The Burger Chef Murders

Growing up in Indianapolis, there are two crimes that everyone knows about, even if they do not remember them. The first is the infamous Sylvia Likens case.  The second is The Burger Chef Murders, that today, over 35 years later is still officially unsolved. I guess I should point out that in the last few years another crime has become notorious there and known as The Richmond Hill Explosion. One of those involved has pleaded guilty, one other has been convicted and sentenced to life without parole and three others are awaiting trial at this time.

In November of 1978 I had just entered the 1st grade, you know, back when school did not start until after Labor Day.  I was six years old and my life revolved around school, playing outside and playing with my Barbie's so I am not surprised that this crime occurred less than five miles from my home and that I was much older before I remember hearing about it. If you were to do a search you will find web detectives everywhere. There are those who claim to know exactly who was involved, including a former detective who was one of the first to work on the case, but most agree that there was little evidence found, and one of the crime scenes was actually cleaned before officers could really check things out so the odds of this case being solved is likely nil.

More than likely the first thing someone thinks of when Indianapolis is mentioned is the Indy 500 which is held every year in May (except 1942-1945) since 1911.  It actually began in 1909 technically and after a summer event the following year they decided on it being a one day event, hence the Indy 500 was born.  And, in 1911 the event did actually take place in Indianapolis.  However, in 1926 the incorporated town of Speedway was established. Some refer to it as a suburb of Indianapolis but technically in my opinion it does not qualify as such. A suburb is defined as a an area on the outskirts of another town or city of which Speedway does not do. Indianapolis has plenty of other areas that do qualify as suburbs such as Southport, Beech Grove, Lawrence... etc.  But Speedway?  It is smack dab in the middle of Indianapolis.  In fact, if you are not from there you probably do not even know you have entered Speedway, assuming it is just the west side of Indianapolis. They are a town of their own.  They have their own police department, school system and post office.  In case you did not know, a town must have a post office to be technically considered a town and incorporated. If you have ever lived in a rural area in which your address claims one town but you technically live in another then you know what I mean.  

By 1978 Speedway was a fairly crime free town.  They only had a few robberies a year and 50-60 burglaries.  But 1978 was a wild time for the town.  In July of that year a woman by the name of Julia Scyphers was shot to death in her own garage.  This was only the third homicide their 50 years there.  Her husband, Fred, identified the shooter as a William Bowman but Fred died before Bowman could be brought to trial and technically the crime is unsolved. In September Speedway saw a series of bombings.  There were eight in six days.  It was not until the last one on September 6th that someone was hurt.  A man saw what he believed to be a high school gym bag in the school parking lot after a game and as he approached it the bomb inside went off.  The man lost his leg and had other severe injuries.  Later that month a man by the name of Brett Kimberlin was arrested and subsequently convicted of the bombing crimes.  Although a clear motive was never truly established for his crimes there was a theory.  Prosecutors believed that Kimberlin had built and set off the bombs in order to distract the police from working the Scyphers case. Brett Kimberlin and Julia Scyphers were not fond of each other.  Some reports say that Brett dated her daughter, while other claim he had what most thought as an unhealthy infatuation with her 14 year old granddaughter. To add to this, William Bowman, the man Fred Scyphers identified was a known drug associate of Kimberlin's.  

And then, on November 17th, less than two months after Kimberlin's arrest four employees from the local Burger Chef went missing.  Just how it was discovered the were missing seems to be a bit at odds. Some reports said that a delivery man went there sometime after 10 or 11 pm and discovered the doors unlocked and empty.  Other reports claim that an off duty employee had gone up there and had found the back door unlocked and everyone gone and that he called the police.  I am going to tend to say it was the latter seeing as it is odd for a restaurant to receive a delivery that late at night, especially since they were technically closed and we're talking about a time where things were not 24/7 like they are now.  At any rate, regardless who discovered the store empty, the police were notified.  Four people were on duty that night and should have been in the store.... sixteen year old Daniel Davis, seventeen year old Ruth Shelton, sixteen year old Mark Flemmonds and twenty year old assistant manager, Jayne Friedt. The responding officers found the manager's office ransacked and they discovered just under $600 missing from the store.  Apparently a few of the first responding officers believed that the employees had taken the money and decided to go party on a Friday night.  Officer Ken York was one of the first to respond.  He has claimed over the years that he did not believe this theory because both of the girls' purses were still in the store and at least one of them had left their coat.  It seems that the only one that drove was Jayne Friedt and her car was not in the parking lot.  The store was never properly investigated and was apparently released back to the managers who seemingly promptly cleaned everything to open up the next morning (although some reports say that even after doing this the manager decided to stay closed).   Sometime later that night the parents were informed that their children were missing.

The following day Jayne Friedt's car was found abandoned not far from the police station.  Apparently no clues were found from the car but I am going to assume that it was checked, although this surely could be wrong with everything else that was done improperly.  We also have to remember though that, like many of the cases I discuss here, DNA was not even thought of at the time. It was still a time of fingerprints and blood typing (if any was found).  By this point obviously the investigators know something just is not right with this but their original crime scene is now gone since Burger Chef had cleaned up and re-opened.  On November 19th two  people were out hiking out in Johnson County, just south of Indianapolis and came across the bodies in a field. Police rushed to the scene and found all four victims.  Daniel and Ruth were found shot execution style while Jayne was stabbed and it appeared that Mark had been beaten (theory was with some sort of chain).  If the case was not before, now it was a full blown investigation.

As a bit of a side note the front of the Indianapolis Star newspaper was an exciting one for a few days in that time period.  While by the morning of the 19th the bodies were yet to be found it was clear that something had happened in the restaurant and these four young people were missing.  On top of that, on November 18, 1978 was when the Jonestown Massacre happened.  For those of you who may live under a rock and do not know what that is, it is when cult leader Jim Jones instructed his followers, known as The People's Temple, to drink poison in Guyana and 909 American's died.  A senator was also killed there when he had gone to investigate things. This was of special interest to the people of Indianapolis because not only was Jim Jones from Indiana, he had ran a church in the downtown area for many years before moving to first California and then later Guyana. Again, for those who do not know the Jonestown Massacre is what is reference when people say things like "Don't drink the Kool-Aid."  It was said that Jones had several "test runs" for the poison and often times the followers did not know for sure if they were in fact drinking poison or not and drank it anyway, having complete faith in Jim Jones.  So at any point for the next several days as information on Jonestown as well as the Burger Chef Murders start coming in, the headlines were dominated.  

Of course the finding of the bodies guaranteed that this was a homicide and the investigation went into full force.  Autopsies were performed and it was discovered that the knife used to kill Jayne Friedt had broken of apparently mid-stab.  The blade was found embedded in her body but the handle was gone, something that was never found.  In fact, none of the weapons have ever been found. The coroner concluded that Mark Flemmonds had bruising along his head and neck area that he believed occurred 1-2 hours before his death.  This led to speculation that he was the actual target.  There have also been theories given that Mark could have fled in the midst of his beating and while running had lost balance or ran into something (some theorize a tree) and then he had fallen and rolled down a hill.  In the end, the way he laid caused him to basically choke on his own blood. 

A teenage boy did come forward and say that he and his girlfriend were walking through the parking lot of Burger Chef close to closing time on the night of the disappearances.  He claimed to have seen a "bearded man" and a "clean shaven man" as they were later, and to this day, known as.  Sketches were made of these men and even 3D clay busts (that are said to still be on display in the Speedway Police Department today) which was a rare thing at the time.  

Then a short time after the discovery a man went into a bar and commented that he committed the murders.  This was reported to the police and the man was brought in, questioned and polygraphed.  He passed the polygraph claiming he was innocent but told investigators the names of several suspects that belonged to a "fast food robbing gang" supposedly operating in the Indianapolis area.  This man would later commit suicide.  It was widely believed that since the area where the bodies were found was so remote and was approximately 22 miles from the Burger Chef that the perpetrators had to be familiar with that area.  It is approximately a 40 minutes drive to the field in Johnson County and there would have been plenty of areas along the way to commit the murders, yet it was determined that the victims were killed in the field so they had driven that long with 4 live witnesses.  It was as if they knew no one would see them in this field.  

At some point there were some arrests made in connection with other fast food robberies and the prosecutor at the time offered two of those men (one known as "shot gun man" as he was at some point arrested for gun crimes) plea deals to discuss the Burger Chef murders but they both refused.  While on a search police did find a man that they claim was a "dead ringer" for the "bearded man."  They apparently questioned him (not officially it sounds).  They had really had no evidence against him but they did threaten him with a police line up. They kept an eye on him and it was said that the very next day he shaved his beard.  At least one of the officers claim that he had known the man for at least 5 years and that in all that time he had maintained the beard so shaving it the next day seemed very suspicious, but again, there was no evidence. He later died of a heart attack. Several years later his son, who was also facing charges for other crimes, told the police that his father had told him he was involved.  The "shot gun" man had gone to prison for unrelated crimes and it is claimed that it was not long after his release that the "bearded man" they suspected and the man who had confessed in the bar both died.  There does not seem to be a lot of evidence or proof of this being anything more than a coincidence that I could find.  

So, after 35 years what do they know?  Not a whole lot is the answer. Obviously nothing was gathered at the restaurant before it was cleaned so they have absolutely nothing there.  Apparently nothing forensically came from checking Jayne Friedt car, which was a 1974 Vega by the way.  They have cause of deaths and theories.  Investigators, and even we lay person sleuths can pretty much determine that there had to be anywhere from 2-4 perpetrators.  How do we come to this conclusion? First it is unreasonable to believe that one person was able to control and kid nap 4 people.  Theoretically there may have been two at the scene, with one vehicle, to which then Jayne's car was used and possibly met another near where her car was abandoned.  It would be unreasonable to think that the perpetrators kidnapped people and then trusted one to follow them in their own car.  Of course there is also the theory that her car was simply moved to get it out of the parking lot so if someone were to drive by they would conclude that no one was there and that the perpetrators had a vehicle big enough to carry at least 6, if not more people.  Then there is the crime scene in Johnson County where the bodies were found.  First, I would have to agree that this was likely a place in which the perpetrators were familiar with.  There is a great risk in driving that far with people you have kidnapped.  It gives them more time to identify you if by chance they live; there is also always the chance that a simple traffic violation could have caused them to be pulled over.  Few perpetrators risk spending more time with their victims than they have to unless they are confident that the end result will be safer.  Another indication that there were at least two, if not more, involved rears it's ugly head in the field.  There were four victims, yet three manners of death.  This is odd. In general when there is a murder one weapon is used, unless of course say in cases where there is one victim and different weapons used.  In this case, there were four victims and three manners of death.  It would indicate that at least one person carried the gun and shot Daniel and Ruth, while another had a knife to which stab Jayne. Mark Flemmonds kind of seemed to be the enigma here.  Was he beaten with something like a chain because it was a weapon of opportunity and he had tried to get away?  Although there is the theory that some of his injuries could have occurred a few hours before death.  
There had been a theory at some point that drugs may have been involved but it seems investigators do not believe this as there was no indication of this.  It seems that none of the victims were known to do drugs, assuming toxicology tests came back normal, and no drugs seemed to be found anywhere.  Another theory that was thrown around circles back to the "fast food robbery gang."  Jayne had recently transferred to this location from another.  While many argue that none of the other robberies had the elements, especially murder, as this one had, it was possible that she, or maybe one of the others, recognized one of the perpetrators.  

Former officer Ken York believes that he absolutely knows who committed the crime (or at least two of them as he admits there could have been more) and as of 2003 (or was it 2013?) believed they were still alive and living in Johnson County.  He has been quoted that unless new evidence or a concrete confession happens he will die knowing who committed these crimes, but will likely never be able to get them because the evidence is gone.  This would indicate that "the bearded man" who's son said he was involved and who had shaved the day following an interview with the police, may in fact not be one of them as he apparently died a very long time ago. I could be wrong though considering that York, as well as others who have discussed the case over the years, seemingly talks in circles to avoid specifically naming someone.  Whether this is a legal tactic or from fear I do not know.  

Over the years both areas have changed quite a bit.  At the time of the crime Burger Chef was based in Indianapolis (something I did not know until now) and there were 600 restaurants nationwide. In the early 1980's they sold out to Hardee's and most of the stores, including the Speedway store, were converted into such.  Over the last several years Hardee's are a little harder to find, especially in the Indianapolis area and are not as visible as they once were.  As of 2013 this location was operating as a Cashland (paycheck loan) store.  The field in which the bodies were found is now a sub-division. 

When I was doing my research I found several interesting things I did not know.  I did not realize that Ruth attended the high school that I would later graduate from; Mark's father worked for the post office, as did my dad (although I cannot confirm which branch his father worked at). I also saw that a group called "Circle City React" had been involved in the search and likely helped in the Johnson County Field.  I had not heard of React in years. When I was young and still living in Southern Indiana my dad had belonged to React, but I never knew much about it.  REACT stands for Radio Emergency Associated Communications Team.  I was able to find a website for them and it seems they are rather active in community things.  They help with searches and other things when they are needed. I guess I always understood it to be a "CB club" and I must have been very wrong in that sense.  

On another side note, in January of 2015, a local Indianapolis DJ discovered that Mark Flemmonds did not have a tombstone at his grave. He decided to do a fund raiser through Twitter.  Within 15 minutes over $800 was raised.  In the end it seems he will (or maybe he already has) receive a much more elaborate stone than originally planned. It just goes to show that after over 35 years this crime still touches people.  

I personally do not believe this crime will ever be solved.  The evidence simply was not gathered correctly, nor was there enough evidence with what they do have.  Any "results" they may find at this point could likely be challenged successfully. There are those, including York that believe they know exactly who committed this crime and he may very well be correct.  The current (as of 2013 at least) detective in charge of the case has publicly announced that he believes it can be solved but unless he has extreme evidence that has not been released to the public I likely see this more as blowing smoke than anything.  I will say that I do believe at least some of the participants are likely dead.  Why? Well we all know the saying.... Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.  That is almost always true.  To quote Jamie Foxx from "Law Abiding Citizen".... "It's not what you know... it's what you can prove."




Comments

  1. Great stuff Susan. I grew up in Indianapolis,and my Grandparents lived about a mile away from the Sylvia Liken's house. I too was in 1st grade in the fall of 1978. That must make You? Take Care Steve Doss

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  2. defined as a an area? third homicide their 50 years there? Also, Jim Jones used Flavor-Aid - 'Don't drink the Kool-Aid' refers to the electric acid Kool-Aid test.

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  3. Where was William Bowman the night of the Burger Chef murders?

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