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Burger Chef circa 1978

In 1954 Burger Chef was founded in Indianapolis, Indiana, featuring flame broiled burgers, a direct competitor for Burger King. The company quickly expanded throughout the United States, focusing on franchises in small towns. They offered not only a double burger and quarter-pound hamburger but also a toppings bar where patrons could customize their burgers. Burger Chef was second only to McDonald’s in locations, something no other franchise has managed to do.

By November of 1978, the mad expansion had slowed considerably but Burger Chef was still a major player in the fast food empire. In Speedway, Indiana, a small town of 12,500 residents, Friday, November 17 was a gloomy, cool day with rain drizzling throughout much of the day. The closing shift for the Burger Chef on Crawfordsville Road consisted of four employees: Jayne Freidt, Ruth Ellen Shelton, Mark Flemmonds, and Daniel Davis.

Jayne, at 20 years old was not only the oldest member of the crew that night but the assistant manager. She had worked for Burger Chef for three years and had been at the Crawfordsville road location since the spring of 1978. While professional, she was known to have a zesty and zany sense of humor and a ready smile.

Ruth was 17 and a junior at Northwest High School. An honor student, Ruth had a heavy workload in the hopes that it would guarantee her acceptance into a good college, where she hoped to study computer science. She realized how vital computers would become to us in the future. In the limited spare time she had, Ruth enjoyed macramé and was active in her church.

Mark, 16 years old, was the youngest of seven children and a sophomore at Speedway High. He had struggled in his first year at the high school but had managed to find his footing by that fall of 1978. Encouraged by his success, Mark’s father agreed to let him work at Burger Chef. The Flemmonds family lived close enough to the restaurant that Mark could walk to and from work.

Danny, also 16 years old, was a junior at Decatur Central High School. A jokester who enjoyed a good laugh, he also loved photography and had a darkroom in his home in which he could develop his own photos. He planned on enlisting in the Air Force after graduation due to his fascination with aviation. Friday, November 17, 1978 was his first Friday night shift.

All four employees were considered responsible, having never been late for a shift, and well-trusted by management.

The doors were locked on schedule at 11 p.m. while the crew went about their closing duties, in order to prepare the restaurant to reopen the next morning. Danny apparently changed out of his uniform shirt; Jayne took the cash from the register drawers and placed it in the safe located in the manager’s office. Normally their duties would be complete by about midnight.

Another employee, who hadn’t been scheduled to work that Friday evening but was dropping by to apparently meet up with one of the four, arrived at midnight and found the back door unlocked and ajar, the safe open, and the restaurant empty. He immediately contacted the Speedway Police Department.

The first officers on the scene found two empty currency bags, an empty roll of adhesive tape next to the safe, handbags belonging to Jayne and Ruth Ellen and coats belonging to the four employees. Nearly $600 was gone (the equivalent of which would be nearly $2300 in 2020), a relatively petty sum, and coins were left behind. There appeared to be no sign of struggle. The police at first believed the employees had taken the money and gone out to party. Apparently, the girls’ handbags remaining behind and the coats did not raise any flags for the police. So instead of protecting the scene, dusting for fingerprints and taking photos, the authorities allowed the restaurant to be opened up as per normal on Saturday morning and cleaned by that shift’s employees. By these actions (or inactions), any potential evidence was effectively destroyed.

By Saturday morning, the families of Jayne, Ruth Ellen, Daniel, and Mark had reported them missing. As the day wore on with no contact from any of the teens, the police began to doubt their initial suspicions and returned to the Burger Chef to consider other theories. Given that the back door had been found ajar, and knowing the closing routines at the restaurant, they wondered if one of the boys had unlocked the back door to take out the trash and was then either ambushed or followed back in by an intruder or intruders. They also put out a BOLO for Jayne’s car, which was not in the lot.

Jayne’s Vega was found within hours, only blocks away from the Speedway Police Department. The driver side door was locked but the passenger door was not. Inexplicably, even though it had become painfully clear something terrible had befallen the employees sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight the night before, the Speedway police did not take photographs, dust for prints or collect any forensic evidence from Jayne’s car.

On the afternoon of Sunday, November 19, a couple found the bodies of the four employees on their large, wooded property some 20 miles from Speedway. The bodies of Ruth and Danny were found together; both had been shot execution style numerous times in the head and neck with a .38 caliber gun. Seventy-five yards from them lay Jayne’s body; she had been stabbed twice in the heart, with the blade of the knife breaking off in her chest. Lastly, Mark’s body was found a short distance away. He had been beaten about the head, possibly with a chain, and it was speculated that he may have attempted to flee, striking a tree in the darkness. He had choked to death on his own blood after landing on his back. Sadly, had he not landed on his back, he would have survived. All four were still dressed in the same uniforms they had worn on Friday evening and were wearing their watches and with money in their pockets.

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Suspect sketch

Reportedly, mistakes and oversights continued to be made by authorities. Some folks on the body scene stated that the Indiana State Police moved some of the bodies before the coroner or forensic technicians arrived. The field was not roped off and department vehicles were driven all over, possibly destroying evidence. Given the presence of the Indiana State Police, Speedway Police, and Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, there were simply too many officials on the scene.

On Monday, November 20, Burger Chef offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the capture and arrest of their killer(s). Steak ‘n Shake added an additional $1,000 to the kitty. By that time, the murder investigation was in a serious tailspin. The agencies — Speedway P.D., Indiana State Police, and the Johnson County Sheriff — were not working together and did not share information. Speedway’s Chief of Police refused to acknowledge the mistakes his department had made; he claimed allowing the Burger Chef to reopen only hours after the employees had gone missing was the right thing to do.

Although the police were not making public comments or statements about the case, other than the chief defending his department, a teenaged witness came forward to say that on the evening of November 17 he had seen two suspicious looking men in the Burger Chef parking lot around 10 p.m. Sketches were done up and distributed in the hopes that the men could be found and identified.

A month after the murders, in December, a man at a bar bragged to friends that he had been involved in the Burger Chef murders. He was questioned by police and given a polygraph, which he passed. He did, however, provide the authorities with names of individuals involved in fast food restaurant burglaries. One of the men named in the burglaries resembled one of the sketches done the month before, down to his beard. When this man was threatened with a line-up, he shaved off his beard — something he had reportedly never done before.

Beard’s next-door neighbor, also named, had the nickname of Shotgun, due to his having served time for robberies in which he used a shotgun. The third suspect named in the burglary group reportedly fit the description of the second suspect in the sketch; he had also served time on an unrelated charge.

All three were offered a deal if they would admit their part in the murders or give up information but all three denied their involvement and police had nothing further to go on.

In March of 1979, a man by the name of Roger Dale Stafford was investigated. Stafford had murdered fast food employees in Oklahoma but he was cleared after he could not be placed in Indiana on November 17, 1978.

In April, two men from Milwaukee were investigated after committing a double murder but were quickly ruled out.

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Jayne’s final resting place

In 1981, Jayne’s brother was arrested on a drug charge and authorities began to investigate him, under the theory that the murders might be drug related. He was cleared in under a week.

The case went cold until 1983, when a Marion County inmate claimed that a man he served with had admitting to committing the murders. According to the inmate, the man had said he was a drug “enforcer” and had gone to collect a debt from one of the Burger Chef employees and one of the others had recognized him, which necessitated in eliminating everyone. Although possible, it appears that there was no evidence connecting the man to the crimes and once again, the case went cold.

In 1984, an inmate by the name of Donald Forrester contacted the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to confess. Forrester was serving a 95-year sentence for rape and wanted a deal to avoid being transferred from the Pendleton Correctional Facility to the Indiana State Prison, which had a notorious reputation for being violent. Forrester, who was living in Speedway at the time of the murders, claimed that Jayne’s brother James had owed money on a drug deal and he and three “associates” had gone to the Burger Chef to threaten Jayne. Mark had intervened and a scuffle had broken out, during which Mark had fallen and struck his head on the bumper of a car. Believing that Mark was dead or dying, the decision was made to abduct and kill the other three. Forrester said he had shot Ruth and Danny. He led authorities to the location where the bodies were found, accurately describing their positioning and mentioning the knife that was broken in Jayne’s chest — a detail the authorities had held back. He directed the police to the river that he said he had thrown the gun into and gave up the names of the three “associates” that he said had killed Mark and Jayne. A search of the river failed to recover any firearm.

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Ruth’s final resting place

Forrester’s wife was interviewed. She recalled a day after November 17, 1978 when she accompanied her husband on a drive in the country, where he pulled off in a field and collected several shell casings, which he then flushed down the toilet at their home. The septic tank of the house was searched and three spent .38 caliber shell casings were discovered. Unfortunately, someone at the sheriff’s office leaked the news of Forrester’s cooperation and he quickly recanted, saying that his confession was coerced. Without further cooperation from him and no direct evidence linking him to the crime, the case again went cold.

It was thought at one point that the Burger Chef murders might be tied to a series of eight bombings that took place in Speedway between September 1 and September 6, 1978 but there was no correlation between them. Similarly, the July 29, 1978 shooting murder of Julia Scyphers in Speedway proved unrelated.

In January of 2015, after a campaign for funds was started on Twitter, a headstone was placed on Mark Flemmonds’ grave. His family had not been able to afford one at the time of his death and for nearly 40 years, his grave had remained unmarked.

In the summer of 2018, as the 40th anniversary of the murders approached, four oak trees were planted at Leonard Park in Speedway in the victims’ honor, each with a plaque commemorating each victim. As the original monetary goal was surpassed within 24 hours, the additional funds collected were used to install a marble bench which was dedicated to the family and friends of the victims.

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Mark’s final resting place

To date, no one has been charged with the murders of Jayne, Ruth, Danny, and Mark and the case remains open. Certainly, the tunnel vision of the police the night of November 17, 1978, compounded by their mistakes and oversights, seriously hindered the investigation and likely impeded any kind of arrest.

It’s likely the murders were a result of either a burglary gone wrong, with one of the employees recognizing a burglar or burglars or a drug shakedown gone wrong. Jayne had worked at another Burger Chef location until the spring of 1978; perhaps one of the burglars had been a regular at that location. Furthermore, Mark Flemmonds was not initially scheduled to work that Friday night; he was covering for another employee. It’s possible that he recognized one of the intruders, who had chosen that night on the assumption that Mark would not be working.

The son of one of the early suspects identified after the man at the bar gave him up, stated that his father confessed to him before dying.

And what of Donald Forrester’s confessions? Given the information he knew and the positioning of the bodies, if he wasn’t personally involved, he knew someone that was. Once he recanted his confession, he never again spoke to authorities about the murders and died of cancer in 2006, still behind bars.

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Danny’s final resting place

What does seem certain is that there were at least two assailants, if not three. They would have to gain control of the four employees and at least three weapons were used against the victims: a firearm, a knife, and a chain. Perhaps Ruth and Danny were shot by one perpetrator, Jayne attempted to fight back and/or escape and was stabbed by a second perpetrator, and Mark ran, being struck by a possible third perpetrator. His friends stated that he was a very fast runner; his father recalled him saying that he would never go down without a fight and that he would zigzag while running, to avoid being capture or hit. Had he not been struck, either by the chain or potentially by hitting a tree, he might have managed to outrun his assailants.

Burger Chef never paid out its $25,000 reward fund. The company was sold to Hardees in 1982, with most of its franchise locations converted to a Hardees. The last known Burger Chef location closed in 1996.

If you have any information on the Burger Chef murders, contact the Indiana State Police at (317) 899–8508.

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The former Burger Chef today

Writer, reader, margarita drinker. Currently looking for a “dare to be great” situation.

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