In my last blog, we met George Joseph Smith. Smith graduated from marrying women to steal their money to killing them for insurance payouts, the “Brides in the Bath” case. This week’s crime is a tragic robbery turned kidnapping that ended in murder. In 1978, thieves abducted and killed four young workers from an Indianapolis-area Burger Chef.
Burger Chef Employees Disappear
In the late 1950s through the 1960s, Burger Chef was a popular hamburger franchise second only to McDonald’s. But as it entered the 1970s, the chain was in decline after a sale to General Foods. Many Burger Chef restaurants still operated through the decade, including one at 5725 Crawfordsville Road in Speedway, Indiana, about a mile from the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Just after midnight on Friday, November 17, 1978, Brian Kring, a Burger Chef employee, dropped by the restaurant. It was after closing time, but he planned to visit his coworkers and see if they needed help cleaning up. But the restaurant was empty. Moreover, the safe was open, and the back door stood ajar. Two empty currency bags and an empty roll of adhesive tape lay near the safe. Cash register drawers were on the floor with nothing in them, and $100 of rolled coins ($463 in 2023) remained in the safe.
There was no sign of the missing employees: assistant manager Jayne Friedt, 20; Daniel Davis, 16; Mark Flemmonds, 16; and Ruth Ellen Shelton, 18. Three of the four were still in high school.
Police first investigated the crime as petty theft. They assumed the four young employees had absconded with the $581 ($2,666 in 2023) from the safe and went partying. Even though the women left their jackets and purses in the restaurant, there was no sign of a struggle. After a cursory examination of the scene, police allowed restaurant staff to finish cleaning and reopen Saturday morning. This proved to be an enormous mistake, as it obliterated any potential evidence.
None of the four missing employees showed up Saturday. Furthermore, Jayne Friedt’s 1974 Chevrolet Vega was found abandoned about a mile south of the Burger Chef. Now it appeared that the four had been abducted after the restaurant closed. Officials now regretted allowing the restaurant to reopen without processing it as a crime scene.
On Sunday, November 19, hikers found the bodies of all four missing employees in a wooded area of Johnson County, 20 miles from Speedway. Davis and Shelton had been shot with a .38 caliber firearm, Friedt had been stabbed, and Flemmonds bludgeoned. All four still wore their Burger Chef uniforms.
Investigators uncovered a 16-year-old eyewitness who saw two suspicious men in a car outside the Burger Chef just before closing. Both men were Caucasian and in their thirties. One man had a beard; the other was clean-shaven with light-colored hair. Despite this witness, police could not identify a suspect they could charge in the case.
A Confession to the Burger Chef Murders
Six years after the murders, a man named Donald Ray Forrester contacted detectives. Forrester was incarcerated in the Pendleton Correctional Facility but scheduled to be transferred to a notoriously violent state prison. He said he would confess his part in the Burger Chef murders to prevent the transfer.
Forrester confessed to shooting Davis and Shelton. He led police to the crime scene in the woods and described the location and position of the bodies. He also knew that the handle broke off the knife used to stab Friedt, which was not widely publicized.
According to Forrester, Friedt’s brother James owed money on a drug deal, so he and three other associates had gone to the restaurant to threaten her. But when Flemmonds intervened to protect Friedt, a fight broke out. Flemmonds fell and hit his head on the bumper of a car. Believing he was dead or dying, Forrester and his accomplices decided to abduct and kill all the employees. They wanted no witnesses to their crime.
As promising as this lead sounded, it went nowhere. After someone within the Marion County sheriff’s office leaked details of Forrester’s cooperation, he recanted his confession and claimed it was coerced.
Despite thousands of hours of investigative work and a $25,000 reward offered by Burger Chef, no one was ever prosecuted for the four murders. The case officially remains unsolved.
Donald Ray Forrester died in prison from cancer in 2006 at age 55. Authorities were never able to charge him with the murders.
Julie Young published a book about the case, The Burger Chef Murders in Indiana, in 2021.
On September 5, 2002, Investigation Discovery a documentary about the case, Murders at the Burger Joint.
In the summer of 2018, family and friends of the victims solicited funds to plant four red oak to honor the victims. The response was overwhelming. There was enough extra money to install a marble bench dedicated to the four. The memorial is in Speedway’s Leonard Park.
Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter
Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this. Sign up for the newsletter today.