Liza Ward thought she knew the facts of a crime that, in many ways, defined her childhood. That crime spree, for a while in the late 1950’s, also defined Douglas for much of the rest of the country.
Now, 70 years later, it has also drawn Ward back to the Wyoming community as she revisits the nationwide story that often becomes a center point of Douglas lore.
In 1958, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate went on a killing spree that ultimately ended in Converse County. Prior to being arrested, Starkweather had taken 11 lives on his deadly excursion from Nebraska to Wyoming. Among the victims were Fugate’s parents, a family friend, a young couple who stopped to give them a ride and a wealthy Lincoln couple, industrialist C. Lauer Ward and wife Clara, along with their maid Lillian Fenci and dog Susie. Following the murders, Starkweather and Fugate escaped in the Ward’s 1956 Packard and raced along I-80 toward Wyoming, before turning onto I-25.
Fifteen miles outside of Douglas, Starkweather decided the Packard was too hot without air conditioning and pulled over at the Ayres Bridge turnout where traveling salesman Merle Collison was taking a nap in his Buick. Starkweather shot him and attempted to steal his car. When it stalled, a passing motorist stopped to help, only to be threatened by Starkweather with a rifle, at which point a deputy sheriff arrived on scene. Seeing this as an opportunity to save herself, Fugate flew out of the car and down the middle of the highway toward the sheriff screaming, “It’s Starkweather! He’s going to kill me.”
In court, Fugate claimed that she had been kidnapped and had taken no part in any of the murders. Initially, Starkweather also claimed she was innocent, later recanting that and instead calling her the “most trigger-happy person” he had ever met. Fugate continued to deny the charges and refused to take a plea deal, ultimately serving 17 years in prison until her release in 1976.
Starkweather was extradited back to Lincoln, where he was sentenced to death and executed 17 months later.
The love story of the murderous couple captured the nation’s horror and imagination, inspiring Bruce Springsteen’s forlorn ballad “Nebraska” as well as many popular movies with A-list celebrities, including “The Sadist,” “Badlands,” “Kalifornia,” “Natural Born Killers” and the “Frighteners.”
As the granddaughter of Lauer and Clara Ward, Liza has played her own leading role in a crime she’s inherited. Last month, she once again found herself on the shoulder of 1-25 outside Douglas staring downslope as Fugate had done decades earlier, trying to put the ghosts at bay. Above her head, storm clouds gathered in an angry purple clump before opening into a torrential downpour in a sky that less than an hour ago had been clear blue and sunny.
For better or for worse, she was back in Wyoming to study the crime scene as she attempts to write another version of the Starkweather story. This time her own, she said – the true one, if such a thing is possible.
Nearly a decade ago, she’d written a fictional account of the crimes in her critically acclaimed novel “Outside Valentine.” She thought she’d put her nightmares to rest.
Her ghosts refused to be stilled.
After struggling through her 30s to write a second novel, she’d finally given in when a relentless crime show producer finally wore her down and convinced her to be interviewed for a real-life retelling of the famous couple’s crimes. Caught up in the frustration of writing and social withdrawal after the birth of her son, Liza relented and agreed to the interview.
“People are obsessed with this story,” she said from her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. “It’s impossible to let it go.”
In some ways, the experience was as bad as she imagined. Sitting under the glare of hot lights in front of a television camera, suddenly an expert of all things Starkweather, Liza recounted the facts as she remembered, regurgitating the number of times her grandmother had been stabbed, the tilt of her grandfather’s hat on his forehead where he laid face down on the floor with bullet wounds in his back, the murky role in her mind that Fugate played, hostage perhaps but not quite an innocent accomplice in Liza’s mind.
She was confused by mysterious new details that came out of the filming of the show, such as crime scene photographs in a second-hand store in Plymouth, Nebraska, that she’d read an article about in the Casper Star Tribune. As did the note from Fugate reading, “Help police, please don’t ignore” that had somehow gone lost in transit between Nebraska and Douglas – a note Liza recently learned about as she did more research for the show. There was also the lone bottle of Oregon Trail soda pop found in the backseat of the Packard she’d heard was in the Pioneer Museum in Douglas.
The new clues opened up a new chapter in her mind, forcing her to once again revisit the crime spree. So, for the past several weeks, Liza had been retracing the couple’s murderous tracks from Omaha to Wyoming.
After tracking down the crime scene photos, which apparently had been hidden by the newspaper photographer in a crawl space, she saw details that didn’t line up with the facts that she read in newspaper articles and books over the years. Her grandmother, for one, was dressed in a sweater and skirt, not the nightgown that everyone reported she’d been wearing. In the photos, Susie, the dead dog with the broken neck, peered with big eyes from underneath the bed skirt, loyally watching over her master. And very much alive.
What else was she missing, she wondered, as she drove the desolate highway toward her last stop in Douglas, stopping along the way to piece together the mystery, obsessing over Fugate’s role in the brutality. What did Fugate – or any 14-year-old girl – know about life anyway, Liza wondered, let alone being able to stand up to the first guy who told you he was in love with you.
In Gering, Liza discovered the cell where Starkweather had supposedly written his confession on the wall. That spot had long since been converted into offices. Another sheriff in Lincoln still had Starkweather’s wallet, from which he showed Liza the smiling photos of the young couple looking very much in love. Yet, in Fugate’s rarely seen booking photo, she sat on a cot in her cell with big, hollow eyes and impossibly tiny shoes, Liza said, looking scared and starved.
After visiting her grandparent’s Packard on display in North Platte, Liza just kept driving, suddenly feeling lonely in a weird way as she navigated along the two-lane highway toward Douglas.
Once in town, Liza visited the lone soda pop bottle on display at the Wyoming Pioneer Museum. She spoke to the owner of the College Inn Bar, who showed her a photo of herself in a cell in the basement of the old jail in the old City Hall on Third Street where she’d been told Starkweather had been held; Liza didn’t have the heart to tell her it was the wrong jail. The former jail that had held the couple has long since been demolished.
“Tracking down 60 years of history hasn’t been easy,” she said. “Many of the places have changed or are no longer there (like Fugate’s family home outside Omaha) and many of the people involved are no longer alive.”
A visit with Dick Pexton, Jim Wilcox and Bill Volman and the other “coffee guys” at the Whistle-Stop Books & Mercantile shed new light on the high-speed chase through Douglas that some could remember hearing as Starkweather’s wheels careened over the railroad tracks at upwards of 100 mph as he led officers down 4th Street to Signal Hill (near the current Safeway), where he ultimately surrendered.
A bullet shot by former Converse County Sheriff Earl Heflin reportedly shattered the windshield and shards of glass spattered Starkweather deep enough to cause bleeding, at which point he stopped and threw up his hands.
“He thought he was bleeding to death,” Helfin reportedly said. “That’s why he stopped. That’s the kind of yellow son of a bitch he is.”
Some of the coffee guys remember “a young kid going fast” while another remembered someone’s mother-in-law taking a troop of Cub Scouts to the jail, where she lifted each one up, so he could stare through the bars at Starkweather in his jail cell.
Liza hungrily absorbed each clue and recollection as the story she thought she knew suddenly reshaped itself in her mind. Finally, all these years later as Liza stood in the same spot along the side of the highway where Fugate had thrown herself at the mercy of the Converse County sheriff’s deputy, she had a new understanding of how this story might have actually ended.
Like Fugate, she felt a foreboding sense of dread on the highway outside of Douglas.
“I felt like an outsider, like she did,” Liza said. “I felt the same forlorn emptiness.”
She also felt her grandmother’s presence and her belief that she had sent Liza on this journey for truth.
“She would have wanted me to forgive her,” she said of Fugate. “I know she would.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Liza is working on a memoir and invites anyone with facts or recollections about the Starkweather crimes and arrest to email her at: email@example.com