Sixty years ago, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate blazed a trail of death and destruction in Lincoln and elsewhere, killing 10 people in a little more than a week.
Starkweather killed his first victim, a gas station worker, the previous November. His killing spree intensified on Jan. 21, 1958, when Charlie killed Fugate’s parents and sister.
After more murders in the Lincoln area, he killed Mr. and Mrs. Chester Lauer Ward and their maid. Then the two stole the Ward’s top-of-the-line 1956 Packard and drove 538 miles to Douglas, Wyo., where they were finally captured.
The killing spree came to an end on Jan. 29.
In the end, Starkweather was driving the Packard with Converse County (Wyoming) Sheriff Earl Heflin in hot pursuit. They sped through Douglas at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour, according to the Wyoming Historical Society.
After passing through town, Heflin took a shot at the getaway car. The bullet hit the rear window, went right on through the car and out the front windshield. Pieces of flying glass hit Starkweather and cut his head near his ear.
Bleeding, out of ammunition and drained, the killer pulled over and surrendered.
The entire region breathed a sigh of relief, finally assured that Starkweather would not stumble on them and shoot them for no reason.
Starkweather and Fugate were taken back to Lincoln. He was tried, convicted and finally executed in the electric chair on June 29, 1959. Fugate received a life sentence, later commuted to 30-50 years.
She spent 17 years at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York and was paroled in 1976.
The facts concerning the murderous rampage that terrorized the people for miles around are well documented.
However, not much is known about the stolen getaway car — the top of the line model, a Patrician. The word “patrician” is Latin for a ruling class of ancient Rome.
Mitch Sulc, the owner of North Platte’s Total Automotive Interiors, knows all about the Packard. He owns it.
Sulc bought the car in 1988 from a family friend in Gothenburg and he is patiently restoring it at his shop off East Walker Road.
The Packard took a winding path to get to Sulc’s place.
After Starkweather’s capture, the car remained in custody of Douglas, Wyo. law officers for more than a year, impounded as evidence.
After Starkweather was executed, Blaine Peterson of Gothenburg got a call from his brother in Lincoln, an insurance agent, who asked if Blaine would be interested in buying the Packard, Sulc told the Bulletin.
“I would guess the Lincoln agent had the auto policy for the original owners — the Wards — but I don’t know that for sure,” Sulc said.
Peterson took up the offer, went to Wyoming and drove it back.
“Of course, it needed both a front and back windshield,” Sulc said.
Sulc said that Alvin Vieselmeyer, a friend of Sulc’s family who farmed north of Gothenburg and did auto body work, replaced the windshields.
“From there, the Petersons drove it for many years, using it for their main family car. Then they gave it to their kids, who used it for hunting trips,” he said.
To this day, the car carries reminders of Starkweather, including a shotgun hole in the passenger floorboard. Sulc also found a .410 shotgun shell inside the horn button on the steering wheel.
“The steering column horn button was loose,” he said.
“When you pushed on it, the button would fall off,” he said. “When we were removing the steering column, a .410 shotgun shell fell out. The diameter of the shell fit perfectly in the opening in the column. If you weren’t looking closely, you would think it was part of the column.”
Starkweather was carrying a .410 shotgun, a Stevens Model 59A, according to the historical accounts. However, there is no way to be sure the .410 shell was one of Starkweather’s. It could have come from one of the Petersons on a hunting trip. Still, it is an intriguing possibility that Starkweather kept an extra shell hidden, just in case.
Also, there is a shotgun blast hole in the floor on the passenger floorboard.
“It is on the right side of the transmission hump, so it looks like a gun might have been there and when someone reached for it, it went off and blew a hole in the floor,” Sulc said.
“Again, whether it was Starkweather or someone later, nobody knows,” Sulc said. “There are a lot of questions that will remain a mystery.”
Starkweather was also carrying a Winchester Model 1906 .22 rifle and a .38-caliber revolver, according to documented sources cited by Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia.
Eventually, the Petersons stopped using the car at all. Like cars sometimes do on farms, it ended up parked in their feedlot.
“It sat there for years, unused,” Sulc said. “Then one day Blaine called Alvin (Vieselmeyer) and asked him if he wanted to buy it,” Sulc said.
Vieselmeyer agreed, bought the car and stored it in a shed on his property.
“Every time my family went to visit, I would go out and look at it,” Sulc said. “I would ask him ‘when are you going to sell me Charlie?’ I always called the car Charlie.”
Viselmeyer must have smiled, but he kept the car until he died in 1988. Then, Sulc was able to buy it from his widow for $2,500.
“I went up there and got it,” he said. “It hadn’t run in years. The license plates were from the year 1966, but I got it started.” Sulc took it to his body shop in Curtis.
The Packard was one of the last Patricians that were ever made.
“Originally, I bought it not so much because of its history, but because I liked Packards,” Sulc said.
The car has a 290 horsepower, V-8 engine, which Sulc has completely rebuilt. It could accelerate to 60 miles an hour in 11 seconds, with a top-rated speed of 115 mph.
Sulc did a lot of research about Starkweather, too.
“It was intriguing that it was Charlie’s getaway car,” he said.
Sulc said Starkweather had a job as a garbage collector, and picked up trash at Ward’s home so he knew the area. After killing three of the Fugate family members in Lincoln, Starkweather and Fugate went about five miles southeast of town to the village of Emmet, where they killed three more people. They returned to Lincoln and went to Ward’s house, where they killed his wife, housekeeper and the man of the house, Chester Ward, when he got home. Ward was shot in the back with the .410 shotgun.
Starkweather took the car and headed west on Nebraska Highway 2 with Fugate in the passenger seat. They drove for 10 hours to Wyoming. Figuring that law enforcement was on the lookout for the Packard, Starkweather tried to steal another car on the outskirts of Douglas. A man was sleeping in a car on the roadside. Starkweather tried to drive that car – a Buick – away, but didn’t know how to work the new style emergency brake.
A sheriff’s car pulled up, and Starkweather scrambled back into the Packard. Fugate ran to the deputy, yelling for help.
In 2006, Sulc met Lauer Ward’s granddaughter, Liza, at A to Z Books in North Platte, where Ward was speaking about her novel, Outside Valentine, a fictionalized account of the murders and their lasting repercussions.
During a question and answer session, Sulc told Ward that he had her grandparents’ Packard.
“I wondered where that car went,” Ward said.
In March 2015, Ward called Sulc and said she was coming through North Platte. She stopped and looked at the car.
That helped him learn more about the Packard.
“It wasn’t really her grandpa’s car. He bought it for his wife, Clara,” Sulc said. “The way I understand it, Clara just used it to drive to bridge club and things. When I found that out, I changed the name of the car from Charlie to Clara.”
Liza’s father, Micheal Ward, survived the murders because he was away at boarding school. He was 14 years old. But Ward told Sulc her father never spoke of the crime.
“It was probably too traumatic,” Sulc said.
Another coincidental thing happened, long before Sulc bought the car, he met Fugate while she was a prisoner in York, he said.
“I was taking a sociology class in college and we went to York to tour the facility,” he said. “A lady with no name tag, wearing just prison garb, took us around and showed us the place. When we got back on the bus, my teacher told us our guide was Caril Fugate.”
Sulc has long planned to restore the car, but the project tends to get pushed aside.
“I moved it into my shop here in North Platte in 1993. It sat here for a long time,” he said. “Then I took the body off the frame to restore it, which is still in progress. I overhauled the engine. My brother repainted it, keeping the original black color.”
The body has to be restored yet on the passenger side, and interior work has yet to begin.
Although the Patrician model was top of the line, by today’s standards it was a fairly basic car.
“It had simple cloth interior, power steering, power brakes, automatic transmission and a radio. That was about it,” Sulc said.
“So far, it has been a 25-year process, but I’m going to finish it. The people who knew about Charlie are dying off and it is a piece of that infamous Nebraska history,” he said.
When finished, he will take it to car shows.
“After a few shows, I almost feel that since it has a lot of Nebraska history, it should go to a museum and not to a private collector,” he said. “I think I have it narrowed down to just two places that I would like to see it end up.”
“First, the Lincoln County Museum, but they would have to build a place to keep it on proper display. Another choice might be the Nebraska Historical Society. Either way, that is in the future,” he said.
This article was first published in the Bulletin’s print edition, Jan. 10, 2018. It is reprinted here by popular demand.