New documentary ‘The 12th Victim’: Fugate a ‘Natural Born Killer’ or Starkweather victim?

There’s a lot to unpack in “The 12th Victim.”

Showtime’s riveting four-part documentary recounts 19-year-old Charles Starkweather’s random killing spree in and around Lincoln, Neb. in late 1957 and early 1958 that claimed 11 lives — the first horror show to play out in real time on television as the entire state went into lockdown while the madman, a twisted James Dean wannabe with an IQ of 70, was on the loose. The murders have since been mythologized in pop culture: movies including “Badlands” and “Natural Born Killers“; songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (which includes the line “Starkweather homicide”).

Starkweather was convicted and executed in 1959, which leaves us with the subject of “The 12th Victim”: Caril Ann Fugate, the 14-year-old girlfriend/witness to Starkweather’s carnage who accompanied him, whether willingly or unwillingly, on his homicidal rampage. She was freed from prison in 1976 after serving 18 years of a life sentence — and to this day she still divides public opinion: was she Starkweather’s blinded-by-love, cold-hearted accomplice or a petrified, manipulated child unaware that he brutally killed her own mother, stepfather and 3-year-old half-sister — depositing their bodies in the backyard and stuffing her mother, Velda, into an outhouse toilet and sexually violating her?

Black-and-white photo of 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate and 19-year-old Charles Starkweather. They're looking at the camera and smiling.
Caril Ann Fugate, 14, and Charles Starkweather, 19, before the Nebraska killing spree. Starkweather implicated her in some of the murders.
Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Photo of Fugate immediately after her arrest in 1958. She's wearing the coat of murder victim Clara Ward. An older woman has her arm around her shoulder as Caril looks down.
Fugate after she and Starkweather were arrested in 1958. She’s wearing the coat of murder victim Clara Ward.
Courtesy of SHOWTIME

(Fugate and Starkweather lived in her parents’ house in Lincoln, Neb. for five days after those killings. Fugate insisted from the get-go that Starkweather told her that her family was kidnapped — and that they would be safe as long as she went along with his murderous rampage, which included a farmer, two well-liked high school students — Starkweather sexually molested the female victim — and a wealthy Lincoln businessman, Lauer Ward, his wife, Clara, and their maid, Lilyan Fencl. Caril was wearing Clara’s jacket when she was arrested.)

“The 12th Victim” goes a long way toward setting the record straight, at least according to director Nicola B. Marsh. She’s utilized a wealth of archival footage, re-enactments and interviews with experts, authors and even Fugate’s childhood next-door-neighbors to paint a portrait of a frightened teenager railroaded by Nebraska authorities embarrassed by letting Starkweather escape their clutches for so long — and who needed Fugate to fit their “modern-day Bonnie & Clyde” narrative, evidence be damned. The documentary is “inspired by” Linda M. Battisti and John Stevens’ book, “The Twelfth Victim: The Innocence of Caril Fugate in the Starkweather Murder Rampage” (they’re both interviewed).

Color photograph of Caril Ann Fugate in the 1980s. She's wearing big glasses and is being interviewed by an unseen person.
Caril Ann Fugate on TV in the 1980s. She insisted she did not know until after she was arrested that Starkweather killed three members of her family.
Courtesy of SHOWTIME

But, really, the most important person seen and heard in “The 12th Victim” is Fugate herself. She’s now known as Caril Clair (after marrying Fred Clair in 2007; he was killed in a car accident in 2013) and, nearing 80, suffered a serious stroke in 2014. But her voice is strong and clear throughout “The 12th Victim,” dating back to a disastrous first-person interview she did with a Nebraska TV reporter before her trial in 1958 — which aired on NBC’s “Today Show” — to her many post-prison TV appearances including “A Current Affair” and a 1983 guest spot on “Lie Detector,” a syndicated series hosted by F. Lee Bailey in which she sat for a lie-detector test … and passed with flying colors. Also featured intermittently throughout the documentary are audio recordings of Fugate undergoing hypnosis in 1989 to help prove her innocence.

It’s all very compelling, but I’m guessing “The 12th Victim” still won’t sway a number of those people old enough to remember the case and its immediate aftermath. I do think, though, that anyone watching the documentary with an open mind, or those who eschew the standard, well-worn Starkweather narrative of a psycho killer and his 14-year-old starry-eyed girlfriend, will find compelling evidence that Fugate/Clair is the only person who knows what really happened in Nebraska — and that her version of those shocking events is the most reliable.

“The 12th Victim” premieres Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.