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No pardon for Starkweather accomplice who sought to clear her name
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No pardon for Starkweather accomplice who sought to clear her name

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The Nebraska Pardons Board voted 3-0 to deny a pardon or even grant a hearing to consider one Tuesday to the former girlfriend of infamous Nebraska killer Charlie Starkweather.

Caril Ann Clair, formerly Caril Ann Fugate, 76, of Michigan, didn't return to Nebraska for the hearing. But, in her 2017 application, she said when she was 14, Starkweather abducted her and held her captive during the killing spree. 

In all, 11 people were murdered in Nebraska and Wyoming between December 1957 and January 1958.

Starkweather was put to death in the electric chair for it in 1959 at the age of 20. Fugate, who later married and became Clair, was paroled in 1976 after serving 17 years in prison.

"I was terrified and did whatever he wanted me to, as he told me his gang had my family held hostage and they would be murdered if I didn't do what he said," she wrote in the application. 

After the hearing, John Stevens Berry Sr., the Lincoln attorney who went in front of the board on Clair's behalf called it "absolutely the end of the road" for Clair's hopes of a full pardon. There's no appeal process for a denial.

In his 55 years practicing law, Berry said, it was the first time he's been turned down without a hearing. 

"They could've at least heard me," he said. 

Minutes earlier, Attorney General Doug Peterson, who sits on the state's Pardons Board with Gov. Pete Ricketts and Secretary of State Bob Evnen, said a pardon doesn't erase a person's record. It restores someone's right to vote, serve on a jury, hold public office, bear arms, be licensed for certain professions, serve in the military or get a passport.

"None of those were things being sought here," Peterson said.

Frankly, he said, what Clair was asking the Pardons Board to do was beyond the scope of its ability.

"We can't come in and alleviate the burden that she feels for this case," Peterson said. 

The governor's spokesman, Taylor Gage, said Ricketts saw no grounds for a pardon.

“The crimes Caril Ann Clair participated in were horrific and depraved, and created immense public fear. Caril Ann Clair’s story continues to change," Gage said.

At the hearing after Peterson explained his vote, Berry asked if he could correct the record about Clair's convictions. Ricketts quickly said no, telling Berry he would have to wait for the public comment period at the end of the day's 58 applications on the agenda.

Then, the board moved on to the next agenda item, and people began filing out of the small, packed hearing room.

Berry said later the court record wrongly says the jury convicted Fugate of both first-degree murder and felony murder during the commission of a robbery. But the jury only found her guilty of the latter, for admittedly taking money out of a wallet of one of Starkweather's victims.

In the hallway, Dave Ellis, who was born in 1958, the year the killing spree ended, said he was overjoyed at the board's decision.

His mom's cousin, Carol King, and King's boyfriend, Robert Jensen, were among the victims. Tuesday's decision keeps her memory alive, he said. 

"She was only 16 years old. She deserved to have a full life. She never got it," Ellis said. 

He said, given the members of the Pardons Board, he didn't think a pardon would be granted. But there was doubt, Ellis said. 

Paulette Neemann of Lincoln, held a picture of King, her mom's sister. 

"It was a horrific murder," she said. "I can't imagine what she went through, and I'm just thrilled with their decision."

Roger Neemann, her husband, said this crime has been in the news for more than 60 years.

"It never lets the family be alone," he said. 

But not all the relatives of victims felt the same way. 

Liza Ward, the granddaughter of two of Starkweather's victims, C. Lauer and Clara Ward, had made the trip from Massachusetts for Tuesday's hearing. A day earlier at a news conference, she said that after researching the case, she determined that Clair was not guilty of the murders, but a victim herself. 

There was so much fear surrounding the crime, Ward said, that people could not look at it objectively. 

Caril Fugate Clair

Caril Ann (Fugate) Clair

Berry and Linda Battisti, who together wrote "The Twelfth Victim, the Innocence of Caril Fugate in the Starkweather Murder Rampage," have said Clair was a victim rather than an accomplice in the crime. A pardon would be one more step in clearing her name and her image.

Book recounts 1973 macabre murder, trial and conviction in Nebraska

On the other side, Del Harding, a former reporter for The Lincoln Star who covered the Starkweather/Fugate spree in 1958, wrote a letter he didn't send to the governor, but shared with the Journal Star, saying Clair should not receive a pardon.

He was at all the murder scenes, he said, covered both trials and attended Starkweather's execution.

"I will never forget seeing the bodies of Carol King and Bobby Jensen dumped in that storm cellar near Bennet," Harding said.

In addition to what he considers other overwhelming evidence against Caril Fugate, he said, there was testimony that she personally may have killed at least two of the victims: Merle Collison in Wyoming and Lilyan Fencl, who was C. Lauer and Clara Ward's maid.

Harding recounted the transcript of the statement Starkweather gave authorities (reproduced in the May 17, 1958, edition of The Star), in which he was asked “Did you at any time use your knife on the maid (Fencl)? ... did you ever cut her with your knife or did you ever slash her with your knife?” He replied “No,” and asked “Why, ain’t the maid alive?”

An autopsy showed Fencl died of multiple stab wounds. Starkweather also claimed Fugate finished off Collison in Wyoming when his gun jammed. “... she (Caril) was calling him (Collison) about every name below God’s sun while shooting him ... she was the (most) trigger-happy person I ever seen,” Starkweather wrote in a letter introduced at his trial.

Harding said Clair had an excellent defense attorney, John McArthur, but the evidence against her was overwhelming.

"Time does not diminish her horrible actions," he said. "Caril should not receive a pardon."

Letter, 2/5: Please don't pardon Caril Fugate

Photos: The Starkweather case

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or

On Twitter @LJSpilger. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or

On Twitter @LJSLegislature


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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

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