazy so much that he had even refused to go along with an insanity plea which could possibly save his life. When he learned that Caril was calling him crazy, his story changed. In fact, it changed seven times in one week, then more times after that. Every time he told what happened, the story changed, sometimes saying Caril killed only the girls, other times saying she killed her family, sometimes saying she killed only one person. "Caril Fugate was the most trigger happy person I ever met," he said. His goal became to take her down with him, saying famously, "When I go to the electric chair, I want Caril Fugate sitting right there on my lap."
With very little physical evidence to go on in court, it came down to Charlie's word of what happened on the road versus Caril's. Scheele and his police force went along with Charlie's version. A conviction for Caril would be the best distraction from the investigation that was taking place into their inability to capture Charlie during the murder spree, or during the month before.
They got their conviction. Despite the fact that Caril's story never changed while Charlie's were all absurd, (he made such claims as Caril was a mind reader and that the King girl's body had magically moved into the cellar,) the jury believed that Caril would have escaped if she was truly innocent. They also had difficulty believing Caril when she appeared on the witness stand stone-faced. She looked remorseless, and to them, this equated to guilt. She was given life in prison.
After the trial was finished, however, it was discovered that one of the jurors had made a bet that Caril would be found guilty. This issue, along with other problems during the trial, gave rise to a multitude of appeals, which went all the way up the legal ladder to the US Supreme Court.
It is one of the most complex and infamous legal battles in the history of the country.