The Burger Chef murders began at a Burger Chef restaurant in Speedway, Indiana, on the night of Friday November 17, 1978. Four young employees went missing in what was initially thought to be a petty theft by themselves of cash from the restaurant safe, but by Saturday morning it became a clear case of robbery-kidnap and by Sunday, when their bodies were discovered, one of murder. While investigators believe they have identified some or all of the perpetrators, without physical evidence they have not been able to prosecute those who remain alive.
At some point between 11:00 PM (closing time) and midnight on Friday, November 17, 1978, Jayne Friedt, 20, Daniel Davis, 16, Mark Flemmonds, 16, and Ruth Ellen Shelton, 18, employees of a Burger Chef restaurant in Speedway, Indiana, located at 5725 Crawfordsville Road, disappeared. A fellow employee who came by at midnight to visit the four noticed that the restaurant was empty and the back door ajar and raised the alarm.
Originally, police did not consider this a serious case, given management reported the loss of only approximately $500 from the safe and no clear signs of a struggle. It was thought to be a case of petty embezzlement, with the assumption that the pilfered cash had been used by the youths to go partying that night. Change had not been taken from the registers. Though the purses of the missing women had been left at the shop, the petty theft theory initially seemed most likely and the scene was cleaned up by employees early Saturday morning.
When the four did not show on Saturday morning and Friedt's Vega was found partially locked in town, concerns grew. It became evident that they had been abducted while closing up the restaurant for the night, with the attack possibly beginning as they removed trash bags out the back door.
On Sunday afternoon, hikers found the bodies of the four over 20 mi (32 km) away in the rural woods of Johnson County. Both Davis and Shelton had been shot execution-style numerous times with a .38 calibre firearm. Friedt had been stabbed twice in the chest. The handle of the knife had broken off and was missing; the blade was later recovered during an autopsy. Flemmonds had suffered a blunt-force head injury, which coroners had believed he had suffered when he fled his captors, only to have the misfortune of colliding with a heavy object, possibly a tree trunk, which thwarted his flight. Flemmonds was later determined to have been bludgeoned—possibly with a chain—prior to his death.
The leading theory has been that they had been kidnapped during a botched robbery, possibly after one of the victims recognized one of the perpetrators.
A 16-year-old eyewitness saw two suspicious men in a car outside the Burger Chef just before closing on the night of the murders. Both were white and in their thirties. One man had a beard, and the other was clean-shaven with light colored ('fair') hair. The police had models of the suspects created in clay to assist the investigation.
Later that year, a man in a bar in Greenwood bragged that he had been involved in the killings. Police subsequently questioned him, and while he passed a polygraph claiming to not have been involved, and officers were unable to bring charges on other grounds, he provided the names of others he suggested belonged to a fast-food robbery gang, who investigators suspected may have been involved. While following up on these leads in Franklin, officers spotted a man who bore a strong resemblance to the 'bearded man' composite. Summoned for a lineup, the man shaved his beard (which he had had for the previous five years) the night before he was to appear. A neighbor of his, who had not been spotted by the original witness, but who had been named by the Greenwood suspect, subsequently went to prison for strongarm robberies committed with a shotgun. Another associate named by the Greenwood suspect who fitted the description of the fair-haired man also subsequently was imprisoned for other armed robberies of fast-food restaurants. However, without confessions—despite offers of plea deals to any suspects not directly responsible for the killings—and without direct physical evidence of the involvement of the suspects in the murders, the police were not able to effect an arrest.
At the time there was some speculation that the murders were tied to other crimes which had shocked the town over the preceding months, such as the murder of Julia Scyphers and the Speedway bombings. At the time the perpetrator of the bombings was still on the loose. However, these were subsequently found to be unconnected to the November murders.
Investigators continued to follow leads relating to possible suspects as widely as Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago and Dallas. However, they were not able to find any more promising leads, or to locate the evidence they believed would have been most useful: the firearm, the handle of the knife, and the chain used in the murders. Nor have any perpetrators made confessions to police, though the son of the bearded suspect has told police that he confided in him that he had been involved prior to his own death.
Ken York, one of the original investigators on the case, has noted that the deaths of the Greenwood suspect and the bearded suspect, from an apparent suicide and a heart attack respectively, came suspiciously close after the release of the armed robber named by the suspect from the Greenwood bar.
Despite thousands of hours of police investigation, as well as Burger Chef offering a reward of $25,000 to anyone who could capture the murderers or provide information about their whereabouts, the attackers were never prosecuted, and the case remains officially unsolved. Indiana state police continue to hold the case open, and have reportedly investigated the possible use of new DNA-tracing techniques developed since the initial investigations.