It was an otherwise normal Friday night on November 17th, 1978, and the Burger Chef restaurant in Speedway, Indiana had been open for business as usual. There had been nothing strange or out of the ordinary that day, but at around midnight one of the restaurant employees arrived to find the place empty, with the four workers who were supposed to be on duty nowhere to be seen. Assistant manager Jayne Friedt, 20, Daniel Davis, 16, Mark Flemmonds, 16, and Ruth Ellen Shelton, 17, were all completely missing, although nothing else was at first out of place. The lights were all on and two of the missing employees’ wallets, purses, and coats had been left behind, as if they would be back at any moment. However, alarm bells started to go off when it was found that the restaurant’s safe had been broken open and about $580 dollars was missing, or about $2,000 in today’s money, with oddly two empty currency bags and an empty roll of adhesive tape next to the open safe. It was also found that Friedt’s car, a 1974 Chevrolet Vega, was also missing, so where had they gone? This would mark the beginning of one of the weirder unsolved crimes on record, involving a strange disappearance, inexplicable deaths, and odd clues.
Considering that the safe had been robbed, police were notified and their first impression was that the four employees had stolen the money themselves and gone out on a joyride, but why do that in the middle of their shift in the middle of the night, and for such a relatively paltry sum of money? It was just petty cash, not a huge score or anything, so why would they have risked it? It didn’t seem to make any sense. Nevertheless, there was no reason to suspect otherwise at the time, and that was what it was officially reported as, just a petty robbery. In the meantime, authorities would drop the first of many balls in the investigation when the entire crime scene was wiped down so that the restaurant could open for business as usual the following morning. On top of this, no photographs of the crime scene had been taken until after it was all cleaned up, and this would serve to botch the investigation that was to come.
When that same day the missing vehicle was found abandoned in the middle of town, and the following morning came with still no word on the location of the four missing employees, police began to suspect that they had perhaps been abducted, although this also didn’t seem to make much sense. If someone was going to hold up the restaurant, why take along these four young innocent people with them? No one knew, and police were scrambling for answers. They would get them on Sunday, November 19, when some hikers taking a hike through thick woods at Johnson County, about 20 miles away from Speedway, stumbled across four bodies that had been dumped amongst the trees next to a remote gravel road, all of them apparently brutally murdered.
When police arrived on the scene it did not take them long at all to identify the four bodies as those of the four missing Burger Chef employees, with them still fully dressed in their work uniforms, and oddities and anomalies would begin to sprout up one by one. One of the first weird clues was that each of the victims had been murdered in a different way. Davis and Shelton had both been repeatedly shot by a .38 revolver, but Friedt had been stabbed multiple times, and with such force that the blade had broken off in her chest, while Flemmonds had been ruthlessly beaten to death with what the coroner thought was probably a heavy chain. Why would someone have killed them all in different ways like that? Another oddity was that the victims’ valuables such as cash and one of their wallets, as well as their watches, were all left behind, so it was seen as pretty weird that this should be so, considering the Burger Chef safe had been robbed and the missing $580 was nowhere to be seen at the scene.
Police now knew they had a homicide on their hands, and were beginning to suspect that it went beyond just a botched robbery. There was a lot of speculation, including that it had been a robbery gone bad and the four victims had been abducted when one or more of them recognized the perpetrators. Evidence of this theory was that Flemmonds had not been scheduled to work that day, and had been covering for someone else, meaning that the robbers might not have realized he was there and he recognized them, but this still didn’t explain all of the odd clues flitting about the case. There were some sporadic leads that came in, such as a witness who claimed to have seen a suspicious vehicle parked in front of the Burger Chef at around the time of the disappearances, but this led nowhere. Another possible lead was turned up when a man at a bar in Greenwood boasted that he had been the one responsible, but when he was brought in for questioning, he not only passed a polygraph test, but there could be found no hard evidence to show that he was anything other than a guy running his mouth off. He did, however, give up some names of a group of fast-food chain robbers operating in the region and the investigation followed this lead. Two men that fit the eyewitness description of the men seen in the car on the night of the abduction were brought in, but there could be found nothing to pin to them. The case had hit a wall, and it did not help at all that there had been no evidence at all left at the crime scene because it had been wiped without a proper analysis.
The investigation trucked on, following any possible shred of a clue or lead, spanning a vast area including Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Dallas, and there were some promising leads that were followed to dead ends. In 1981, Friedt’s own brother was looked at as a possible suspect after he was arrested on charges of conspiracy to sell cocaine, but was soon released for lack of evidence to connect him to the murders. Then in 1984 a prisoner at the Pendleton Correctional Facility by the name of Donald Forrester was serving a 95-year prison sentence for rape when he came forward to confess to the Burger Chef murders, which he agreed to tell authorities all about in exchange for not being transferred to the notoriously violent Indiana State Prison.
Forrester claimed that it had all been the result of a drug deal gone south between them and Friedt. It had apparently all turned into a fight, which had devolved into a fiasco that had caused all four of them to be tied up and taken away in a van to be killed out in the woods so there would be no witnesses. He was able to give a lot of details that weren’t widely known to the public about the case, so at first, he was seen as credible, but there were some doubts that he was telling the truth because it seemed like a bid to avoid his upcoming prison transfer. It was made even more confusing when he was revealed to be an informant for the Sheriff’s office, after which he recanted his confession and clammed up, refusing to talk anymore on the matter and dying in prison in 2006 to take any secrets he may have had to the grave with him. We are left to wonder just what happened to these four young, unassuming people. Why were they whisked away and killed the way they were? What was the motive and what is the meaning of all the strange clues? No one really knows, and the mystery of the Burger Chef murders remains unsolved.