Charlie Starkweather’s girlfriend — Caril Ann Fugate, 14 when she was arrested in the murder spree that shocked Nebraska and numbed the nation — was in critical condition late Tuesday after a rollover Monday night in Michigan.
The crash killed her 81-year-old husband, Frederick A. Clair, who was driving north on Interstate 69 when his 1997 Ford Explorer drifted off the right side of the road, cut left across two lanes of traffic and rolled in the median.
A Kalamazoo TV station, citing unnamed sources, initially reported Fugate Clair had also died but later corrected its story. The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department said earlier Tuesday she was expected to recover.
Caril Ann Fugate Clair is 70, married, living in Ohio and continuing to maintain her innocence, as she has since her first-degree murder conviction in 1958 for the robbery and killing of a 17-year-old from Bennet.
Her role has been debated for decades: Murderous accomplice to Starkweather, whose 11 killings in 1957 and 1958 included Fugate’s mother, stepfather and baby sister on Belmont Avenue?
Or vulnerable, frightened teen -- another victim of Starkweather?
Starkweather's family long has maintained justice was served unevenly, with his father saying often the girl should have been “sitting on Charlie's lap” when he was executed in the electric chair June 25, 1959.
But Lincoln attorney John Stevens Berry, who is co-authoring a book about Fugate, has concluded she didn’t get a fair trial.
“When you meet her and you see what she has done with her life, it’s amazing,” he said Tuesday. “She’s an amazing human being. That she survived Starkweather was amazing. That she survived the legal, judicial and penal proceedings to which she was subjected was amazing.”
Fugate — at the time the youngest female to be convicted of first-degree murder — was originally sentenced to life in prison. She served 18 years before her sentence was commuted to 30 to 50 years.
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The spree, Nebraska’s deadliest, made Fugate a cult hero, a dark cultural icon. The couple’s crimes, flight and capture inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and the Martin Sheen movie, “Badlands.”
She moved to Michigan after she was paroled in 1976. She lived quietly, privately, but went on the air with Berry on a Lincoln radio station in 1996, the same year she was denied a pardon.
She said she had tried to break up with Starkweather before the killings. She said she was a hostage. She said she feared he would kill her, too.
“Don't you think that I, every day of my life, that I think to myself, 'Why, dear God, didn't he just kill me and be done with it?'" she said, according to a transcript of the interview Berry provided to the Journal Star.
Fugate Clair worked as a medical technician for 20 years. She met her husband — a former grocery store owner — at a casino, friend Linda Battisti told the Battle Creek Enquirer. They lived in Stryker, Ohio, in that state’s northwest corner and about 70 miles from the accident site.
But she returned to Lincoln multiple times to meet with Berry, he said, most recently in the past two years. She brought her husband. They had lunch.
Berry and Battisti are writing “The Twelfth Victim,” which is expected to be released this fall.
“We know a great deal about her childhood and her upbringing and I’ve gone over her trial with a fine-tooth comb and have been astonished by the things we have found,” Berry said.
He hopes she recovers from the accident to see the release of the book. But what she’s accomplished since leaving Nebraska is remarkable, he said.
“She fulfilled her goal of getting involved in nursing, getting married and living a normal life.”