40th anniversary of Burger Chef case brings fresh inquiry

SPEEDWAY, Ind. - The enduring mystery of the murders of four young Burger Chef employees, abducted from their Speedway fast food restaurant 40 years ago this weekend, has stretched all the way to Australia, where a film crew has planned a trip to Indianapolis to uncover clues to the unsolved killings.

“I guess it was just the fact that it was four young people their lives cut short in the prime of their lives and it just spoke to me just looking at those photos,” said producer Luke Rynderman. “And just the time period and the fact that there hadn’t been any inroads and there were suspects but nobody was brought to justice.”

Rynderman and his partner, Adam Kamien, attended a briefing by Indiana State Police detectives who announced new techniques in their probe of the quadruple murder.

Artificial Intelligence, “machine learning” and DNA testing will be employed to examine the thousands of pages of files and few scant pieces of evidence that still exist four decades after the heartbreaking crime.

In the past, investigators have theorized that it was late on a Friday night, November 17, 1978, when at least two men entered the back door of the Burger Chef at 5725 Crawfordsville Rd., took command of the four employees and later drove them away, only to slay their hostages in a wooded area off Stones Crossing Road and SR 37 in Johnson County.

Manager Jayne Friedt was stabbed to death, a broken four-and-a-half inch knife blade buried in her chest.

Daniel Davis and Ruth Shelton died side-by-side, both teenagers shot to death.

Some distance away, the body of Mark Flemmonds was discovered dead of asphyxiation near a tree.

In 1978, a crew of young men was robbing and shooting its way across Indianapolis.

Several Burger Chef restaurants were hit late at night, indicating the robbers may have had inside knowledge of the chain’s closing-time routines.

A business owner was robbed in his Twin Aire home and exchanged gunfire with his victimizers.

A grocery clerk on the south side was wounded during a stick-up with a gun similar to that which took the lives of Davis and Shelton.

Witnesses spotted two men out back of the Speedway Burger Chef that night and were warned away from the scene.

Clay busts and artist depictions were created from the witnesses’ descriptions.

Friedt’s car, a tiny Chevrolet Vega, was found a mile from the restaurant at a park near Speedway police headquarters.

Investigators came up with the names of five men thought to be part of the violent late seventies crew within a week of the Burger Chef robbery.

S.W. Wilkins, David Cathcart and John Defebaugh were all acquainted.

Wilkins matched the description of one of the men spotted behind the restaurant that night but shaved his beard within days of the killings and frequented an area in Avon where Friedt had worked at another Burger Chef.

The night after the stick-up and kidnappings but hours before the victims bodies were found, Cathcart was heard bragging in a Greenwood bar that he had been part of the Burger Chef robberies.

Defebaugh served time for one Burger Chef robbery and owned a .38 revolver linked to two other shootings.

A relative told investigators he heard Wilkins confess to his involvement in the case, and Wilkins was a neighbor of the man who detectives suspect led the crew.

Four of the five suspects lived in Johnson County, and the rural location of the actual murder scene was on a direct route between the restaurant in Speedway and the duplex where Wilkins and the other man lived in Franklin.

An attorney for one suspect indicated to detectives they should take a harder look at his client.

Within a decade, Cathcart committed suicide, Defebaugh was shot to death and Wilkins died of a heart attack, leaving two more members of the crew.

FOX59 tracked one surviving member to his home last month.

The man insisted he passed two polygraph tests when asked about the Burger Chef case and said there was no DNA linking him to the scene.

He said has been repeatedly contacted by lawyers, reporters and detectives to be questioned about the case and denied that he was there that night.

“I don’t know about the other guys,” the man said.

The man rejected an opportunity to go on the record to clear his name in one of central Indiana’s most notorious cold cases.

“They are never gonna solve it,” he said.

Such protestations will not deter ISP or filmmaker Adam Kamien from continuing their searches for answers.

“I’m letting the evidence take me where it does,” said Kamien. “We come at it from outside of the community and outside of the system and I think that sort of disarms people a little bit.”

Kamien said he has come across witnesses and accounts that perhaps have never been considered before.

“Witnesses, witness accounts, things like that, we’ve turned up some things that we think are pretty explosive,” he said. “I have days where I’m really close and then other days where I feel like if two key witnesses can’t even agree on the smallest fact then what chance is there of the thing being solved?”

As our investigation proved, there are still witnesses to and potential participants in the Burger Chef murders living in central Indiana on this the 40th anniversary of the case.

If you have any information that could solve this enduring mystery and bring those responsible to justice, call Crime Stoppers at 317-262-TIPS.

Your information could be worth a $1,000 reward and prove crucial to closing this case.