You probably know her better as Caril Ann Fugate, who was just 14 when she joined Charlie Starkweather in the killing spree that paralyzed Lincoln 56 years ago this month.
And who was 15 when her boyfriend was strapped to the electric chair. And 33 when she was paroled, slipping out of Nebraska and largely out of public view.
But Tommie Clair knows her as his stepmother, Caril Clair, the gentle but haunted woman who met and married his father later in their lives -- and who is still recovering from the early August accident that killed her husband.
“She loved my father. I know that, there’s no doubt about it, and my father loved her and took care of her,” he said. “They pretty much did everything together.”
The two had met at a casino nearly a decade ago, and they were planning to gamble late Aug. 5, headed north through the rain from their home in Ohio to FireKeepers in Battle Creek, Mich.
Their Ford Explorer drifted right, then cut left, rolling into the Interstate 69 median.
The impact killed 81-year-old Frederick Clair, who had been driving. Caril Clair, 70, was flown to Kalamazoo, her body crushed, her right arm and leg each broken in several places, Tommie Clair said.
“Originally, they thought she was dead. They had to put her all back together and she was in intensive care for the longest time.”
They delayed their father’s burial for weeks, he said. They thought they’d be planning a double funeral.
But Caril Clair fought. And she remained in the hospital this week, more than five months later, he said. She can’t move her right side. She’s alert but struggles to form words.
The hospital, Bronson Methodist in Kalamazoo, would not provide information about Clair’s condition or even acknowledge she's a patient. But that’s often the standard response if the patient hasn’t provided consent to release information.
Tommie Clair hopes she can move to a rehab hospital later next week. And after that -- if she can’t return to the home she shared with her husband near Stryker, Ohio -- she likely will move in with one of her stepsons.
Their father, a retired machinist and former bowling alley owner, made his sons promise to care for her if he died first.
“We vowed that we’d do that and we’d take care of her and treat her with respect and do what’s right in the eyes of God.”
* * *
She didn’t hide her past when she met Frederick Clair.
“She basically told him, ‘There’s something I’ve got to tell you.’ I believe she was honest with him," Tommie Clair said. "She told the truth, who she was, what happened.”
She had been convicted of first-degree murder for her role in the killings in January 1958: 10 bodies over eight days, including those of her baby sister, mother and stepfather. Starkweather had also killed a gas station attendant in 1957.
Caril Fugate’s history didn’t deter Frederick Clair, his son said.
“He said, ‘I still want to marry you.’”
She had moved to Michigan after her parole in 1976, welcomed by a couple who had watched a television show about her. She had wanted to be a nurse, and she found work in a hospital.
Tommie Clair had heard of Starkweather -- and his young girlfriend -- when he met his father’s new partner. He had read a book about the crimes.
He thought the woman looked familiar.
“It was, ‘Holy cow.’ When she said her name and my dad first introduced her, I said, ‘Are you from Nebraska? You’re Caril Fugate. The one from the murders.’”
As she did after her arrest, his stepmother maintained her innocence -- and her claim she was another victim of Starkweather. They would talk about it when Tommie Clair visited the couple. And they’ve spoken during his visits to her hospital room.
“She regrets everything that ever happened to everyone who died in Nebraska. There have been many times we sat and cried. You can’t change the past, but she wishes she had never got involved with that guy.”
The family is waiting for the release of “The Twelfth Victim,” co-written by Caril Clair’s friend, lawyer Linda Battisti of Ohio, and longtime Lincoln attorney John Stevens Berry.
The authors spent years doing legal research, going through documents and interviewing Clair. They keep finding new information to pursue, and that’s delayed publication, Berry said.
But the book should be out this year, he said, and it should help clear her name.
“We believe she was a victim of Starkweather. He killed 11 people; we call her the 12th victim.”
Neither author has been able to speak to Clair since the accident, they said.
* * *
After the crash, a TV reporter stopped Tommie Clair outside the hospital.
Did she do it?
Investigators asked similar questions, he said: Can you think of any reason why your stepmother would want to kill your father?
He bristled at the reporter, but he understood why the police would ask. His stepmother was known to be a murderer.
“They’ve got to ask those questions, given who she is and what you read in the media about her.”
He knows her legacy. He knows many are convinced she was as culpable as Starkweather -- and that she should have suffered the same fate.
Guy Starkweather, the killer’s father, used to say the girl “should have been sitting on Charlie’s lap” when he was electrocuted.
Tommie Clair thinks about those who lost loved ones, and how hard it would be for those scars to heal, even after so many years.
“You read the horrors. I can understand how certain people would feel.”
He’s read her trial transcripts and other documents. He goes online to defend her on Starkweather message boards and, since the accident, to update her progress.
“I’d say she pretty much must have been innocent. Was she with the guy? Yeah. Was she there with the crimes? Yeah. But did she do the crimes? Probably not. She was 13 years old when she first met Starkweather, she was a very naïve person.”
His stepmother hasn’t had an easy life, he said. She loves children but never had her own. She suffered a stroke five years ago.
She’s grieving for her husband.
She’s been hospitalized for five months, he said, but will always be haunted by her history.
“Caril in many ways is a shell of a woman. She walks a definite walk of shame.”
Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.