Archive for Monday, April 4, 2005

Clutter murders reminiscent of Starkweather crimes

April 4, 2005


As news of four murders in Holcomb, Kan., began appearing in newspapers across the country in November 1959, people living in Lincoln, Neb., understood the fear of suspected killers running wild.

Just a year before, Lincolnites had slept with shotguns and the constant fear that the person knocking at their door might be Charles Starkweather.

The short, redheaded Starkweather, 19, was a James Dean look-alike who along with his girlfriend, Caril Fugate, terrorized the state for 10 days in early 1958. They killed at random, entering homes and stealing cars -- and they left no witnesses. In those 10 days, police set up roadblocks, residents began locking doors and Nebraska Gov. Victor E. Anderson called out the National Guard to aid police in the search.

Starkweather and Fugate claimed 11 victims, including Fugate's parents and younger sister. The random nature of the murders only further fueled the fear in Lincoln and elsewhere. Although Lincoln, with just more than 150,000 people, was significantly larger than Holcomb, with 270 people, the reaction to the crimes was similar -- they shook the towns to their cores.

Gone was the baseball and apple-pie innocence of early 1950s America. In its place was a world where certain young people operated on the edge of society, leather jackets and motorcycles were cool and nobody could be trusted. For many who lived through the crimes or knew the victims or killers, the events are a collection of feelings and fleeting memories that come rushing back at the mention of the names Starkweather, Clutter, Hickock and Smith. At every anniversary of the crimes, media and those whose interest was sparked by a book, movie or song go knocking on doors, bringing questions and the memories that come with them.

Both cases grabbed national attention in the late 1950s and haven't much loosened their grip in subsequent years. Law enforcement officers still use vacation time to examine the Clutter case and its methodical investigation. People visiting Lincoln for Nebraska football games often stop at Wyuka Cemetery to see where Starkweather is buried, just to say they've seen the final resting place of the state's most famous killer. The crimes shattered the notion of safety in the Midwest while leaving lasting effects on each community, some negative and some positive. The crimes were similar in the way each community reacted at the time and the way each event stayed on the public radar. In Lincoln, the crimes left a more noticeable legacy, forcing the community to look at itself and reexamine the way its schools and law enforcement worked.

Panic in the Midwest

Trust was an important virtue in both Lincoln and Holcomb before a few gunshots changed everything. After the murders, neighbors locked their doors and slept with shotguns. That knock on the door could be Starkweather. The rustling in the basement could be the Clutters' killers. In Lincoln and Holcomb, visitors phoned ahead, and unexpected visitors were greeted with the barrel of a shotgun.

At the time of the crimes, the United States was in the midst of one of the most paradoxical times in its history. Tensions were running high between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Americans worried about the menace of world communism and many U.S. soldiers were only a few years' home from the Korean war. Despite the apparent turmoil, Dwight Eisenhower cast a calming and low-key presence as president -- he could've been anybody's grandfather.

People built bomb shelters and hoped to be safe from the perils of communism within their own homes. The wide-open spaces of wheat and cornfields in the Midwest were thought to provide a natural buffer against the Communist threat. It was a place where neighbors trusted neighbors and doors were rarely locked at night -- until Starkweather, Smith and Hickock shattered the calm of the respective communities.

"Where could one truly be safe in America?" asked Mark Jarmer, a Garden City Community College professor. "It's so much worse that it happened in Holcomb. This is the dead center of the United States, and it's an area of under 10,000 people. That had to be terribly frightening to people as a culture."

The murders in Lincoln were random, not isolated to just one part of town. Fugate's parents and sister were killed in Belmont, which at the time was a lower-income area of town. Later, Starkweather and Fugate broke into the upscale part of town near the Country Club of Lincoln, killing C. Lauer Ward, his wife, Clara, and their maid.

At the time of the Starkweather murders, Lincoln still had all the qualities of a small town. Although there had been occasional murders, no single homicide approached the widespread fear that gripped the city as Starkweather and Fugate evaded authorities. An editorial in the Lincoln Star on Feb. 20, 1958, declared that Starkweather's crimes had taken a piece of the city's innocence. That small-town feel was gone.

"Lincoln now lacks something that a smaller community has -- a sense of belonging, a sense of being recognized, accepted or disapproved," the editorial read.

While police searched for Starkweather, panic gripped Lincoln. Roadblocks were set up, and police searched from house to house looking for the killers.

Lasting notoriety

The lasting interest in the crime and the time in Lincoln's history isn't much different from that in Holcomb and Garden City. Curious visitors detour their vacations to see the last standing relics of two of the most heinous crimes of the 1950s. They pull up to the lane bordered by Chinese elms that leads to the home where the Clutters were killed in Holcomb. They come to the door of the former Ward house on South 24th Street in Lincoln where three of Starkweather's better-known victims were murdered. They visit the graves of the victims and, in Starkweather's case, the killers.

The attention garnered by the homes is just one sign of the crimes' notoriety after nearly 50 years, thanks to constant references in songs, movies and books. In addition to the book "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote, the Clutter murders were made into a 1967 movie of the same name starring Robert Blake, as well as a TV remake of the movie and an A&E; documentary on the crimes. The Starkweather murders inspired movies like 1973's Badlands starring Martin Sheen and 1994's Natural Born Killers starring Woody Harrelson, and inspired the title track on Bruce Springsteen's 1982 album "Nebraska." In fall 2004 the Wards' granddaughter, Liza, published a fictionalized account of her family's experience called "Outside Valentine."

So the curious pass through Lincoln or Holcomb looking for a personal experience with the murders. Capote did such a masterful job guiding readers through the Clutter house that some can almost see the flashlight beams dancing on the walls or hear Smith and Hickock's footsteps as they climb the stairs. Many want to see whether the house looks the way they pictured it.

"The obsession is that we all looked to them as how we should be," Jarmer said of the Clutter case and Capote's book. "If something that sinister happened to them, could it happen to us? There's a tactile attachment to actually being at the site. It's like you're completing the journey you've started in the pages of that novel. Truman gets us close, but actually being in the house gets us closer. This is a way to personalize our experience with that violence."

The current residents of both houses have managed to accept the occasional intrusion as a small price for living where they do. Leonard and Donna Mader, who live in the former Clutter house, and Kristin and John Bergmeyer, who live in the Ward house, still get visitors near the anniversaries of the crimes and around Halloween.

The Bergmeyers have lived in their house for nearly 2 1/2 years and were aware of the home's famous history before they bought it. About two years ago the Bergmeyers were approached by a group doing a book of historic houses in Lincoln that wanted to feature the Ward house, but the Bergmeyers declined. Kristin Bergmeyer said her family understands the significance of the house but turns down anyone who asks to see inside.

"At that time, there weren't murders like there are now," she said. "People hadn't seen anything like that, and that's why people still think about our house. They associate our house with everything that happened, even though other murders took place elsewhere."

Besides the Maders and the Bergmeyers, others who lived in Holcomb and Lincoln at the time of the crimes also feel the intrusion. Each reporter or tourist's question asks people to relive the fear and horror that swept through their communities one more time, though they've processed the images and feelings years ago, most having made their peace with events. Some care not to revisit history. Others still are far removed from it.

In Lincoln, a visitor at the Wyuka Cemetery came looking for Starkweather's grave, and the sexton was more than happy to oblige. He grabbed a highlighter and traced the route in one smooth stroke like a maze he'd completed one too many times.

Starkweather's grave sits underneath a large spruce tree near the west side of the cemetery. The simple headstone bears the words "Rest in peace" bordered by etched roses. Pinecones and needles that fall from the spruce often cover it.

The grave is one of few tangible reminders of the killing spree and the case that followed. The unassuming headstone has become a popular destination for those passing through, high school students or others interested in the case.

"There's an interest because it was one of the state's first mass murders," said Dale Sutter, a family service representative at Wyuka. "To me, it's a lot like the Kennedy assassination. It's a one-time event, and it sparks a lot of curiosity and interest."

Jarmer said many in Garden City want to remember the victims as people, not characters in books or movies.

"They don't want to remember them as a black-and-white glossy at the sheriff's department," he said. "I think (the attention) is seen as an intrusion because people that came in were sort of capitalizing off the death of their friends. They want to keep the memory of their deaths private."

Gilbert Savery, who served as news editor at the Lincoln Journal at the time of the killings, said the newspapers in Lincoln often received letters from angry readers after stories on an anniversary of the Starkweather murders.

"It creates a difficult decision for news people," he said. "You just have to really decide, 'Why are we doing this?'"

Retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Professor John Knoll lives across the street from the former Ward house. He sometimes sees cars inching down the street, people peering from the windows, looking at a piece of Lincoln's history.

"Why they want to wallow in this is a hard question," Knoll said. "I think it has something to do with a search for black-and-white answers, and a black-and-white world when the world isn't black and white."

  • **
  • After experiencing the most violent crimes their areas had ever known, surely things in Holcomb and Lincoln couldn't be the same. In Holcomb, many wanted to remember the Clutter family and forget the murders. The killers were outsiders, and law enforcement conducted a thorough and effective investigation. Over time, things slowly returned to normal, with no visible permanent changes.

In Lincoln, however, things were drastically different. The community looked hard at law enforcement and other social services. Residents wanted to know how one of their own could have fallen through the cracks in school, and they wanted to change the mental health care system.

The Starkweather crimes forced the Lincoln police department to take a closer look at itself after the agency was heavily criticized for not reacting quickly and efficiently in the opening days of the investigation.

After police in Wyoming finally caught Starkweather and Fugate, ending the three-day manhunt, many within Lincoln asked whether local police had done an adequate job and whether a quicker reaction could have prevented later murders. On Feb. 3, 1958, the city council launched an investigation to determine whether police had acted negligently by not searching sheds where the bodies of Fugate's family were hidden during the beginning of the crime spree. After the 11/2 month inquiry, a special investigator found that the police department showed "no laxity" in the investigation of Starkweather's first murder, that of convenience store clerk Robert Colvert, or the handling of police calls to Fugate's home in Belmont.

Although police were exonerated, the investigator suggested that if a similar crime were to occur again, the police department should do a better job of containing the panic that swept over town. A March 23, 1958, story in the Lincoln Journal and Star said, "The public hysteria which prevailed -- house-to-house searches, roadblock demands, citizens carrying guns -- were all 'extremely dangerous.'"

Some in Lincoln believe the institutional memory of the Starkweather murders has carried over to today.

"The Lincoln Police Department matured as a result of the Starkweather murders," Savery, formerly of the Lincoln Journal, said. "I think the fact of the Starkweather murders was one of the elements that could be pointed to for bringing about a more sophisticated approach to solving crime."

After the Starkweather murders, the Lincoln Police, Nebraska State Patrol and Lancaster County Sheriff shared more information. Also, the Lincoln Police Department brought on meter readers in the early 1960s to free up downtown officers for patrolling.

The department established a generalist approach to investigating crimes in the mid-1970s. At the time of the Starkweather murders, only detectives investigated crimes and gathered evidence at crime scenes. Now any officer in uniform is expected to take crime scene photographs and assist in investigations.

"You didn't see a lot of that back then," said Lincoln police Officer Dave Thurber. "We're a much different department now."

And unlike in Holcomb, many in the community suggested that Lincoln residents themselves shared some blame for Starkweather and Fugate's crime spree.

In a story that ran in the Lincoln Journal on Feb. 8, 1958, C. Vin White, chairman of the executive committee of the Lincoln Action Program, which assists low-income families with basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, explained that the city needed to do a better job of recognizing troubled children like Starkweather.

Before his execution on June 25, 1959, Starkweather wrote his story, which was later published in Parade magazine. He described himself as an outcast who was often ridiculed by classmates because of his red hair and bowed legs. As a teenager, hotrods and firearms intrigued him; he was also involved in several fights before dropping out of school.

"The more I was teased, the more I fought," Starkweather wrote. "I did a lot of fighting throughout my school years and admit they were not all caused by being teased. My rebellion against the world became so strong that I didn't care who I fought with, or the reason why."

Many in Lincoln questioned whether Starkweather could have been helped if school officials had noticed his behavior and kept him from falling through the cracks. At the time, Lincoln had no psychiatric clinics. And although Starkweather was found during his trial to be sane, many in Lincoln wondered whether something could have been done earlier to notice signs of anti-social behavior.

"The committee also realizes the importance of recognizing maladjustment in young children and the part it plays in the prevention of later, more serious emotional disturbances or mental illnesses," White said in the Journal story.

Healing process

Each anniversary brings members of the media to both communities with many of the same questions. They come into town and then leave again.

More recent small-town murders like the 1993 slaying of Teena Brandon in Humboldt have also found their way into popular culture thanks to the story's portrayal in the Academy Award-nominated movie "Boys Don't Cry," which also won Hillary Swank an Oscar for her role as Brandon. On each anniversary of the murder or when one of Brandon's killers appeals their convictions, the cameras come back, head to the local bar and gauge the town's reaction. They're usually gone before nightfall.

"The town is trying to forget," said John Stalder, Humboldt's mayor. "There's no reason to cause more troubles."

That healing process seems to be the common thread between places like Lincoln and Holcomb. Those interested in the crimes couldn't possibly know or begin to imagine what it was like when the crimes occurred. They weren't there when shotgun blasts echoed through farm fields or shattered the small-town feel in Lincoln.

Jarmer said those in Holcomb are dealing with the crimes in their own small ways, although it's impossible for people with ties to the crime to ever really move on.

"I think to move on past 1959, they had to, in a sense, forget about it or not center their lives around it," he said. "You have to have faith, and that doesn't necessarily have to be religious faith. I think that helps them in some ways overcome serious tragedies."

Lincoln's population has grown by nearly 75,000 since 1958, and finding people on the street who lived through the Starkweather murders is difficult. Many more recognize the killer's name, but few can recount the panic that gripped the city.

"It really doesn't come up that often," Savery said. "I haven't had a conversation about the Starkweather murders for two or three years."

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