Burger Chef murders, a 25-year-old mystery
Scott Swan/Eyewitness News
Indianapolis, Nov. 12 - Who did it? Who robbed the Burger Chef restaurant? Who murdered four employees?
"That ended up, as of today, the only unsolved major case in my career." Ken York, former detective with the Indiana State Police, is one of the original investigators on the Burger Chef murder case.
He's retired now, a private investigator.
The case may be unsolved, but York thinks he knows who did it. "Unless someone proves differently or someone confesses between now and then, I'll go to my death bed believing I know who killed those kids."
It happened in November 1978 at the Speedway Burger Chef. A Friday night. Four employees on duty disappear; 16-year-old Daniel Davis, 16-year-old Mark Flemmonds, 20-year-old Jayne Friedt and 17-year-old Ruth Shelton.
"I worked on it from the very first day before the bodies were even found." Reporter Paul Bird, who covered the story for the Indianapolis News, said the crime shook the town of Speedway. "It left an entire community in panic. Everybody could relate to their children being abducted from a Burger Chef."
The Sheltons' daughter was one of the victims. They remember getting the phone call 25 years ago. Rachel Shelton recalls, "John woke me up telling me that they thought our daughter had been kidnapped."
John Shelton says, "I thought we'd never see her again alive."
Rachel reads from her diary the emotions she felt that night. "I was on the verge of falling apart."
The family clung together, hoping and praying. "The main thing I remember asking him was, 'Lord, put your arms around Ruth Ellen and let her know that you are there with her," says Rachel.
Initially, police in Speedway didn't have much to go on. Since there was $500 taken from the cash register some investigators thought the employees may have taken the money and went out for the night.
But York never believed that theory. "Professionally that would be hard for me to accept because the two girls' purses were still at the scene at the Burger Chef."
The four employees couldn't be found. Early in the investigation, York says a mistake was made. The Burger Chef restaurant was cleaned up.
If a scuffle took place inside, any evidence that may have existed; fingerprints, hair or blood samples; were gone. "It would have been nice to have some qualified technicians go through the Burger Chef with a fine tooth comb and spend all day gathering things."
Two days after the employees disappeared the worst case scenario appeared. Twenty miles south of Burger Chef a grisly discovery was made in a Johnson County field. Two bodies found, "The two younger kids."
Daniel Davis and Ruth Shelton had been shot execution-style. Not far away was the body of Jayne Friedt, murdered with a knife. And Mark Flemmonds had been beaten with a chain.
"He asphixiated on his own blood because he fell downhill. Had he fallen the other direction, we likely would have had a live witness," says York.
What happened to them? Who did it? Ken York thinks he knows.
Two of his suspects are alive, reportedly living in Indiana.
York believes at least two, maybe three or four suspects committed the murders.
Shortly after the killings witnesses told police two men were seen in the Burger Chef around closing time, a bearded man and a fairhaired man.
Police distributed the photos and did something unique for that time. They created three-dimensional clay busts of the suspects.
And 25 years later, Sgt. Bill Vann still has them at State Police headquarters.
In 1978 more information began pouring in on the bearded man and the fairhaired man from an unlikely source.
At that time a man went into a bar in Greenwood and told his buddies that he committed the Burger Chef murders. But when police asked him about it, he passed a polygraph. But that same man provided the names of several suspects belonging to an alleged fast-food robbery gang.
Police went to Franklin hoping to find the suspects. As they were driving around a neighborhood.one cop saw something and said to his partner, "Did you see his neighbor? He's a dead ringer for the bearded composite," recalls York. "And, he was."
The bearded man didn't have an alibi, but police didn't have enough evidence.
Threatened with going before a police lineup the bearded man pulled a fast one. York says, "This guy, I've known him for five years. He always had that full beard. The next morning it was shaved."
But living next door to the bearded man in Franklin was another suspect. Police call him the "shotgun man" because he was eventually sent to prison for shotgun crimes. The "fair-haired man" also was sent to prison for unrelated fast-food robbery crimes.
The prosecutor at the time, Stephen Goldsmith, reportedly offered plea deals in exchange for information. The "shotgun man" and the "fair-haired man" refused.
Over the years Goldsmith got additional leads. "People have brought to me a number of suspects in the Burger Chef murders."
But nothing ever panned out.
York says investigators never had enough to connect any of the suspects to the Burger Chef crime "Because there was just no physical evidence, it would have been purely circumstantial."
Twenty-five years after that grisly crime York is back in Speedway. The Burger Chef restaurant doesn't exist anymore, but his theories do.
Among the theories, maybe one of the victims recognized one of the suspects. Or, perhaps one of the victims fought off his attackers and then they were taken away as a group and killed.
That theory is based on the autopsy report on Mark Flemmonds. York says the report shows "Some of the bruising on his head and shoulders was estimated at being an hour or two old prior to death."
Over the years the investigation took many turns. Leads brought authorities to Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago and Dallas.
"There was also some speculation from the investigation that some sort of drug-related involvement," says Vann. "That's been unsubstantiated."
Investigators say the keys to the unlocking the 25-year-old murder mystery have never been found.
Vann says, "We know that there was a firearm used that was never found. We know there was a knife used, that handle was never found. And we know one individual was beaten with some type of chain, that's also out there."
Years after the Burger Chef murders two key people died. The Greenwood man from the bar committed suicide. The bearded man died from a heart attack.
York says the deaths happened a short time after the "shotgun man" was released from prison.
Did the "shotgun man" kill the other two to keep them quiet?
York calls the deaths "suspicious."
And then another twist. The bearded man's son, who eventually went to prison on unrelated crimes, called police. "He told us that prior to his father's death that his father had confided to him that he had been involved in the Burger Chef case," says York.
Two of York's suspects, the "shotgun man" and "fair haired man" are alive, reportedly living in Johnson County.
Occassionally a lead comes in, but it's unlikely it'll ever be solved.
Rachel Shelton says if the killers are still alive, she wants them to confess, not to police, but to God. "I would just love to see the people who are still alive and guilty realize that today, Jesus is calling them to give their lives over to Him."
State Police are adding a detective to the case and say they'll re-examine evidence to see if DNA can be used.
And now, two top investigators are very interested in a video found in the Eyewitness News tape library.
A man walking over to the Burger Chef a few days after the crime was committed is heard saying, "You don't want to take my picture." After peering inside the restaurant, he leaves.
Police are interested for a couple of reasons. On red van there's mud near the driver's door. Investigators think, perhaps a van was used to take the victims to that field in Johnson County.
And York and the Speedway police chief say the man really looks like the "bearded man." They're not calling him a suspect. They're calling him a "person of interest."
They want to know his name, where he lives, what he was doing at the Burger Chef so soon after the murder.