The Burger Chef Murders of Indianapolis: What really happened?

How the tragedy hit a city, a state, and four grieving families

A Burger Chef restaurant building in the same style as the Crawfordsville Road store, including the “Happy Bonnet Face” signage that heralded customers from the road.
A Burger Chef restaurant building in the same style as the Crawfordsville Road store, including the “Happy Bonnet Face” signage that heralded customers from the road.

That Friday night in 1978 should have been like any other for the four crew members closing down the Burger Chef in Speedway, Indiana. After serving customers and locking the doors, they began their regular cleanup to prepare for the following day. 

Then something went horribly wrong.

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News of the abductions—of Daniel Davis, Jayne Friedt, Mark Flemmonds, and Ruth Ellen Shelton—had yet to hit the media when Burger Chef crew members arrived on Saturday to start their shift. Officers at the scene told them there had been a burglary at the restaurant overnight but little else about what may have occurred. Investigators were still unsure as to what exactly happened.

“We screwed it up from the beginning”

So they permitted the employees to finish cleaning the store so that they could open for business as usual. In the process of readying the restaurant for the lunch rush, every surface was wiped down and the remaining garbage was removed. There were no photos taken of the original crime scene, and the store was never dusted for fingerprints. Detectives realized their mistake and returned to the store later in the day to reconstruct the scene from memory, but it was too late. The best chance of finding any forensic evidence had passed. 

“We screwed it up from the beginning,” said retired Speedway police officer Buddy Ellwanger. 

This illustration from a Burger Chef employee manual showed one style of their 1970s uniforms

The wait–and the hunt–begins

John and Rachel, the parents of Ruth Ellen, received a call to alert them of their daughter’s disappearance. Their other two children were asleep, and the couple didn’t have the heart to wake them with the awful news. As they sat by the phone waiting for the police to call with more information, Rachel reached for her Bible and began to pray for her daughter’s safety.

“I found a number of scriptures to stand on. I read a while and I prayed a while. . . I asked the Lord to put His arms around her. I said, ‘God is still in control,’” Rachel wrote in her diary. Time passed as Rachel sat alone, and at one point, John took her hand and reminded her that Ruth Ellen was their spunky girl who would break away and call home if it were at all possible for her to do so. 

But that call never came.

By Saturday afternoon, Ruth Ellen and the others were still missing, and the Sheltons knew it was only a matter of time before the newspapers, television and radio stations picked up the story. They knew they had to call family and friends to tell them what had happened before they heard about it on the evening news. Loved ones, shocked by the turn of events, gathered at John and Rachel’s home to sit with them and pray for Ruth Ellen’s safe return. Saturday night segued into Sunday morning.

We got very little sleep,” Rachel wrote in her diary.

None of the families were sleeping very well. As Robert Flemmonds awaited word about his son, he was haunted by a conversation he had with Mark while watching television one night.

The program featured a kidnap scene, which prompted Mark to tell his father that if he were ever captured, he’d find a way to escape.

“I wouldn’t lay still and die,” Mark said. 

He said he would break away, bobbing and weaving as he ran in order to be a harder target to hit. It was the kind of statement that gave Robert hope that he would see his child again and buoyed his spirits when he was tired.

If the families of the four crew members were exhausted by then, so, too, were the officers searching high and low for the kids. The case was their top priority, and as the first reports of the kidnapping appeared in the Indianapolis News and on WIBC 1070, authorities encouraged anyone with information pertaining to the incident to come forward.

It was a plea that would garner their first solid lead in the case. 

For more on the Burger Chef murders, check out Julie Young’s new book, The Burger Chef Murders in Indiana.

Today, the former Burger Chef on Crawfordsville Road in Speedway is an empty storefront, but over the years, it has been an auto parts store and a Cash$Land store

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