If you’re like most 16 year old males, there’s a better than average chance that the suit inventory in your wardrobe consists of a total of one. And by suit I mean the matching sport coat and pants that was purchased on clearance from a discount warehouse that has as much chance of staying in business as a groundhog attempting to take up tenure on the 18th hole of Torrey Pines. It’s the periodic skeleton in the closet that rears its head primarily during weddings you don’t care about, shows its face annually to celebrate the birth of Jesus at the church you otherwise never attend and the threads that make an intermittent appearance at whateverthefuck anniversary or birthday you’re required to participate in. Not to mention the occasional unanticipated funeral.
We’ll get back to the suit momentarily.
While growing up in the Midwest, a significant part of my weekly caloric intake came from Burger Chef. For those unfamiliar with it, Burger Chef was a fast food restaurant chain that originated in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1954. It rapidly expanded throughout the United States and at its peak in 1973 approached 1,200 locations, challenging McDonald’s for artery-clogging supremacy. It was a mostly now-forgotten pioneer on many levels, patenting the first flame broiler that is now standard throughout the industry. But perhaps the most lasting and ingenious element that Burger Chef introduced to the fast food marketplace was an understanding that its success was primarily predicated on its ability to market specifically to children. They initially introduced a couple of mascots: Burger Chef (who looked sort of like everyone’s creepy uncle) and his sidekick Jeff (who looked like the kid everyone beat up on in high school). They were also the first fast food concept to introduce a meal specifically targeted at kids – the Burger Chef Funmeal (five years before McDonald’s would copy the idea with their own Happy Meal). The Funmeal included a small hamburger, fries, dessert and a drink that came in a colorful box containing puzzles, riddles, stories and toys. No one had ever seen the likes of this sort of culinary miracle before, and not a week went by that Burger Chef didn’t coerce a portion of my father’s paycheck from him just to get me off his back.
Back to the suit.
Mine was a shade of brown that when worn made me look like a turd that had escaped the toilet pre-flush and had – through some genetic malfeasance – learned to walk. Due to a recent teenage growth spurt, the pant legs dangled around my ankles to where I would have been able to wade through high water without getting them wet. The arms that had once been too long were now closer to fitting and my clip-on tie almost matched the rest of the polyester ensemble. But as I stood there looking at myself in the mirror, none of that mattered. The only thing on my mind was why I had to put the damn thing on in the first place.
In 1978 I was a sophomore attending Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis, and one of my classmates was Daniel Davis. Though I wouldn’t have categorized us as the best of friends, he rode the same school bus as I and sat at the desk behind me in history class that year. Like the rest of us he was in that awkward phase of life where navigating hormones was the primary challenge of any given day, acne was often an unwelcome surprise and we were all in the throes of beginning to consider what we wanted to “be.” He had recently taken an evening job as a cook at the Burger Chef in the town of Speedway, which is primarily associated with a little car race they annually host known as the Indianapolis 500.
Friday, November 17, 1978 was a relatively typical fall day weather-wise in Indianapolis. The temperature reached a high of 66 degrees and the overcast skies delivered a day-long drizzle that dropped about an inch of rain. It was just another day in the Midwest, with the Thanksgiving school break looming and the anticipation of Christmas break hanging in the air. That evening, Daniel Davis, 16; Ruth Shelton, 18; Mark Flemmonds, 16; and Jayne Freidt, 20 were working their shifts at the Speedway Burger Chef. Freidt was the assistant manager on duty and from all accounts everything was operating normally with the crew scheduled to leave an hour after closing upon completing their nightly clean up duties. Around midnight, one of them opened the back door to take the trash out. Later that evening, an off-duty employee showed up at the restaurant to meet a couple of his fellow coworkers because they had plans to go out. What he found instead was an unlocked, uninhabited restaurant. So he called the police.
The following day, The Indianapolis Star newspaper was delivered to our front door like it was every morning. There wasn’t any remarkable or otherwise memorable news as I rifled through it like I usually did during breakfast, and I went about Saturday with my normal routine of trying to avoid homework while dwelling on how much I hated school. The real news of the day, however, was delivered that evening across the local network channels – four separate sets of parents had reported to the local police that their children hadn’t returned home from their jobs the night before. They were all working at the Burger Chef in Speedway, and when their names were announced my heart sank though I wasn’t really sure why.
Initially, the first officers on the scene didn’t expect foul play. As there was approximately $500 missing from the cash registers, they instead hypothesized that the workers had absconded with the money and went out to party on the company dime. They arrived at this conclusion in spite of the fact that both of the girls left their purses behind and no one had taken their coat with them. No one thought to wear a coat. In Indiana. In November. No pictures of the scene were taken that evening, the general manager was called and the building was locked up for the night. The following morning, a fresh batch of employees showed up for work, finished the work and cleaning that hadn’t been completed the night before and the restaurant opened as usual.
If I would have performed my job – any job – like those cops, I would have been summarily terminated and probably jailed for impersonating a human being.
Once the families reported their children missing, the cops began to suspect foul play. They returned to the location, but by then any critical forensic evidence had either been contaminated or destroyed by the morning crew. Later that day Jayne Friedt’s vehicle, a Chevrolet Vega, was found abandoned a few blocks from the Speedway police station. Once again, no forensic evidence was taken from it nor was it treated as a crime scene.
The following morning, The Indianapolis Star again arrived on my doorstep as scheduled. The Sunday, November 19, 1978 headline that day read Police Baffled By Kidnappings. The entire state was beginning to take notice, and I had never before felt so helpless at such a young age. You didn’t dare allow yourself to think the worst, even though there was a part of you that kept dragging you to go there. Also on the front page that morning, directly under the main headline, was a report that Congressman Leo Ryan from California had been assassinated along with several reporters in Guyana, South Africa while investigating abuse allegations at something called the People’s Temple which had been founded – coincidentally enough – by another native Hoosier, Jim Jones.
And then the worst came true.
I woke up Monday morning, November 20, 1978, hoping for the headline that would reassure me that the weekend had been a bad dream and that everyone had been found safe and that Dan would be back at school in a couple of hours. As I took the rubber band from around the newspaper and unfolded it, the headline smacked me upside the head like a baseball bat exploding a watermelon: 4 Speedway Kidnap Victims Found Dead In Wooded Area. Their bodies had been discovered Sunday afternoon by a couple of hikers in what was then a remote field in Johnson County approximately 20 miles from where they were initially abducted. Both Davis and Shelton were lying face down in the dirt and had been shot execution-style numerous times with a .38 caliber handgun. Friedt had been stabbed twice in the chest. The blade had broken off inside her – which was later recovered during autopsy – and the knife handle was missing. Flemmonds was found with a blunt-force head injury which he is believed to have received by running headlong into a tree branch while trying to escape his captors. He is also believed to have choked on his own blood and was later determined to have been bludgeoned with what was possibly a chain prior to his death. The leading theory emerged that the four had been kidnapped during a botched robbery and the crime escalated to murder after one of the victims recognized one of their perpetrators. The following morning, November 21, 1978, The Star headline announced that Jim Jones had been successful in carrying out his psychotic vision by orchestrating the largest cult mass suicide in modern history by encouraging his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid – Rev. Jones, 408 Cultists Dead. It was a number that would rise to over 900 within a couple of days. The headline directly below that read, Kidnap Victims Believed Slain By More Than One with the photos of the four Burger Chef victims prominently displayed.
Overnight, the world seemed to have gone from idyllic to fucked for no apparent reason. The city of Indianapolis was overwhelmingly stunned while trying to process the senselessness that was simultaneously creeping into our homes within a 48-hour period out of seemingly nowhere. Locally, what would later become to be known as The Burger Chef Murders resonated more strongly than The Jonestown Massacre, as parents could more easily relate to the fear of their own children potentially suffering the same fate as the doomed fast food workers than with apparent brainwashed and disillusioned fanatics who willingly and quite literally drank the Kool-Aid.
There was an eerie and omnipresent silence that hovered in the air at school that day. This was long before the era of school shootings and grief counselors and we were, quite literally, on our own trying to process and make sense of what had happened to our classmate between the last time we saw him at the end of the day on Friday and that Monday morning. None of us, teachers included, had any idea what was appropriate to say or even think. One of the strangest moments of my life – and there have been many – was sitting in history class the Monday morning after Dan was murdered and looking at his empty desk while realizing he’d never be sitting there again. For the first time in our short lives, impermanence knocked on our collective doors, invited itself in, and has stayed with us ever since.
That Monday, Burger Chef held a press conference in front of the closed Speedway location and announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderers. Steak n’ Shake, another local fast food chain, contributed another $1,000 to the fund. In 1978, that was enough money to get your attention.
As the investigation crept forward, information began to emerge of further sloppy and unforgivable decisions made by the law enforcement departments involved. In addition to not preserving the initial crime scene at the restaurant, it was later revealed that some of the Indiana State police officers who were first on the murder scene moved some of the bodies before the forensic technicians or coroner arrived. Officers also failed to rope off the wooded area, allowing police vehicles onto the same path that potentially could have held the tire tracks of the vehicle the murderers transported their victims in. There were three departments on the scene – the Speedway Police, the Indiana State Police and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department – all apparently bumping into each other without effectively communicating. When confronted about the quality of the police work being done, Speedway Police Chief Bill Burger (I can’t make that name up) defended his department while admitting that he personally had not been present at either the restaurant or the field where the bodies were found. He also claimed that allowing the restaurant to open the following day without collecting evidence was the right decision.
As I stood in front of the mirror in my polyester poop suit, though, none of that really fucking mattered. I had an appointment to watch a classmate get buried. He – as well as the other three victims of that horrific and senseless crime – had as much right to live out their lives and seek their destinies as the rest of us, and for the first time I was confronting fate with questions that I’m still waiting on answers for.
To this day, the Burger Chef Murders remains one of the largest unsolved murder cases in Indiana crime history. Despite the reward money and numerous suspects being pursued and vetted over decades, no attackers have yet been officially identified or prosecuted. The Indiana State Police continue to keep the case open and have reportedly investigated the use of new DNA-tracing techniques not available during the initial investigation.
After Dan’s murder, I never set foot in a Burger Chef again. Though the chain continued to operate until eventually meeting its demise in 1996 after selling its final existing units to Hardee’s, my relationship with it was similar to the amicable divorce many parents inevitably endure after experiencing the loss of a child.
In my mind, Burger Chef and Dan died on the same day and neither one of them was ever going to be part of my life again.