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It has been 50 years. But he still remembers it was a Monday, still remembers a co-worker's voice on the phone: "Hey, there's something going on at 924 Belmont."

Del Harding was a young man: 25 was his age, $70 a week was his pay, a '54 Oldsmobile was his ride.

That is the car he drove to 924 Belmont Ave.

Drive there now and all you will find is a field with a view of a parking lot and a Blimpie's sandwich shop.

But what was found there on Jan. 27, 1958, was an act of madness, front-page news.

The scene was sad and gory, and Harding rushed to his typewriter because duty required it.

He banged on the keys: "Three members of the Marion Bartlett family - apparently the victims of a triple murder - were found dead about 4:30 p.m. Monday in two sheds behind their home at 924 Belmont."

The words would become the lead in the top story in the next morning's Lincoln Star, below a headline running eight columns wide and in 120-point type: "BELMONT FAMILY SLAIN."

In the story's fifth paragraph, a county attorney mentioned authorities were seeking two teens for questioning. He named them as Velda Bartlett's daughter, Caril Fugate, and her boyfriend, Charles R. Starkweather.

And the chase was on.

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Harding is 75 now. He has lost a few hairs but not much of his memory. He recalls names from five decades ago as though he just saw the people in line at the grocery store.

Journalism? He left newspapers 40 years ago.

At some point, he wrote enough stories that rarely did anything seem new. And so he moved to public relations work, then a job with NASA and then blissful retirement in Colorado, spoiling his grandchildren.

And anyway, no story could match the one that met him in his youth.

It's a story that has found its way to Hollywood and into Bruce Springsteen lyrics, and if you want the truth of it, all that glamorization of Charlie Starkweather makes Del Harding want to puke.

Because he was there - at every murder scene, in the courtroom, 20 feet from the chair when 2,200-volt electrical charges jolted the redheaded Starkweather three times and then no more.

"It was like a puppet going up and down," Harding says.

His death was, he thinks, almost too quick, too clean.

Starkweather killed 11 people 50 years ago - Robert Colvert, Marion Bartlett, Velda Bartlett, Betty Jean Bartlett (Fugate's 2-year-old half-sister), August Meyer, Robert Jensen, Carol King, C. Lauer Ward, Clara Ward, Lilyan Fencl and Merle Collison.

Harding was young then, but four of those killed were younger.

He still can close his eyes and see the bodies of Jensen and King, teenage sweethearts from Bennet, at the bottom of the stairs in a storm cellar. The girl was turned upside-down, half-naked.

"Everybody talks about the death penalty being so horrible," Harding says. "If they had seen what I had seen at those murder scenes, they might change their mind."

A graduate of Lincoln High School and the University of Nebraska, Harding was quick to cultivate plenty of sources for the Star while covering the police beat and the courts.

Yellow tape did not stand in his way at murder scenes.

"Keep your hands in your pockets," a law enforcement friend once warned him. "That way you won't get your fingerprints on anything."

And so when the Starkweather murders occurred, Harding got close, close enough that he's sure he saw and heard details a reporter likely would not get today.

Some people did, and still do, believe that eighth-grader Fugate was held against her will by Starkweather during the killings.

That's what Fugate - who earned parole in 1976, lives in Michigan and recently married - has long maintained.

Harding doesn't buy it. Charlie's father, Guy Starkweather, struck up a rapport with the young reporter and used to call him late at night during his son's trial.

"He never made any apologies for Charlie, but he felt very strongly and told me a number of times that Caril should be sitting on Charlie's lap when he went to the electric chair," Harding says.

He was in the middle of mayhem but also in a race. Lincoln had two papers then; the Star was delivered in the morning, the Journal in the afternoon.

Reporters came from as far as New York, but beating the Journal on getting information remained Harding's chief goal.

"For months, we were all running on adrenaline," Harding says. "Let's face it. We knew it was a helluva story. As a reporter, you learn to tune out the sadness and the blood and the gore. You have to."

He recalls the day he was on August Meyer's farm near Bennet. Officers swarmed the farmhouse.

"We were all ducking down thinking Charlie was in the house and might start taking shots at us," Harding says. "I had on this bright red cap, and it dawned on me what a target I would make. So I took off my cap."

The chase eventually would take Harding on a charter plane to Douglas, Wyo.

That's where Starkweather was being held when authorities finally found him and Fugate, but only after one more person had been killed.

Harding saw Starkweather in his Wyoming jail cell. The killer, bowlegged and just 5-foot-5, looked sullen. He had used shoe polish to try to disguise his red hair.

Standing only about 6 feet away from him, Harding just saw what he thought was a dumb kid.

He would see him again in court and then again for a final time in June 1959.

On the night of June 24, Harding went to The Varsity Theater to watch a war movie starring Gregory Peck.

The details of the movie aren't as vivid as his next stop that night. About 40 people were at the State Penitentiary to see Starkweather die.

There were lines of metal chairs on a rubber mat. Harding sat in the front row - roughly 15 feet from the electric chair - before deciding to move back.

Starkweather walked in: head shaved, wearing a blue chambray shirt, dungarees and loafers.

The 20-year-old had been offered steak for his last meal but took cold cuts instead. Given a chance for last words, Starkweather shook his head.

They placed a mask over his face, an electrode placed on his left knee. It lasted only minutes.

There was still work for Harding the next day, the next week, but the stories were mundane in comparison to that one.

It has been 50 years. He still has his notebooks from the Starkweather saga somewhere in his basement. He has a scrapbook filled with stories. Time has turned pages yellow. Time has turned a lot of things.

"We all used to leave our doors unlocked," Harding says. "Other people have written that it changed the character of Lincoln forever, and I think to some extent it did."

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 473-7439.

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