INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Author Julie Young remembers exactly where she was on the night of November 17, 1978.
“I was 6 years old and I was at home watching the Star Wars Holiday Special.”
Young said the show wasn’t very good, but that’s not why she remembers that date.
That was the Friday night four young employees of the Burger Chef restaurant on Crawfordsville Road were kidnapped in what was likely a botched robbery and found murdered two days later in a wooded area of Johnson County.
“Of course, Burger Chef was iconic to begin with,” said Young, recalling the Indianapolis-based fast food chain. “Everybody ate there, and everybody knew somebody who worked there. So the fact that these four employees could just be missing and then turned up murdered, yeah, it was a very scary thing. It made everybody think twice about getting that fast-food job.”
Young said the late '70s was a scary time on the west side of Indianapolis.
A year before, Tony Kiritsis took mortgage broker Dick Hall hostage with a shotgun wired to his neck for 54 hours on live television.
In the late summer of 1978, Brett Kimberlin was terrorizing the town with explosives as the Speedway Bomber.
It was at about that time that Speedway resident Julia Scyphers was found murdered in her garage.
And then, police think, perhaps a trio of men entered the Speedway Burger Chef and took four employees, Ruth Shelton, Jayne Freidt, Mark Flemmonds and Daniel Davis, hostage, driving them away in one of the victims' cars before transporting the group to a desolate area off Stones Crossing Road where they were found the following Sunday.
“There’s the ‘but, fors’ of the case,” said Young. “But for the fact that the morning crew the next day was able to clean up the restaurant. But for the fact that there was a lack of forensic evidence. There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle that just don’t quite all fit. Why were they found so far away? Why were they killed to begin with? Four kids dying three different ways. That’s not a very well planned murder.”
Young said it was the randomness of the crime and that the murder scene was in a different county that were perplexing to the public and the police.
“You know the idea that they were taken so far away. The remoteness of it. What was the connection? It's just that kind of story where you think, man, if you can just find that one piece it's all gonna come together.”
Young said she spent the last two years researching her book, “The Burger Chef Murders in Indianapolis,” poring over every newspaper account and television report she could find, to provide what may be the definitive public accounting of the murder mystery that still resonates today.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Hasn’t anybody really done this before?’” she said. “So I did.”
Young said her review of the published reports lent context to the enduring mystery in real time.
“Everybody pretty much knows the basics,” she said. “So to find those little things, like the fact that there was a lack of confidence in the Speedway Police Department, to find out that even the guy who confessed to the crime in the mid-eighties, that was a two-year process even getting him to say he had anything to do with it, then he recanted, realizing that they could never bring him to a grand jury because they couldn’t be sure that he might not be convicted and you can’t take a chance with a case.”
During the course of their investigation, Indiana State Police detectives did identify a crew of young men, based in Franklin, who were carrying out robberies at gunpoint, including at fast food restaurants, in Indianapolis.
Three of those men died in the 1980s through either violence or suicide or natural causes.
One of their associates told FOX59 last fall that he knew nothing about his partners’ alleged roles in the Burger Chef robbery and killings that night.
“I always knew in the end I wouldn’t suddenly find out who did it, so I always tempered my expectations regarding that,” said Young.
Young said her intention was not only to provide a historical public record of the case but to pay honor to the memories of the victims.
“When you’re standing in front of those kids' graves, and it sounds crazy, but these were kids who became legends to me, almost mythical," she said. "They were the grainy pictures in the paper every few years, but to stand at their graves and to come face-to-face, it becomes very real, it becomes very emotional…you just want to do a good job and you want to honor them because suddenly they leap off the page and they’re real people.”
Indiana State Police Sgt. Bill Dalton has inherited the case from yet another generation of ISP detectives.
He said last fall’s coverage of the 40th anniversary of the killings resulted in dozens of tips, some of them rehashing old suspicious, others offering fresh ideas.
Dalton is overseeing the digital transfer of several reel-to-reel audio tapes of witness interviews and two dozen binders of notes and documentation so that Artificial Intelligence analysis of the case may yet yield new clues and connections.
If you have information about the 1978 Burger Chef murders, call Crime Stoppers at (317) 262-TIPS (8477).
Julie Young’s book, “The Burger Chef Murders in Indiana,” is published by History Press and available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, Wildgeese Bookstore in Franklin and IndyReads.