The call from dispatch crackled across Indiana State Trooper Jim Cramer’s police radio. It was early on the morning of November 18, 1978. Four employees had gone missing from a Burger Chef in Speedway, a town of 12,500 on the outskirts of Indianapolis.
It didn’t sound like a typical hold-up case. Late-night fast-food robberies tended to fit a simple pattern – get in, grab the money, and bolt. Why risk taking the employees? Cramer figured the kids would turn up, shaken but alive, before dawn. But by the next morning, they still hadn’t been found. Word of the disappearances rippled out through Indianapolis and its suburbs. The Indianapolis News blasted the story on its front page: “Four Missing After Speedway Robbery.”
When Cramer showed up for work his commander filled him in on the latest. The missing – Jayne Friedt, 20; Ruth Shelton, 17; Danny Davis, 16; and Mark Flemmonds, 16 – had been abducted between 11 p.m. and midnight. They had driven, or had been driven, down into Johnson County, at least half an hour away. Whoever took them had pulled off the main road onto a lonely gravel path in the woods, the kind that local teens might’ve used as a make-out spot.
There, they were murdered.
A couple who lived a few hundred yards away from the site discovered the bodies two days after the abductions. Ruth and Danny lay facedown, side by side just off the gravel path. They’d each been shot multiple times in the head and neck. Jayne’s body lay 50 to 75 yards away; she’d been stabbed twice in the heart, the knife’s blade broken off inside her chest. Mark was farthest from the others and closest to the main road. He was on his back near a creek. He’d been beaten around the face and left to choke on his blood.
To this day, no one – including Cramer, who would pour years of his career into the case – knows who did it or why. Promising leads have sprung up in the public eye and behind the scenes, only to fade away for lack of proof or credibility.
Cramer still thinks about the case every day.
“Why would somebody kill four kids?” Cramer asks. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Older residents in the area misremember details. Ask around, and a few will tell you about the bloody crime scene that never was, or remind you, incorrectly, that the bodies haven’t been recovered to this day, or tell you it’s fortunate the murderers were caught. Many others believe the cops know who did it but never had enough evidence to take the case to trial. Locals frame the Burger Chef murders as the moment Speedway lost its innocence. And so the killer (or killers) have been mythologized in various forms: as a victim’s drug-dealing brother, a gang of robbers with a taste for burger joints, or a cold-eyed rapist.
True-crime enthusiasts, both in Indiana and around the world, see a case replete with lurid potential. The Australian filmmakers Adam Kamien and Luke Rynderman are producing a documentary on the killings, featuring Cramer as one of their primary interviewees. Two Speedway locals, Chris and Alley Davis, delved into the case in the first season of their “3C Podcast.” The hit comedy podcast “My Favourite Murder” devoted an episode to Burger Chef. Ashley Flowers of “Crime Junkie,” a podcast that skyrocketed to 18 million downloads over two months in 2019, covered the case in the series “Red Ball.” She, too, interviewed Cramer.
Cramer will often say he’s not sure there’s a point in talking to so many people about the case. He’ll become uncomfortable putting himself out there, uncertain whether yet another interview will do any good. But once you get him talking about the Burger Chef murders, it becomes clear why he’s stuck.
In my day job, I cover the retail industry. Stories about trends in the grocery industry or big-box-store employees tend to be clear. A tip leads to a flurry of phone calls, emails, maybe a dense packet of documents. You amass the evidence, ask for a comment, wrap it all up in a tidy package, publish, and move on to the next story (ideally). Your destination is in sight. All you need to do is get there.
“I don’t think I’m obsessed. I think I’m concerned.”
When I learned of the Burger Chef murders, I felt drawn to the confounding details: the inexplicable kidnappings; the three different modes of killing; a series of false leads and missteps in the investigation. The futile search for a clear pattern became addictive. Cramer, in some ways, has been consumed by that addiction for decades.
On a drizzly day in October, Cramer, a bald, white-bearded man just shy of 6 feet, drove me around Speedway, a town now home to just over 12,000 people. The town hugs the western side of its eponym, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Meandering through the checkered-flag-dotted suburbs of greater Indianapolis in his blue Ford pickup, Cramer pointed out places potentially linked to the murders: a grey creek, a flooded quarry, and the empty field where a cheap motel once stood. Whenever he got turned around, he would whistle a series of quiet, tuneless notes.
“I don’t think I’m obsessed,” he said in his low, flat voice as he looked at the rain-slick road ahead. “I think I’m concerned.”
Cramer, 68, refuses to embrace some flimsy answer to the mystery. That would be a disservice to those four kids.
Instead, he likes to toss things around: names, motives, and ideas. He does this with me on the phone, at dinner, and driving around to locations associated with the case on a drizzly day in Indiana. The juggling never leads to a concrete, confident statement, just more questions.
Eventually, on that October day we pulled up to a tobacco store next to what was once the Burger Chef. The one-time restaurant’s back door was open, neglected, an invitation to come in. But the retired 27-year lawman declined – that would be trespassing. The building stands unoccupied. Recently, it housed a payday-loan operation. There’s still a metal plate in the ground where the drive-thru menu once stood.
He then drove about a half-hour south of the restaurant to Timber Heights, a leafy, tucked-away housing development. He looped around the whole subdivision, which encircled a clump of forest.
“None of this was here,” he said.
He searched for something resembling the dark tangle of trees he remembered from the crime-scene photos and pulled to a stop at the patch of grass where Ruth’s and Danny’s bodies were found.
Cramer has visited the murder scene many times, most recently with the Australian documentarians. He tried to recall where each victim had been found but acknowledged his memory could be wrong. (Cramer wasn’t one of the officers initially dispatched to the site, but he did review the crime-scene photographs extensively.) In black-and-white newspaper photos of the scene, thin, scraping branches reached out into the path. Today, the trees are softer, more obliging, their leaves still bright green in the October rain.
After driving around for a few minutes, Cramer gave up. He couldn’t find a patch of woods that resembled what the victims’ final resting place once looked like. “I’m doing it by my best guess,” he said.
In the days and weeks after the discovery of the bodies, 30-some-odd local law-enforcement officers from four agencies crowded the murder scene.
They botched the investigation from the start. Crucial evidence, like the employees’ uniforms, was mishandled, Tom Davidson, an early investigator, told Insider. The Speedway police allowed the Burger Chef to open the next day, rather than closing it down to preserve evidence of the abduction. There was also something odd about the police photos taken at the Burger Chef from the night of the abduction. Cramer said he didn’t remember which officer first spotted the little details: the thick ice cubes glinting in Jayne’s soda, the dark shadows and rays of sunlight. As it turned out, the pictures weren’t taken when the Speedway police initially responded to the crime scene. Instead, the officers returned to the restaurant and staged things after the fact – after the restaurant had opened to customers that Saturday.
At the time of the murders, William Burgan served as an assistant to Speedway Police Chief Robert Copeland. Speaking on the record for the first time, Burgan, who eventually became chief and retired in 1990, said that by 1978 the force was roiled by distrust and dissatisfaction with Copeland. Burgan became police chief after the town fired Copeland a year after the killings.
After the murders, the community tried to help find the killer and console those who knew the victims. Burger Chef, an Indianapolis-based chain, posted a never-collected reward of $US25,000 for information leading to arrest. Speedway High School’s 1979 yearbook included a memorial for Mark Flemmonds. (“Mark, we’ll always remember you – we’ll always remember.”)
Not all the loved ones of the victims were left to mourn their children in peace, though. Stalkers harassed Ruth Shelton’s family, and people called the house at all hours and rang the doorbell in the dead of night.
As the months went on, the murders began to slip from the front page of the Indianapolis papers. Once the leads dried up, the Speedway police left the case to the better-equipped state police. Officers detailed to the case returned to their respective agencies.
Standing on his front stoop in his undershirt, beneath clinking wind chimes, Burgan said he never dug into the Burger Chef murders himself. “I was in the dark, I’m still in the dark, and I’m not searching for light,” Burgan said. He said he avoided Speedway today.
But Cramer kept going, pursuing leads with Donovan Lindsay, a fellow state trooper who died in 2019. Some of these leads concerned the region’s illicit drug trade.
One lead surfaced in an Indianapolis News story from the spring of 1979. It said the Speedway police had run an undercover investigation into a drug ring thought to be operating out of the Burger Chef. The ring supposedly shut down a few months before the murders.
An investigation into connections between the drug ring and the abduction-murders led nowhere.
Cramer and Lindsay continued chasing other leads. Years went by. Nothing.
Then on March 5, 1981, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration and an undercover Indianapolis police officer arrested a 30-year-old man on charges of conspiracy to sell cocaine. His name was James Friedt – the brother of the Burger Chef victim Jayne. The arrest spurred further speculation among law enforcement and the press that Jayne had been the target of the killings, with the motive being retaliation against her brother. Friedt denied having anything to do with his sister’s murder. And beyond the speculation and theory, evidence was lacking. Friedt, who is dead, was never charged in relation to the killings.
Later that spring, a prison counselor called Cramer and Lindsay, by then the only two officers still working the case, with news of a jail-yard squabble at the Marion County Jail between Friedt and a 24-year-old inmate named Allen Pruitt. Pruitt, a scowling red-headed fellow, had apparently taunted Friedt with a simple condolence: “Sorry about your sister.”
Friedt had been interesting to Cramer and Lindsay. But now they wanted to hear from Pruitt.
Pruitt told the officers that on November 17, 1978, he’d witnessed two men abduct the victims in an orange van and Jayne’s white Vega. Drunk and swaying outside the Dunkin’ Doughnuts next door, Pruitt figured the men, Tim Willoughby and Jeff Reed, were just some young people heading out to party – even though, as he told Cramer and Lindsay, he also saw Reed slam Mark Flemmonds’ face into the side of the van. Willoughby and Reed, Pruitt believed, were the murderers.
But he didn’t put the theory together until the day after the killings. He said that on that day, the two men rolled up to him in the same orange van he’d seen the night before as he played Frisbee outside a Dairy Queen in Avon, just west of Speedway. They offered him a joy ride and a joint. Pruitt was happy to accept and clambered inside the van.
In the back of the van, Pruitt found Mary Ann Higginbotham, Willoughby’s girlfriend. Pruitt thought she seemed high. The van rumbled away from Indianapolis, up through a rural stretch of Putnam County.
Between hits of a joint, Willoughby and Reed pressed Pruitt on what he saw go down outside the Burger Chef the night before. Pruitt was confused – he hadn’t realised they’d seen him, too.
As they drove, Mary Ann rambled. She talked about how Willoughby and Reed had murdered the Burger Chef crew, and how they would kill her to keep her quiet. At that point, Pruitt said, he hadn’t even heard that the employees were missing.
Reed drove the van down an isolated dirt-and-gravel road known as the Devil’s Backbone. He pulled to the side, just before a truss bridge spanning shallow and rocky Deer Creek.
Everyone got out.
Mary Ann looked at Pruitt and told him to run.
“They’re going to kill you, too,” he recalled her saying.
So he ran.
“If I knew who killed them kids, don’t think for a split second that I wouldn’t rat them out. Because I would.”
According to Pruitt, he slid down the embankment and splashed across the creek. He didn’t turn around when he heard the gunshot. Hours later, Pruitt made his way to a road and hitchhiked home.
Given that Mary Ann’s body was discovered stuffed in a barrel and no trace of Willoughby was ever found, Pruitt’s story seemed at least credible. Over the course of 1981, Cramer heard Pruitt retell his story several times. To him, Pruitt sounded scared and believable.
But in the decades since, Pruitt’s story has fallen apart.
Speaking on the record for the first time, Pruitt told me he couldn’t be sure whether he saw Willoughby the night of the Burger Chef abductions. In interviews with Cramer and the filmmakers Kamien and Rynderman, he has changed his story many times. Most recently, in an interview with Insider, he said he saw a van on the night of the abductions – but not the victims, Willoughby, or Reed.
His tale about running away from the Devil’s Backbone? Also untrue, he now says.
“I did lie to cops one time about some stuff because they really pissed me off,” Pruitt said. “They just started bugging me and hounding me and pushing me and pushing me and pushing me. I just got to the point, I finally just started telling them anything they wanted to hear.” Cramer denied Pruitt’s allegations of police harassment.
“If I knew who killed them kids, don’t think for a split second that I wouldn’t rat them out,” Pruitt said. “Because I would.”
After the Willoughby-Reed lead went nowhere, Cramer and Lindsay continued working the case. Outside work, life went on for Cramer. He and his wife, Jackie, had two children. He shopped for groceries and balanced the household budget. He made sure to get out to Terre Haute to visit his ageing parents as often as he could.
On the afternoon of January 9, 1989, Donald Forrester, a convicted rapist, sat at a table in a wood-paneled room in the Marion County Sheriff’s Department headquarters.
Across the room, a camera pointed at Forrester recorded the interview that followed.
In the video, which I first viewed last fall, Forrester lit up a cigarette and periodically sipped from a paper cup.
Then he clasped his hands tightly together and began to talk about the night of the murders at the Burger Chef on Crawfordsville Road.
He told the police he was involved with a drug gang. The murders, he said, were a hit over a debt that Jayne owed. When he and his accomplices rushed the restaurant’s back door that night, Mark tried to “play hero.” Forrester and his accomplices nearly beat him to death, while the other kids were bound with wire and forced into a waiting van.
“They were all begging,” he said.
That night in the woods, Forrester said, he popped some Demerols, stooped down where Ruth was lying, and shot her in the face. Then he stabbed Jayne “low, down low,” with his hunting knife.
This wasn’t the first time Forrester had confessed: In 1986, he’d confessed to the Indianapolis Star reporter Dan Luzadder.
Marion County Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Mel Willsey found it striking that Forrester could lead detectives to the remote and rural murder site. “After a length of time, it just seemed like for sure it was the right guy,” Willsey told Insider in October. “He knew a lot of things that weren’t public.”
“They were all begging.”
From the early days of the investigation, Forrester had been a potential suspect, a name whispered into the tip line. He had lived in Speedway for a time and attended high school near the murder site. His cousin and accomplice in the rape case, Dale Dawson, worked at a McDonald’s down the street from the Burger Chef and lived at the American Inn across the road. And then there were the bullets. Acting on a tip from Forrester’s ex-wife, the police found .22-calibre casings in the septic tank of the couple’s home.
When news of his 1986 confession broke, Forrester certainly seemed to fit most people’s idea of a violent murderer. He was seven years into a 95-year sentence for stalking, abducting, and raping a woman in Castleton in 1979 with Dawson.
But new evidence suggests Forrester privately denied his own confession.
In a previously unreported letter written by Forrester shortly before he died in 2006, he thanked Steve Nation, the prosecutor on the rape case, for “having me locked up before I did kill someone.” Another letter accused a relative of telling the police that Forrester was “the guy who killed those people at the Burger Chef.”
He sent a last letter to his victim in the 1979 Castleton crime, who had escaped by jumping out of Forrester and Dawson’s moving car. “I want you to know I love you with God’s love,” he wrote.
Three years after his first confession and subsequent recanting, Forrester would attempt to confess again. He would later recant that second confession too, for reasons that he likely took to his grave. Cramer got wind of Forrester’s initial 1986 confession, and drove down to the Marion County Jail, where he had been moved from the Indiana State Prison, to sit down with him. “He was like any other inmate that’s trying to con you,” Cramer said. “He was just throwing out generalities.”
Cramer didn’t believe Forrester’s account of the murder. He pointed out that one of his alleged accomplices had been in jail in Minnesota on the night of the murders. The Marion County prosecutor ended up siding with Cramer and the state police, and sending Forrester back to prison.
The Star published Forrester’s confession anyway, along with his mug shot. Some still believe Forrester is the man who got away with the Burger Chef murders.
Today, Cramer says he is confident that Forrester’s confession was a lie, though he’s reluctant to take anyone off his list for good.
Even after all the lies, sitting across from Forrester in 1986, Cramer felt a twinge of concern at Forrester’s final warning, uttered just before the interview shut down entirely: “If you send me back to prison, you’ll never solve this.”
At least on that count, he was telling the truth.
Forrester died in prison in 2006.
Speedway old-timers love comparing their town to Mayberry, the fictional town in “The Andy Griffith Show.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the town was a safe, happy place, full of polite, hard-working people who left their doors unlocked. It was the sort of place that wouldn’t give the parents of teens employed at the fast-food joints along Crawfordsville Road any pause, they say.
In truth: Speedway in 1978 was a town under siege.
The months of darkness began July 29, with the murder of a 65-year-old grandmother named Julia Scyphers by a man who’d come inquiring about some china she’d set out for a yard sale days earlier. He shot her in the head as she entered her garage to fetch the tableware.
September brought about bombings: Eight explosions at different locations around Speedway, including the shopping centre across from the Burger Chef. The final blast occurred September 6, 1978, in the parking lot of Speedway High School. The explosion severed the right leg of a Vietnam veteran named Carl DeLong.
A motorcycle gang known as the Sons of Silence found a foothold on the west side of Indianapolis, kicking off a violent years-long skirmish with their east-side rivals, the Outlaws. Both clubs were charged with trafficking in guns and drugs.
A gang of hippies hung out at the Indy 500 “snake pit,” a muddy patch at the first turn where people did drugs, got into fights, got drunk, and had sex. And, on the night of the murders, the Speedway police pulled over a young man meters from the Burger Chef around midnight. The following day, a resident spotted him scouring the grass for the .38 he’d chucked out the window.
For those looking into the murders, sometimes ruling out who couldn’t have been involved seems just as daunting as identifying the killers.
Rynderman, one of the Australian filmmakers working on a documentary about the crime, said it was almost as if a “hellmouth” had opened beneath the town in the run-up to the murders. He and Kamien said they initially felt inspired to film a fictionalized version of the Burger Chef murders but ultimately decided a nonfiction documentary would make for a stranger story.
After Forrester’s firstconfession fell through in 1986, Cramer’s role in the Burger Chef investigation largely ended. In 1999, he retired from his role as head of internal affairs at the state police to run security for an area hospital, but he left the job when Jackie was found to have cancer – which she survived. They have since retired to a farm out in the country. Cramer often takes pictures of the wildlife he sees around the house: deer, eagles, rabbits, and a pair of barn owls.
On that day in October, Cramer drove me to the edge of White Lick Creek. Through the windshield, a path ahead cut through the trees, into a wet, spongy field dotted with hunters’ target stands. Beyond that, the creek is stuck with slender fallen trees.
That’s where Mary Ann was found in 1979, shot in the head and welded into a barrel.
Cramer didn’t get out of the truck.
The place doesn’t feel haunted only because of its connection to her murder or even its possible link to Burger Chef. In the springtime the year after Burger Chef, Terry Chasteen and her three small children were discovered submerged along the banks of White Lick. Cramer had helped to fingerprint the kids in the hospital. A man named Stephen Judy was executed for the murders.
Cramer is quick to say he doesn’t know who committed the Burger Chef murders. He said it’s possible that the Burger Chef killer, or killers, never emerged on the police’s radar. That the restaurant had been struck by a predator like Judy, acting on a violent urge comprehensible only to the perpetrator. Cramer said he took issue with the word “haunted.” He insists that someone who was truly haunted by it all, by Burger Chef and Mary Ann and the children in the creek, wouldn’t have continued working criminal cases.
“It’s not like I don’t think about the Burger Chef every single day of my life, but it doesn’t really haunt me,” Cramer says.
Cramer and Jackie attend church in a college town. Over fall break, the regular congregation empties out, leaving vigil Mass feeling empty.
On one Sunday in October, Cramer sat at the end of a pew, on the side farthest from the central aisle.
It was hard to tell whether he was listening or drifting. He’s “not the best Catholic around,” he told me.
Sometimes he withdraws during a service, thinking back to the night of November 17, 1978.
He tries to play back the dark possibilities of the crime in his head like a video, the hypotheticals rewound and fast-forwarded again and again.
He sees himself on the 20-mile drive between the bright, blazing restaurant on Crawfordsville Road and that snarled spot in the woods. He imagines fear surging through Jayne, Ruth, Danny, and Mark as they crawled along the dark road.
Cramer thinks through all the choices made by the murderers: abducting a whole crew from the restaurant; abandoning Jayne’s car so close to the Speedway police station; driving all the way out to Johnson County; killing four people in three different ways, and scattering their remains among the trees.
Somehow, the murders don’t haunt Cramer’s dreams.
He actually wishes they would. If he could picture the crime in his sleep, as he does in the daylight, maybe he’d catch something he missed.
“Of course, it’d be just a dream,” he said.
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