BENNET - Killers always take more than lives.

Fifty years ago, killers took Robert Jensen and Carol King.

For half a century, they have been known as two Bennet teens caught in a rampage.

Charles Starkweather confessed to firing the fatal shots on a gravel road outside the small town, but many in Bennet held 14-year-old Caril Fugate no less responsible for the murders.

In fact, in a case with 11 dead, prosecutors used Jensen's murder to convict them both.

For the people who grieved the losses of Jensen and King - and who still think about them 50 years later - this is what the killers took:

A cheerful 17-year-old boy who loved the sound of laughter when he pulled off a practical joke.

A 16-year-old cheerleader, smart, pretty and kind.

In 1958, Jensen and King were sweethearts in the junior class at Bennet High School. Don Ehlers knew them well, but so did the five other students in the tight-knit class.

"I've always kind of wondered what might have been," said Ehlers, a 66-year-old farmer who still lives near Bennet. "I wonder what Carol would have been and what Bobby would have done."

He imagines both would have been successful.

Both, he hopes, would have been happy.

They would have deserved happiness.

Even before their Jan. 26, 1958, murders, Jensen and King had encountered hardships.

Jensen had survived polio as a young child only to suffer several bouts of pneumonia, which left him bedridden for much of his fifth-grade year. He also had lost one of his two younger brothers to illness.

In a letter sent to the Lincoln Star a few weeks after the killings, Pauline Jensen offered a bit of description of her oldest boy.

"We had watched our son come through all those things with never a word of complaint, only concern for the loved ones who worried over him," she wrote. "He developed into a cheerful, loving young man who saw only the good in people."

During those months when Jensen couldn't get out of bed, Ehlers often had lunch at the home of his friend. He can remember that Jensen collected pencils, persuading the traveling salesmen who visited his father's grocery and general store to give him a few.

Jensen grew into a big kid. He joined the football team but couldn't continue because of the lingering effects of his illnesses. So he spent a fair amount of free time working at the store.

Getting his driver's license probably cut into his time behind a cash register.

Jensen had a '50 Ford, a popular car for the era, and he loved tuning the engine and making the kinds of cheap modifications that meant a lot to a high school kid.

"It had twin exhausts that he could make speak pretty good," Ehlers said. "Nothing sounds better than a flathead V8 with a twin exhausts."

The two frequently took the dark blue Ford for a spin. Once, when they almost emptied the tank, they could barely scratch up two bits between them for a gallon of gas.

"I remember the guy at the gas station asked us, 'What are you trying to do, wean it?'"

King also knew the emptiness of loss.

Her father, Russell, died unexpectedly on Jan. 3 of that year. Her mother had recently moved her family from their farm outside Bennet into town.

In happier times, King had played volleyball, led cheers for the boys' teams and sang in the choir. She also was a good student.

"She had a wonderful voice," Ehlers said. "She was a girl you just couldn't dislike."

On the night of Jan. 28, 1958, Bennet reeled at the news of the killings of King, Jensen and farmer August Meyer.

And many in the community of 380, about 14 miles east of Lincoln, tried to contain feelings of panic over a killer on the loose. People kept loaded shotguns and hunting rifles close and got little sleep.

The next day at school, the junior class had been reduced from eight to six.

"You just feel invaded," said Donna Kroese of Lincoln, a classmate. "Someone could come into a small town and do something like that; it's not something you expect to happen … ever."

In the late 1950s, schools didn't bring in crisis teams to deal with a tragedy. Instead, students and teachers spent the day talking.

"I've thought later what a task our teachers must have faced," Ehlers said. "We didn't have counselors. We just talked. I suppose we were our own counselors."

When the Jensen and King families had a joint funeral for their children at the Bennet Community Church, the junior class sat together.

The seniors who graduated in the spring of 1958 included a tribute in the school's annual. Jensen and King's class, down to five after one student left, did the same in their senior annual.

People in Bennet went on with their lives, but the pain of losing three of their own was always close to the surface.

Kroese remembered finding it hard to talk to the families of the victims afterward, because, she came to realize, she felt survivor's guilt.

"You wonder why you were the one who kept on living and they didn't," she said.

In the years since, neither Kroese nor Ehlers has read much about the case or watched the films inspired by the story of teenage killers.

The story could never be a Hollywood fantasy for them. Both are irritated by what seems to be the glorification of Charles Starkweather - and they can't begin to fathom those who are fascinated by him.

"There was nothing glorified about it," Kroese said. "Satan had his work. Satan was alive and active there."

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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