Pro Bono: The 18-Year Defense of Caril Ann Fugate

Oct 21, 2013 - 0 Comments

An excerpt from Pro Bono: The 18-Year Defense of Caril Ann Fugate by Jeff McArthur (Bandwagon Books).  An account of how her trial lawyer – who believed in her innocence – continued to represent her for free until she was paroled in 1976. In 1959, 19-year-old Charlie Starkweather was convicted of murdering 11 people. He was sentenced to death. Caril Fugate, his 14-year-old ex-girlfriend was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to life.

Chapter Two

The Murders

It was a cold Monday evening at the KMTV newsroom in Omaha, Nebraska and the reports that typically fed the station’s telecasts were as flat and frigid as the snow-covered plains outside.  There had been no extreme weather, no upcoming events, and nothing affecting the farming community, which were the usual news items in this typically bucolic part of the country.  With the holidays over, it was going to be more of the same until spring thawed the stillness of the news.

The reporters often filled the time learning how to use the motion picture cameras they had only recently received.  The cameras were a necessity for television news, which was typically not regarded with the same prestige as the well-established print media.  If the local station hoped to compete with the newspapers, it would have to give the public what still photographs and typed words could not.  But with no news stories in motion, nothing could be filmed.

The slow Monday ended and the station’s executives went home.  The few remaining technicians and reporters scrabbled together whatever they could to fill news stories that night.  In the meantime, the station gave way to NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” out of New York and Washington.  It was a slow news day for them as well.  The local Unitarian congregation was kicking off a fund drive to build a new church, the national debt was nearing $280 billion, and their lead in for the evening was “World’s Greatest Cartoons.”

Mark Gautier, alone in a dark control room upstairs from the bright lights of the studio, turned the volume of the television up to tune out the buzzing of the machines behind him.  They were supposed to bring in information, but now they were only causing a useless racket.

Then he noticed a lot of chatter coming from the police radio on the shelves above the TV.  It was unusual to hear much more than an occasional smattering of reports referring to domestic disputes and traffic problems coming from the box.  What he heard now caused Mark to get to his feet and grab a pencil.  He wrote what he heard: “Be on the lookout for a 1949 black Ford.  Nebraska license number 2-15628.  Radiator grille missing.  No hubcaps.  Believed to be driven by Charles Starkweather, a white male, 19 years old, 5 feet 5 inches tall, 140 pounds, dark red hair, green eyes.  Believed to be wearing blue jeans and black leather jacket. Wanted by Lincoln police for questioning in homicide.  Officers were warned to approach with caution.  Starkweather was believed to be armed and presumed dangerous.

“Starkweather is believed to be accompanied by Caril Fugate, 14 years old, female, white, 5 feet 1 inch tall, 105 pounds, dark brown hair, blue eyes, sometimes wears glasses.  Usually wears hair in ponytail, appears to be about 18 years old.  Believed wearing blue jeans and blouse or sweater. May be wearing medium-blue parka.”

It was 5:43 p.m. January 27, 1958.

*          *          *

John McArthur heard the news report on the radio in his office the next day.  He was a news junky, often listening to what was happening while at work, only to come home to watch a more in depth recap of the day’s events on television.  This time it was the opposite way around.  There had been sketchy information about a triple homicide the night before, and now they had further information about it on the radio.  A 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old boyfriend had disappeared, her family was discovered murdered, the parents’ bodies left in a chicken shack behind their home, and a baby’s body was in the outhouse; its head had been crushed by a rifle.

The sheer audacity of the murders was shocking enough to catch anyone’s attention and everyone turned on their radios and televisions to learn what was happening. 

John didn’t have to turn far to reach his radio.  Only a short swivel brought his legs into contact with a wall, or filing cabinet, or some other piece of furniture.  Though John was a thin man, even his gaunt frame barely fit through the narrow passage into his office.  If a drawer was open, he had to duck under or climb over it.  If his partner Merril Reller wanted inside the office, it became a back and forth dance for one to enter and the other to leave.  A chair rested outside the doorway because when clients came to visit they had to sit outside the office looking in.

The report on the radio was interrupted by a break in the case.  The police had surrounded a farmhouse near Bennet, approximately 20 miles east of Lincoln, where Charlie was believed to be holed up.  His car was parked in front, and no one answered a call to come out, not even the farmer who owned the property.  A small army of police officials slowly moved in on the home, guns drawn.

*          *          *

Blackie Roberts and Dick Trembath, two of the reporters for KMTV, stood in the still, gelid air beside their car at the Meyer farm outside of Bennet.  They had rushed from Omaha, more than 60 miles away, to film the capture of the two fugitives for KMTV.  Before them, the police formed a wide perimeter around the house, and waited for the dispersal of tear gas before moving in.

Scattered among the men in uniform were farmers with shotguns, eager to see the young murderer captured or killed.  They knew that August Meyer, the man who owned the farm, would never willingly aid a killer, even though Charlie had been a friend of August for years.

August, who was 70, had allowed Charlie to hunt on his farm from time to time.  He had seen Caril whenever Charlie brought her with him, but he barely knew her.  Now no one could discern what was going on inside; if the two were preparing an ambush, or if they would surrender as soon as it got hot.

“How come all the local people?” Blackie asked one of the sheriff’s men.  “Did you form a posse?”

“No, that’s something else,” came the reply.  “They were just in the area and came over to help.”

“What else is going on?”

“A couple of teenagers from Bennet were reported missing last night and the neighbors have been out looking for them.”

A patrol car engine roared to life.  It was the signal.  “Let’s move out!” someone shouted.  “Spread out and stay low!”

The police car moved forward, and the men in uniform surged ahead.  When the car rumbled into place in front of the house, it stopped.  The men got out of the car and took cover behind the doors. 

A loudspeaker squealed to life.  “This is the police!  We know you’re in there!  We’ll give you five minutes to come out of there with your hands in the air!”  They were met by silence, and police answered with the loud cocking of their guns.

A half dozen troopers ran as they spread out across the front lawn keeping low, carrying their stubby, wide barreled guns.  Half way to the house they dove to the ground.  A white flash trailed from one of the men, and a moment later a window crashed.  A thin trail of smoke slowly began to snake its way out of the hole as the farmhouse filled with tear gas.

The troopers charged the home from every direction.  The front door was kicked open, and as the smoke poured out, they rushed in, guns at the ready.

One man called out from the back of the house.  It was not what they expected, not a shout at Charlie to drop his weapon, or a signal to tell the others where he was, but a genuine scream of disgust.

The man who had called out was at the doorway of a small, white shed attached to the back of the house.  Inside was the body of August Meyer.  There was no sign of struggle, no visible bullet wound.  The only evidence of his death was a thin layer of blood peeking out from under him.

Blackie Roberts, who had followed the police inside, now shot a whole roll of film for the news.  This was certainly a change from their usual photographs of placid pastures and town meetings.  He just had to get past the crowd of police huddling around the house.

August’s brother was among the officers outside.  One of the policemen who had seen the body confirmed what they had found.  “Oh my God,” was all he could say.

Dick Trembath, also outside, walked down the lane to take photographs of Starkweather’s car, which was stuck in the mud just down the street.  There was nothing unusual about it, except that Charlie had collected tires in the backseat.

As Dick was returning to the Meyer place, he was approached by a farmer who asked where he could find a policeman.  There were plenty available, which Dick pointed out, and he asked the perplexed man what was happening.  The man waved him off and continued toward an officer.  Dick stood close enough to hear, but not so close to scare them away.

The man’s name was Everette Broening.  The night before he had heard a car accelerate at high speed around 10 p.m.  The next morning, after hearing about the missing teenagers, he had found a pile of school books along the side of the road a few miles up.  All Dick heard him tell the officer after that was, “They’re in the storm cellar.”

*          *          *

The police stood on the pale, frozen ground surrounding the cement entrance of the storm cellar a couple miles from the Meyer residence.  One civilian stepped up to the entrance, looked down inside, then covered his mouth and turned quickly away, his shoulders heaving.

Dick tried to make his way to the doorway to get a photograph.  He was stopped by a trooper a foot taller than him.  “Come on, I’ve got a job to do,” Dick said.

“You don’t want any pictures of what’s down there,” the man told him gravely.

The two teenagers who had been reported missing the night before, Robert Jensen and Carol King, lay at the bottom of the cellar.  The girl was naked, her body lying zigzagged across the floor, her breasts and groin fully exposed, her face as contorted as her body.  Her blue jeans were bunched at her feet around her white bobby socks.  One arm, still attached to the sleeve of her jacket, was wrapped around her back, while the other arm reached down to her knee as if making one last attempt at modesty.  Her small hand rested in the fold of her leg.  A blood stain led out of her buttocks and trailed down her thigh where she had been raped, and then stabbed.  Her body was on top of her boyfriend, Robert.  A pool of their mixed blood ran down the floor away from them.

Lancaster County Attorney Elmer Scheele soon filed first-degree murder charges against Charlie Starkweather.  After what they had seen of the King girl, there was reason to believe Fugate was probably dead as well, and they expected to find her body dumped along the side of the road.

Neighbors were warned, posses were formed, and farmers from across the area converged on the narrow, unpaved main street of Bennet, a town of 490 people 18 miles southeast of the capital city of Lincoln, where the primary police headquarters was set up.  The search centered around a line of police headlights and moved out from there into the dark, vast reaches of the nearby farmland.  The heavily armed men stretched out into the night, some almost shooting one another as they spotted shapes in the dark.  One officer was fired at when he tried to approach a farmhouse to warn the residents about Starkweather.  It appeared they already knew, so he continued on to the next house.

Back at the KMTV newsroom, Ninette Beaver, a junior reporter, speculated that Charlie could have gone to the closest major town, Lincoln.  “I doubt that,” Mark Gautier told her as he got his jacket to leave.  “If he’s not holed up somewhere around Bennet, he’s probably made it out of the state by now.”

“Good lord, I hope so,” Ninette said.  Her sister Joanne lived in Lincoln, and if Starkweather was going there, who knew what would happen.  She waited for Mark to leave, then quickly called Joanne.

*          *          *

            County Attorney Elmer Scheele had to duck his head slightly as he entered the magniloquent home of C. Lauer and Clara Ward.  He was often the tallest man in any room.  Though thin and introverted, his presence was imposing, and his gaze through his black, horn rimmed glasses was focused and intimidating.

The murder spree had gone from bad to worse.  Only one day earlier Scheele and the Nebraska police had thought they had Charlie pinned down in a farmhouse, only to find its owner dead inside the house.  And then they had found two teenagers brutally murdered, their bodies left locked in a storm cellar near a school.  Never in the history of Nebraska had there been such a chain of killings, and now it had moved from the scattered small communities of the rural farmland into the more densely populated city of Lincoln.  And even more disturbing, it had come to the upscale neighborhood near the country club.

Lincoln was a conglomeration of many small communities that had grown together over the decades.  The resulting contrast in wealth and class was visible as one passed from the less developed north side of “O” Street to the more affluent south side of town, where the houses were larger, and the vast yards stretched out greener.  For this type of bloodshed to enter any part of Lincoln was shocking enough.  For it to enter the home of such a prominent figurehead was downright unthinkable.

Yet there was Mr. Ward, a well respected businessman, president of Capitol Steel Works, and a friend of the most influential people in the state, just inside of his front door, dead from a shot at point blank range with a shotgun.  The last person to see him alive, in fact, was his close friend, Nebraska Governor Victor Anderson.  Lauer Ward's wife Clara was found dead upstairs, a knife sticking out of her back, and their maid, Lillian Fencl, was found with her hands and feet bound, a gag in her mouth, and a knife embedded in her torso.

Scheele was a professional at hiding his feelings, but outrage was beginning to boil over as the pressure was building.  Starkweather had eluded every road block and patrol that was out to stop him, and now he had to be stopped before panic spread.  Something else disturbed him; a smell overwhelming the second floor of the house.  It was more than the stench of death, which Elmer was used to.  When he followed it to its source, where the odor was strongest, he found the body of Mrs. Ward, bound and gagged and lying dead between the two beds.  Then he identified the aroma.  It was perfume.  Someone had tried to cover the smell of death by pouring it all over the room.

Mrs. Ward’s drawers and closets had been ransacked.  Women’s clothes were scattered all over the place, as if someone had been shopping and had left the discarded apparel behind.  Among them was Carol King’s jacket.  Elmer was incensed.  Up to this point he had been expecting to find Caril Fugate’s body in a ditch somewhere.  But now it was clear.  She was alive.  And she was traveling as Charlie’s companion.

Outside, Merle Karnopp, the county sheriff, was talking to reporters.  “Well, since discovering the last three bodies, which makes a total of nine that we know of so far, Mayor Martin and I have made an appeal for all adjoining counties, including Omaha, to send all available help they can to Lincoln.  It is our opinion that the car is still in this vicinity.  We know he has been for the last three days, and we want to cover Lincoln block to block.”

*          *          *

Chapter Three


January 29 was a Wednesday, but the days had run together so much that it was hard for Caril to keep track.  It was also hard to keep up with where she and Charlie were; somewhere in western Nebraska perhaps; or maybe they had crossed into Wyoming.  She had just seen Charlie kill a man who was sleeping in his car.  The car they were in, the Packard they had stolen from the rich man’s house, was having problems, and it was too easily recognized.  Charlie wanted to switch vehicles, and this was how he always got the next one; he killed for it.

Now she sat in the back seat of this new car, the body of the man who had driven it slumped in the front passenger seat, his head blown open, and eight more bullet holes spread over his body.  It was as if Charlie couldn’t get enough of shooting someone even after they were dead.

Caril had always been afraid of guns.  Once, when Charlie took her out hunting at the farm of his friend, August Meyer, she had lifted the gun with difficulty, shakily pointing it at the bottles Charlie was using as targets.  She took a shot, then gave it back.  Now, over the past week, she had had her fill of gunfire as Charlie seemed to shoot everyone they encountered.

She didn’t dare run; where could she go?  The badlands surrounding them stretched on forever.  And it was cold… bitterly cold everywhere they went, especially at night.  Even if she did somehow get away, Charlie had told her that his friends were holding her family hostage, and if she left him, he would find the nearest phone, call his friends, and tell them to kill her family.  This was too much.  She couldn’t continue watching him kill innocent people.  She cried openly while he tried in vain to release the emergency brake.

She saw a motorist pulling up behind them.  A man got out of the car and approached Charlie.  He thought that Charlie owned the car, and was perhaps stranded.  Charlie got out of the car and pointed his rifle at the man.  Caril expected the loud bang to follow, but instead Charlie said, “Raise your hands.  Help me release the emergency brake or I’ll kill you.”

Joseph Sprinkle was tall, stronger than Charlie, a former navy officer who had just been discharged a month before; but none of that would matter if Charlie shot him.  He looked into the car and saw Caril, as well as the dead man on the floor.

Joseph knew that Charlie would kill him anyway, but he had no choice at the moment but to help, so he leaned into the car and began working at the emergency brake.  Caril watched him, tears in her eyes, certain that Charlie would shoot him in the back at any moment.  He was leaning up behind Joseph, watching him work, the gun held carelessly.

This was Joseph’s only chance.  He spun around and grabbed the rifle, pointing the barrel away from him, trying to pull it out of Charlie’s grasp.  Charlie kept hold of it with one hand while he hit Joseph with the other.

Caril, meanwhile, saw a patrol car stopped behind a truck that had halted nearby when the fight broke out.  The office inside clearly didn’t see what was happening past the truck.  Caril leapt from the car and ran for the officer.

At last Joseph got the rifle out of Charlie’s hands.  Outmatched, and seeing Caril running away, Charlie ran for the Packard.

Caril screamed and waved her arms as she ran towards the officer.  Deputy Sheriff Bill Romer finally saw her and let her in the passenger door.  She was shrieking, tears pouring down her face.

Caril was crying hysterically and Officer Romer couldn’t understand what she was saying.  He at last distinguished something about a murder, and heard her say the word that sent a chill down his spine, “Starkweather.”  She pointed past the truck in front of them, and he looked around it to see the two men in the road.  One of them had bright red hair and was running for the Packard, and Romer realized the identity of the girl in his car.

As Romer watched, the boy with the red hair leapt into the Packard and raced away.  Romer didn’t follow.  Instead, he picked up his radio.  Robert Ainslie, chief of police in Douglas, Wyoming, heard the report over the receiver.  Sheriff Earl Heflin was in the passenger seat next to him.  Starkweather was driving in their direction, so Ainslie swerved his car into the middle of the highway to block Charlie’s escape.  Charlie raced toward Ainslie and Heflin without slowing then swung his car around them.  Ainslie pushed his glasses on tight, put the car into gear and took chase.  By the time they reached Douglas, the speedometer had reached 115 miles per hour.

Residents scattered as the two cars sped down Main Street.  The sheriff was firing at the Packard’s tires, but stopped when they entered traffic and Starkweather had to slow to get around the locals.  Seeing his opportunity to catch up with the murderer, Ainslie rammed Charlie’s car.  His front bumper hooked onto Charlie’s back bumper, but Charlie saw an opening in the traffic and sped away.

Outside of town the chase resumed at high speed.  Sheriff Heflin took two shots.  One hit the back bumper and the other passed through the rear window of the car.  Charlie stopped suddenly.  He opened his door and stumbled out, clutching at the side of his head.  Blood was oozing out and he was crying.

Heflin told him to get on the ground.  Charlie, still clutching his ear, ignored Heflin, continued forward, stumbling away from his car.  Hefflin fired between Charlie’s legs and Charlie dropped like a rock onto his chest.  When Heflin and Ainslie reached Charlie, they found that a piece of broken glass from the back window had nicked off part of his ear.  It had caused some bleeding, but that was all.

When Caril heard the news of Charlie’s capture over the police radio, she relaxed as if a giant weight was lifted off her shoulders.  She had been crying and rambling incoherently while the chase was in progress.  Romer had tried to comfort her, tried to understand what she was saying, but she had been hysterical, and unable to form a thought into words.

Caril was unstrung, shivering and in tears, but she calmed down after she knew Charlie was in custody.  Then she asked a question that both confused Deputy Romer and disturbed him.  “Where are my parents?  I’m afraid something might have happened to them.”  She also asked for her sister.  She wanted to make certain they were all okay.

Romer didn’t know how to answer that.  Her mother, step-father and half-sister were dead, and it was generally believed she had assisted in their murders.  He didn’t answer; that wasn’t his job.  He took her to the jail in Casper where they arrived about the same time as Charlie.  She wanted to avoid him, and the closer she got, the more she fidgeted.

By the time Caril was introduced to the sheriff’s wife, Hazel Heflin, Caril had again reached a point of hysteria.  She was asking for her parents, wanting to know where they were, if they were safe.  She asked about her baby sister; technically her half-sister, but Caril always referred to her as her baby sister.  Mrs. Heflin didn’t know how to answer; neither did her husband, or any of the other men of the department.  The more they dodged her questions, the more agitated Caril became, and at last they sedated her.

Caril was taken to the state hospital because she was 14, too young to be placed in a jail.  As she was examined by psychiatrists and doctors, Mr. and Mrs. Heflin became increasingly convinced that she had been a hostage of, rather than a partner to, Charlie.  When they found a note inside her jacket pocket which read, ‘Help. Police.  Don’t ignore.’ they became even more certain that she had not been part of his murder spree.

No one told Caril she would face criminal charges, nor did she believe there was any reason that she would.  She continued to ask about her family, and everyone still avoided telling her they were dead.  Caril told Mrs. Heflin several times how excited she would be to see them again.  No one had the heart to tell her what had happened, and so it was left for someone else to be the bearer of the bad news.

Elmer Scheele arrived to take both Charlie and Caril back to Lincoln to stand trial for murder.  He did not immediately inform Caril of this fact.  He had learned to be shrewd while working for the FBI during the high tide of J. Edgar Hoover’s reign.  A top notch student, Scheele had joined the bureau directly out of school, moving to Washington, D.C. where he served with distinction.  He returned to Nebraska when he was offered a job in the county attorney’s office.  There, he had worked his way up to chief deputy, and was elected county attorney himself in 1954.

Now in Wyoming and far away from his office, Scheele sat and talked to Caril in his blunt, yet amiable demeanor.  He was so genial that Caril believed he was on her side.  She knew he was there to make Charlie accountable for what he had done, and he explained that charges could be brought against her if she didn’t cooperate.  She did all she could to tell him every detail.  She did not understand that what she was telling him and the other officials he brought would be used against her in a trial where she could receive the death penalty.  Scheele merely asked her in his soft, benevolent voice what had happened.  As she spoke, the court reporter, Audrey Wheeler, took her statement.

With Scheele were Edwin Coats, psychiatrist at the Casper hospital, Eugene Masters, assistant police chief, and Dale Fahrnbruch, the assistant district attorney from Nebraska.  Caril had no attorney present on her behalf.

Elmer Scheele told Caril that she could return to Lincoln willingly, or she would be forced to by a court order.  He never explained that she had the right to fight extradition, nor did he even tell her why she was being taken back to Lincoln.  As far as Caril understood, she was being offered a ride back home where she would be reunited with her family.  Caril’s understanding was that she could either go with the Nebraska police to help press charges against Charlie, or she could be forced to do the same thing.  She told them she would go willingly.  It was placed into the record that Caril was not going to fight extradition.  Caril, meanwhile, did not even know what the word meant.

Caril was driven to Gering, Nebraska near the Wyoming border and placed in the prison to await transfer to the custody of the Lincoln police department.  Caril continued to believe that she was in police custody because she was a minor, and she required adult supervision until she was reunited with her mother and step-father.  Mrs. Warick, the wife of the Scottsbluff County sheriff, who did not know the information had been kept from Caril, simply blurted out that they were dead while she was with Caril.  When Caril became extremely distraught and begged for more information, Mrs. Warick said nothing else.

Caril was always handed over to the wife of the sheriff whose custody she was under, so when Sheriff Karnopp from Lancaster County arrived, Caril was placed under the custody of his wife, Gertrude.  A stern disciplinary woman, Gertrude Karnopp had already determined Caril was guilty.  But this belief was tested when Caril’s first question to her was, “Are my folks dead?”

Taken aback, Gertrude didn’t answer.  Then Caril persisted, “Who killed them?”

“Don’t you know, Caril?” Gertrude said.

Caril told her about hearing of their murders for the first time not long before Gertrude had arrived.  When Gertrude confirmed the story, she gave Caril tissues to hold back the tears that were now streaming down the little girl’s cheeks.  She cried for a long time while Mrs. Karnopp watched.  When Caril was all out of tears, she began twisting the tissues into the shapes of tiny dolls.

*          *          *

John McArthur was led down the wide, sterile hallway of the mental health facility to Caril’s room.  When Caril was brought back to Nebraska, she had neither the means to hire a lawyer herself, nor did she have parents who could do it for her.  Caril’s biological father was alive, but on the day she was brought back from Wyoming he had been arrested himself for participating in a bar fight.  The presiding judge, Harry Spencer, had assigned a lawyer to her.  Spencer had chosen McArthur presumably because he knew that John would neither shrink from the responsibility, nor take advantage of it for his own gain.  Many other lawyers would refuse the job out of fear of the public’s reaction, or accept because the notoriety of the case would help them promote their own practice.

His new client was being held in the mental health facility because she was too young to be put in a jail, and there was nowhere else to detain her.  Juvenile hall had not yet been created.

The state, for that matter the whole country, had never experienced a capital case that involved a minor, and no one knew how to handle the issue of Caril’s representation.  At first the Nebraska State Bar Association assigned an attorney named William Blue to appear on her behalf for her arraignment, then they assigned Edwin Belsheim, the head of Wesleyan University’s law school, to represent her until an official, practicing attorney could be appointed.  Belsheim’s first course of action was to file for the case to be moved to juvenile court.  Even though it was natural to handle such cases there, the State denied it, claiming that this was simply too serious of a charge to handle in juvenile court.

In federal law, every person had a right to an attorney upon arrest, but in the state of Nebraska, no such right existed until the accused reached the preliminary hearing.  Six days after Caril was taken into custody, Judge Spencer finally ruled that “In the interests of justice, considering the age of the applicant and the circumstances surrounding the alleged offense, I find that her request should be granted and counsel appointed.  I hereby appoint John McArthur as counsel for Caril Ann Fugate.”

John knew the case would be difficult on his family, but his wife Ruby had stood by him through thick and thin.  She knew what she had signed up for when she married him, and she understood that his decisions sometimes made their family unpopular.  This time, however, he had not been able to call home after being assigned the case to warn Ruby before death threats reached the house.  His son James took the first call, and Ruby fielded most of the rest.  Had the television or radio been on, they would have heard the news, but it was Saturday, the Sabbath for them because they were Seventh Day Adventists.  As such, they did not have luxuries of any kind from sunset Friday night to sunset Saturday night.  The television was not to be turned on all that day, except for a few select shows with which John would not be parted.

John had no opinion on the case before him.  Elmer Scheele, the county attorney, who was a close friend of his, had filed charges of first-degree murder against the girl, and it seemed clear from the news reports that Caril had gone along at least somewhat willingly on a terrible murder spree.  She had had several opportunities to get away, but at the same time, she was only 14 years old.  John decided to leave judgment to the jury.  He would hear her side of the story, and interpret it to the court as best he could, even if it seemed hopeless.

John’s first impression of Caril was how small she was.  She stood less than five feet in height, and her build was tiny and frail.  Though she was 14 years old, she looked more like she might be 12, or younger.  Her hair was in a pony tail, and she wore the very plain clothes the hospital had provided her.  She was fidgeting with some tissue dolls she had made.

“Hello Caril.  I’m John,” he told her.  John was a consummate gentleman; formal, yet warm to everyone he met.  She greeted him with a smile and introduced herself.  He sat down and asked her about what she liked to do during the long days.  She told him how she busied herself with whatever she could find, and showed him the dolls she made.  Once the pleasantries were done, he began talking about what had happened.  She spoke freely about what Charlie had done, about how frightened she had been of him, and how dangerous he was.

When he told her that he was there to work on her case, Caril didn’t seem to understand why.  She thought she had been helping the police to prosecute Charlie.  John had read in the newspapers a detailed description of Charlie and Caril’s arrival in Lincoln.  Caril sat in the backseat of the sheriff’s car smiling at reporters.  She was acting the way a rescued girl would, not the way a captured killer would.  The sheriff’s wife had rolled up the window and not allowed Caril to speak with reporters.

Now it was clear why.  The reporters might have told her just how serious this was, and Caril would have been less forthcoming with her answers to the county attorney, who was using her own testimony as evidence against her.  By keeping her in the dark, Elmer Scheele had managed to get Caril to make incriminating statements.  With her family dead, no one could stand up for the girl except John.

But damage had already been done.  The newspapers had already painted Charlie and Caril as the new Bonnie and Clyde.  She was always named as Charlie’s girlfriend.  No one mentioned the fact that Caril had broken up with Charlie the Sunday before the murders.  The image of two young lovers on a rampage was more captivating, and that’s the image the media presented to the public before Caril could ever speak to a lawyer, before she even knew that anyone thought she was guilty.

John was dumbfounded.  He had known Elmer Scheele for a long time.  They had been friends, even though they were rivals.  But this went beyond the common maneuvers of attorneys to find the best angle for their clients.  Scheele had used deceit to push a small girl closer to the electric chair.  He had not considered reasons or alternatives, and he had used methods which, though common for the time, were highly unethical.

John looked at that girl now.  There was certainly strength inside her, though anxiety took control of her face once she knew that her life was once again on the line.  She told John that the most important thing to her was that people know she was not guilty of murdering anyone.  Going to prison or even dying was less important to her than the public understanding that she would never commit such horrible acts.  John asked her if she was ready to give her statement to him, and she said she was.  So he told her to tell her side of the story.

John McArthur tried to move Caril’s trial to juvenile court because of her age, but the crimes were so heinous, and so widely publicized that Judge Spencer would not allow the case to be moved out of adult court. 


Pro Bono - The 18-Year Defense of Caril Ann Fugate can be purchased on Amazon, Kindle, or on any of the e-readers, such as Nook, Kobo, etc. You can also find the book, as well as additional information, at: To see more by Jeff McArthur, visit:

About Jeff McArthur: He grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska where he began writing at a very young age. He became fascinated with movies as a teenager and began making them at 15, going on to New York University where he studied film, TV, and radio. In New York he worked with the comedy group The State, with PBS, and several others, before moving out to Los Angeles in 1995. He continued to work in the film industry for 15 years, working on various films including a few of his own, such as the documentary The Forgotten Grave, and the horror film Stolen Souls. Recently, he’s circled back around to book writing and has come out with his book Pro Bono – The 18-Year Defense of Caril Ann Fugate, about the famous case for which his grandfather was the attorney. He is currently writing The Relic Worlds sci-fi series, which can be seen at:

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