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Nebraska man remembers: ‘I was the first guy that ever got shot by Starkweather’

<i>Lincoln Journal Star</i><br/>Don Wendling
Lincoln Journal Star
Lincoln Journal Star
Don Wendling

By Peter Salter

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    LINCOLN, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — He was wearing short sleeves the day Charlie Starkweather shot him.

Don Wendling was 7, growing up next door to a service station at 14th and Dakota streets in what was, then, the far southwest corner of Lincoln. His classmate, Bobby Starkweather, lived near 17th and Pawnee.

During their second grade year, Wendling would detour to the Starkweather house to pick up his friend, so they could walk the final few blocks together to Saratoga Elementary School.

Wendling always waited outside. “I was afraid of his dad. I could hear him yelling at his wife and he sounded like someone I didn’t want to be around.”

The boys weren’t best friends, but they were close enough to run around together one summer, and spend some of their after-school hours in the Starkweather yard. There was a walnut tree back there, Wendling remembers, and he and his friend would smash the shells with rocks.

They’d had their fill on a warm day in 1951, and had started walking down the driveway.

Charlie Starkweather would have been about 13 at the time, about a half-dozen years before his murder spree that would leave 11 people dead.

The garage was the future killer’s fort, his clubhouse.

“Charlie yelled out, ‘Don’t come back here,’” Wendling said. “Bobby and I kept walking, and he (Charlie) shot me with a BB gun.”

Wendling didn’t hear the shot, but he felt it. And then he saw it, blood beginning to escape from his upper right arm.

“It really hurt bad,” he said. “I ran home crying and told my dad.”

His father, the state penitentiary’s purchasing agent, called the police. And later that day, a cruiser pulled up in front of their house.

Starkweather sat in the back seat.

“They asked, ‘Is this the boy that shot you?’”

Wendling identified him, and learned later from his father — whose job at the pen gave him law enforcement connections — that Starkweather had to surrender his BB gun and serve juvenile probation.

After that day, he never saw another Starkweather again; his parents forbid it. His arm healed and the scar disappeared. And that should have been the end of that, a childhood story Wendling would have likely forgotten if Charlie Starkweather hadn’t made history seven years later.

Wendling ran all the way home from school that day in late January 1958, after the bodies of C. Lauer Ward and Clara Ward, and their housekeeper, Lillian Fencl, were found in their home just a block from Irving Junior High.

“Everybody else’s parents, they were picking them up,” he said. “But my dad couldn’t make it.”

His father did return home in time for Wendling’s after-school paper route, following his son as he delivered the Lincoln Evening Journal down 13th and 14th streets, Van Dorn to Lake streets.

On the front page, the newspaper carried news about Starkweather.

In his car, his father carried a rifle and pistol.

By then, several days into the spree, much of Lincoln was armed and in fear, its residents emptying hardware stores of guns and ammunition. “People bought anything that would shoot,” a salesman told The Lincoln Star. “They weren’t even particular about what they bought.”

But the Wendlings had a tangible concern: That Charlie Starkweather would target them for calling the police in 1951.

“We were real worried he would remember this incident when he shot me, and he would come looking for me.”

But the 19-year-old Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, were already headed out of the city and out of the state in the Wards’ ’56 Packard, about to be arrested in eastern Wyoming.

Now Wendling had a childhood story that he couldn’t forget: “I was the first guy that ever got shot by Starkweather.”

It wouldn’t define him, but it would give him something to talk about — because people would never stop talking about Starkweather and Fugate, even decades after he was executed and she was imprisoned and later paroled.

He watched book after book get published about the murders and their aftermath. And he read them.

“I thought, ‘They don’t have the whole story.’”

He tried telling it publicly only once, when an Omaha TV station announced it was interviewing the latest Starkweather author. Wendling left messages but never heard back.

Earlier this month, the retired manager of Burden’s Surplus Center posted a short account on his Facebook page about that day 70 years ago, when Charlie Starkweather pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger.

He knows nobody can corroborate it. They’re all gone now. His parents, the police officers. He recently tried to find his old friend, Bobby Starkweather, to see what he remembered. He came up empty.

But he’s not worried. He remembers feeling the pain and seeing the blood.

“It’s my story; it happened to me. It was an odd thing: Someone goes on to kill 11 people, and I was the first one he shot.”

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