Next In Line: The Burger Chef Murders

An empty safe. A missing car. Four dead. After 40 years, the unsolved Burger Chef Murders that rocked Indianapolis during one of its most tempestuous years still puzzle investigators—mostly because some believe they cracked the case decades ago.

November 2018Add a comment

2-2-4-2

They are four digits that Mel Willsey can instantly recall. The sequence is of no practical use to him like, say, an ATM PIN or a coworker’s phone extension within the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. And yet they are somehow more significant—if only because they torment him.

2-2-4-2

Mel Willsey is one of the men who worked the Burger Chef Murders investigation, a case that has vexed him and others for 40 years.

The numbers live somewhere in the back of the detective’s mind, among the scraps of memory from more than five decades of investigating criminal cases. Whether triggered by a new assignment, an article in the news or on TV, a passing utterance, or just the quiet reflection that can settle over the clean desk of a 72-year-old career cop approaching retirement, they seem to frequently find their way to the surface of Willsey’s consciousness. The numerals especially haunt him each November, as the wind begins to bite and the last brown leaves fall. That’s when Indy natives of a certain age remember November 17, 1978, and four fast-food workers who were kidnapped, murdered, and left cold in the remote woods of Johnson County that night. Willsey’s phone comes alive with reporters and filmmakers and general citizens wanting to commemorate the crime now widely known as the Burger Chef Murders; and his voicemail box was particularly full this year, on what will be the grisly crime’s 40th anniversary.

Dozens of investigators from five different law-enforcement agencies worked the Burger Chef case, but the media calls Willsey because he is one of the few detectives with firsthand knowledge who is still around. Most have retired. Many have died. Willsey obliges because it’s his job, and he knows the media attention is a good thing for a cold case. The crime is unsolved; the killers, never brought to justice. Even after four decades and many of the parties involved have passed, there might be someone out there who knows something that could break the case open, and secrets are easier to keep when no one is talking about them. So Willsey talks about it, rehashes his years of work, repeating the same facts and details in his dry, soft-spoken monotone year after year.

In December 1984, weeks after the crime’s six-year anniversary, Willsey got a call that an inmate in Indiana State Prison, serving 95 years for an unrelated rape, wanted to confess to his involvement in the murders. That confession convinced Willsey and his partners that they had found their man; that the years of sleepless nights and chasing leads all over the Midwest had been worthwhile; that mourning families were about to get closure; and that a community living in fear of a killer on the loose was about to find peace.

Of course, that never happened. The case gradually came apart; an arrest was never made. The man Willsey felt was responsible got away with it. He’ll never forget that prisoner’s name, his face, and even his DOC number.

2-2-4-2.

Four simple integers that, when put in order, spark many emotions in Willsey. Anger, sorrow, shock, disgust, exhaustion, excitement, and, more than anything, frustration—not because he failed to solve the Burger Chef Murders, but because he believes he and his colleagues did.

 

For people living in Indianapolis in 1978, the year must have seemed like the last they’d ever see. That January, a historic blizzard buried the city beneath almost two feet of snow that 40-mph winds whipped into 20-foot drifts. The National Guard was called out; 11 Hoosiers died. On November 18, the day after the Burger Chef Murders, Jim Jones, religious leader of the Peoples Temple, which got its start in Indianapolis, orchestrated a mass murder-suicide by drinking cyanide in Jonestown, Guyana, along with 918 of his followers, some of them Indiana transplants, 300 or so of them children. Armageddon seemed to settle directly over the tiny enclave of Speedway, where in July, a 65-year-old woman was shot and killed by an assailant in her own garage, only the third recorded homicide in the 52-year history of the suburb. And in September, a series of eight random soda-can bombings in six days left two citizens injured and an entire community on edge until the bomber, a local musician and political activist, was apprehended.

So on the morning of Saturday, November 18, when Speedway police responded to a reported robbery and an apparent kidnapping at the Burger Chef at 5725 Crawfordsville Road, they had every reason to fear the worst. An off-duty employee arrived at the fast-food joint around 12:15 a.m. to find the back door open but with no one inside. Four employees who had been working the previous night—assistant manager Jayne Friedt, 20; and workers Daniel Davis, 16; Mark Flemmonds, 16; and Ruth Shelton, 17—were missing, along with about $581 in cash. Police found two empty currency bags and an empty roll of adhesive tape next to the open safe. Two women’s purses were also left behind, but some of the employees’ jackets were missing along with Friedt’s 1974 Chevrolet Vega, which was found later that morning, abandoned about a mile-and-a-half south on West 15th Street.

Speedway police told the newspapers that it was a “very peculiar” case because there were no leads and neither they nor the employees’ families had received a ransom call. One initial theory was that it was simply a case of petty theft, with the young workers taking the cash to go joyriding. It’s almost as if the cops never considered that the missing youths might be dead. Burger Chef employees cleaned the crime scene, and the restaurant was reopened the next day. “They didn’t process it as a murder; they didn’t know it was a murder,” says Virgil Vandagriff, a detective with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department at the time. “Police didn’t have a clue what was going on at the restaurant. They kind of messed up the crime scene.”

Sketches of two men were based on descriptions from a witness who saw the pair hanging around the Burger Chef shortly before the crime.

At the time, Vandagriff was an eager 35-year-old investigator watching from his office in downtown Indy and aching to get into the game and help solve this mystery. But protocol is protocol, and this was Speedway PD’s case. Other local agencies had to wait for a formal invitation. “At the time, we considered ourselves the elite agency in terms of investigation,” says Vandagriff. “We knew our phone was going to ring; it was just a matter of when.”

The call came days later when residents stumbled across two bodies in a secluded patch of Johnson County woods, two miles west of Center Grove High School and some 20 miles from the restaurant. Shelton and Davis were lying side by side, both executed in the back of the head with a .38-caliber gun. Friedt was later found a few yards away, as if she had been trying to flee when she was chased down and twice stabbed with a hunting knife. The weapon, its handle broken off and missing, was still lodged in her chest. Flemmonds, who had also apparently fled, had endured blunt-force trauma to the head, which was later determined to have come from a bludgeoning with some sort of chain prior to death. Reports say he died choking on his own blood. All four were still wearing their brown-and-orange polyester uniforms, now soaked and caked with drying blood.

The FBI, the Indiana State Police, the Indianapolis Police Department, and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department were called in to assist. Vandagriff was brought in to help interview potential witnesses. But the two days following the crime, those most crucial to solving a major crime, had already passed. “That initial 48-hour [window] was out almost immediately because, at the time, police didn’t have a clue what was going on at the restaurant,” says Vandagriff. “We knew from the outset that we were behind the eight ball.”

 

Of the tens of thousands of homicides that have occurred in major U.S. cities over the past decade, only about half have resulted in an arrest. In Indianapolis, that number was slightly better: 55 percent. And that’s with all the technological marvels, modern forensics, networked electronic databases, and DNA analysis that didn’t exist in 1978, when the Burger Chef Murders were front-page news.

The situation in Speedway was particularly bleak. Since police had wiped the restaurant clean, there were no fingerprints, blood, or hair samples to be collected. There was no way to know whether a struggle had taken place. All that was left was the hope that someone, somewhere, might have seen or heard something that could offer detectives a clue. Burger Chef, then a national fast-food chain headquartered in Indy with a presence akin to that of McDonald’s or Hardee’s, which later bought the company out, put up a $25,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest. Another anonymous donor offered $10,000. Hundreds of letters and calls flooded into newspapers and police.

Vandagriff was one of a gaggle of cops chasing down those leads. Some people thought that the murders were connected to the shooting of the elderly Speedway woman in her garage or perhaps to the bombings that had shaken the neighborhood just two months prior. The prevailing general theory among authorities was that this was some sort of robbery gone bad: One or more of the employees might have recognized one of the assailants or put up a fight, and the rest of the workers had to be eliminated. There was a rumor that at least one of the victims had been involved with drugs, possibly even selling marijuana out of the Burger Chef. Perhaps the dealer owed money and the supplier had come to collect.

The most solid lead was a witness who had seen two men skulking around the railroad tracks that ran near the restaurant not long before the crime was thought to have been committed. Vandagriff interviewed this witness and put together sketches of two men—one bearded, the other clean-shaven—from which clay busts were eventually made. Several persons of interest were linked to those visual aids, including one whom Vandagriff tracked to a bar on the west side, where a man had reportedly been bragging about the murders. While off duty, Vandagriff went undercover and met the braggart and started playing pool with him. The man all but confessed to Vandagriff, even snapping his cue to illustrate what he had done to one of the victims, but when police brought the suspect downtown, the man passed a polygraph test as he denied any involvement. There was no physical evidence, so police had to release him and move on.

Weeks became months; months stretched into years. Throughout 1979 and 1980, newspapers periodically reported of a new prime suspect, usually someone arrested for a holdup or murder elsewhere, but each one was eventually eliminated. In June 1980, the ISP task force appointed to the case was disbanded without having made a single arrest. In March 1981, victim Friedt’s own brother, James, was picked up on cocaine charges and implicated in the murder, only to be cleared of any involvement six days later.

Meanwhile, memories faded, trails ran cold, and the streams of tips dried up. The public and many of the police gradually moved on.

Vandagriff stayed on the case. He had studied hypnosis and hypnotized witnesses to better flesh out descriptions. He even sought out psychics who might be able to help. One woman in Ohio went through a stack of more than 100 mugshots that Vandagriff handed her, upside down, and picked out people she felt might be involved. Vandagriff swears the shots she pointed to match several suspects officers had at the time. Other so-called mystics were less helpful, like the woman who reached beneath her sofa and pulled out a Ouija board. Vandagriff just got up and left. “In this case, it was go-with-anything-and-everything,” he says. “It’s not like we went that route immediately. As soon as we felt there was reason to head that direction, we decided to do that. If it was a waste of time, it was a waste of time. At least we tried something.”

By then, Vandagriff was willing to try anything. He became obsessed. Though he was assigned other cases—crime never stops—he repeatedly found himself going back to the Burger Chef files and poring over interviews and photographs, hoping he and his colleagues had missed something. When the physical evidence and firsthand testimony dead-ended, he relied on word of mouth. “You always hold out hope,” he says, “that somebody might confess.”

 

Mel Willsey’s blood was up. As was that of a dozen cops who had dedicated so much of their time to finding these killers and stitching a wound on a city that had been open and festering for a decade. Even Virgil Vandagriff, who had invested years chasing other theories and leads, was convinced that Willsey had their man.

In 1984, Willsey was a 34-year-old detective who had already been on the force for 16 years. Unlike Vandagriff and many of his comrades, Willsey had never been assigned to assist in the Burger Chef Murders, though he had followed the investigation from afar through the media and water-cooler talk around the office. That changed that November when he got a tip than an inmate imprisoned at the Pendleton Correctional Facility was ready to confess to the killings.

Jailhouse confessions are a staple of criminal investigations. Inmates overhear a fellow convict bragging or unburdening himself or herself about a crime, and the informants flip that information to authorities in hopes of a reduced sentence or charges in their own case. Or a guilty party is ready to ’fess up themselves and maybe hand over his or her accomplices in exchange for preferential treatment. The tit-for-tat nature of these info exchanges, more often than not, amounts to little more than rumor-mongering. But investigators usually think it’s worth at least looking into these inmates’ stories—especially in a high-profile case that is going nowhere.

The inmate, Donald Wayne Forrester, definitely wanted something. He was 34 and had just been convicted of raping a woman in Hamilton County. He had been sentenced to 95 years in prison, and was about to be transferred as a sex offender into the general population of the notoriously rough Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. “He didn’t want to go to Michigan City,” says Willsey. “No one wants to go to Michigan City.”

But once Willsey and his partner sat down across from Forrester, there seemed to be much more to his story than conjecture. Willsey already knew from background checks that Forrester had grown up in New Whiteland, in Johnson County, not far from where the bodies had been found. He was living in Speedway—having been recently released from a prior rape conviction—on the day of the crime. Willsey and his partner got a court order to bring Forrester back to Marion County, where he eventually confessed to Willsey, on tape, that he had shot Davis and Shelton.

More than that, Forrester seemed to know things that only a witness would know. The detectives put Forrester in the back of a car and drove him out to Johnson County. Willsey says Forrester directed them to the wooded area, which had been a secluded make-out spot for local teens for years. Forrester walked the officers back into the forest, right to the scene, and without any prompt, described where he shot Davis and Shelton and outlined precisely where and in what position the bodies were found two days later. “He was correct,” says Willsey. “That got our attention.”

Over the next two years, Forrester gradually fed Willsey and his partner more and more information. According to Forrester, Jayne Friedt’s brother, James, owed money from a drug deal—a fact that jibed with James Friedt’s criminal record—so he and the associates, the dealers, came simply to threaten Jayne. Flemmonds stepped in to protect her. A scuffle ensued outside the restaurant and Flemmonds fell and hit his head on the bumper of the assailants’ van (thus accounting for the trauma). Believing they had killed Flemmonds, the gang decided to take all four of the employees to Johnson County and eliminate any potential witnesses.

Forrester told the detectives that he had shot the two youths, but gave the names of three other people he said were involved. Forrester knew about the broken handle on the hunting knife found in Jayne Friedt, a detail not yet widely publicized. He said that he had thrown the gun into the White River and directed the cops to the bridge from which he chucked the weapon. Nothing was found. But, Willsey tracked down Forrester’s ex-wife, who told him that days after the murders, Forrester had taken her to the wooded area, where he left her in the car while he retrieved three or four shell casings. She said he took them back to their house and flushed them down the toilet. Willsey and his partner went to the house, now owned by someone else, and found that it ran on a septic system. They obtained a warrant and dug up the septic tank, in the middle of an Indiana summer, and sifted through gallons of raw sewage. “It was August,” says Willsey. “It was awful.” But sure enough, deep in the muck, they found several .38-caliber shell casings.

Willsey’s blood was up, as was that of dozens of cops who had dedicated so much of their time, so much of themselves to finding these killers and stitching a wound on the city that had been open and festering for a decade. Even Vandagriff, who had invested years chasing other theories and leads, was convinced that Willsey had their man. But prosecutors weren’t quite ready to pull the trigger on an arrest. Forrester’s criminal history and circumstances were suspect, to say the least. “I felt certain that we knew who committed the crime,” says Vandagriff, referring to Forrester. “We had communications with all the agencies, running over everything with a fine-tooth comb, trying to come up with that one thing we might have overlooked that would clinch it.”

Then it all suddenly fell apart. On November 14, 1986, someone inside the department with knowledge of the investigation leaked the details of Forrester’s confession and cooperation to the press. Perhaps spooked by the possibility of retribution from his associates, Forrester recanted three days later. Losing his confession was one thing; Forrester was still on tape admitting to the deeds. But without the inmate’s continued cooperation, progress in gathering more evidence stalled.

On December 22, Marion County Prosecutor Stephen Goldsmith announced that Forrester would not be charged in this case. In fact, Goldsmith added, with the case gone cold again, he doubted anyone ever would be.

 

There is no statute of limitations on murder in Indiana. But there is an increasingly tight limit on law-enforcement resources. Crime rates go up and down, but the case files that stream across detectives’ desks and, nowadays, computer desktops, are always steady. Plus, with a 50 percent arrest rate for major crimes, there’s a backlog of newly cold cases. For years, the Indiana State Police had a cold-case unit dedicated to unsolved major crimes like the Burger Chef Murders, but due to budgetary constraints, that was disbanded. Those dusty folders were now to be perused by cops solely in their “spare time.”

In 1998, the Burger Chef file was assigned to one trooper, Sgt. William Stoney Vann. He familiarized himself bit by bit in his idle hours over the course of 19 years. He even developed his own theory, centered around five men who had been knocking over area businesses at the time, including another Indy Burger Chef in 1978. But three of the five were already dead, and the evidence implicating the other two who still lived in Johnson County was purely circumstantial. There was no proof, and therefore, no arrests.

Vann retired in 2017. Then earlier this year, the baton was passed to Sgt. Bill Dalton, who was 4 years old and living in northwestern Indiana when the crimes occurred. But Dalton is an 18-year veteran of ISP and is dedicated to seeing this through. Even with the hundreds of new case files that come flooding in, he admits to being captivated by this 40-year-old mystery. Most nights at home, he sits in his recliner and reads from one of the two-dozen three-ring binders and tries to put himself in Speedway circa 1978. Besides finding the killers, Dalton says he has two goals for his time, however long, on this case. First, he wants to digitize everything—all the reports, records, transcripts, photos, diagrams, and reel-to-reel recordings—so that there is an easily searchable database for his successor or any other officer who is interested. Second, he wants to gather all the detectives and investigators who worked the case—those who are still with us—and get them in a room and have a discussion about the murders. “I want to hear it from their perspective,” says Dalton. “I’m 40 years late to the case and I think about it all the time. They’ve had 40 years to think about this case and I know they still do.”

Then as an IMPD detective and now as a private investigator, Virgil Vandagriff has felt the sting of an unsolved case. “This was frustrating in that you’re so confident that you have it resolved but can’t bring closure to the victim’s families or the community itself.”

Vandagriff certainly does. His work on Burger Chef tapered off throughout the ’80s, and in 1990, after 23 years as a deputy, he retired from the sheriff’s office. He and his wife opened a private investigation firm on the west side, about 5 miles from the site of the Burger Chef crime scene, in a converted ranch house. In the front room, the plate-glass picture window is fogged up with age, casting an ethereal haze across the wood-paneled walls and musty shag carpet. On his desk, an old polygraph machine takes up almost as much space as the boxy desktop monitor. On the wall is a shadow box of trophies; guns and other contraband from a time when agencies would let officers keep mementos of their busts. There’s a revolver from the time Vandagriff chased down a bank robber on foot. A dagger with brass knuckles on the handle from another robbery solved. Like any good gumshoe, he keeps one trophy, a white-handled .22 pistol, in the top drawer beneath empty red Marlboro boxes.

His hair is white, except for the center of a bushy mustache, stained yellowish-brown from tobacco smoke. But his blue eyes seem sharp as ever. He keeps talking about retirement, especially with his health and that of his wife failing. But talking to him, one gets the sense that he’d miss the challenge too much. The game. “I enjoy being able to look at details of any investigation,” he says, “and being able to put all the pieces together.”

For all the successes through a lifetime of investigations, it’s the puzzles that Vandagriff couldn’t solve that occupy his lonely thoughts. “This was frustrating in that you’re so confident that you have it resolved but can’t bring closure to the victim’s families or the community itself,” he says. “Even though you’ve convinced yourself you know what the end story is. No way you’ll ever convince the community, because there was no prosecution.”

At night, Vandagriff will often find himself online, scrolling through the voluminous world of amateur true-crime writers. They’ve all written about the Burger Chef Murders, and most of them wind up taking jabs at the police for failing to solve the case. Vandagriff tries not to engage. He knows it’s a winless fight. But one night several months ago, he logged into one of the unsolved murder sites and below the overwrought and error-ridden Burger Chef story, he permitted himself to punch out four words in the comments.

The case was solved.

 

In contrast to Vandagriff’s clutter, Willsey’s office, deep in the bowels of the Marion County Jail, is immaculate. The walls are bare, except for one evenly spaced patch of framed diplomas and certificates, a clean dry-erase board, and a pencil sketch of a sheriff’s wide-brimmed hat, gun belt, and other tools drawn by an old colleague, long since retired.

Willsey’s desk is likewise bare except for a calendar, keyboard, and monitor, which occupies most of his free glances these days. His onscreen wallpaper is a picture of a red 1935 Hudson hot rod. He plans to tow his souped-up toy to car shows across the Midwest and Southeast when he eventually retires. This November could be the last time he fields reporters’ calls about the Burger Chef Murders—at least in an official capacity.

But Willsey is under no illusion that this will just be a clean break. A cop doesn’t just forget the case he spent two solid years of his life investigating and then decades thereafter rehashing. He doesn’t forget the victims’ bereaved relatives and friends he had to interview and, sometimes, re-interview, reopening those old wounds. He doesn’t just move on from the city he has sworn to serve and protect that still lives in uncertainty as to how such a crime occurred. He doesn’t forget the criminal he failed to bring to justice.

After the Forrester lead fell through in 1986, Willsey was eventually taken off the case. He and his partner were tasked with packing up their Burger Chef investigation, which had occupied an entire room in the jail building. They took down the wall of mugshots of suspects and people of interest; emptied the file cabinets of paperwork, audiotapes, and videotapes; and stuffed them into two massive boxes to be shipped to storage.

In September, spurred by yet another reporter’s call, Willsey got curious about those casefiles. ISP maintains the voluminous mother ship of reports and interviews in their cold-case files, but the Marion County Sheriff’s Department stores their own copies. Willsey called over to the records division and, much to his surprise, after three decades and a couple of moves, the boxes were still there, dusty, sitting in an offsite storage facility.

Willsey went over there and removed the lids from the old dented boxes. There, at his hands, were the yellowing remnants of years of his life. Of course, among those folders was a hefty file on one Donald Wayne Forrester. The one-time suspect died in prison, from cancer, in 2006. But the man, his confession, and the number that was stenciled on his prison jumpsuit will live on as long as Willsey is alive.

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