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Today's episode was made possible by a wilderness of error on effects 50 years ago, Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald was charged with the murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. To this day, though, he maintains his innocence, claiming that a group of hippies imitating the Manson family committed the atrocities from the award winning producers of The Jinx comes a wilderness of error. A new documentary series that re-examines this infamous case to finally answer the questions. Did the media shape public opinion and helped convict an innocent man?
Or did Jeffrey MacDonald kill his family?
A wilderness of error concludes Friday, October 2nd on Fox, now streaming on Hulu.
High crime junkies Ashleigh Flowers here. There is no Brit today because today I have something extra special for you. If you've been in our fan club or following Crime Junkie podcast on Instagram over the last year, you'll know that I've been working on a new podcast series called Red Ball. I've been looking into one of Indianapolis's most infamous cold cases, the Burger Chef murders. And I've been talking to the first sergeant in charge of reinvestigating this case to see what it takes to solve a 41 year old crime.
So today, for your Crime Junkie Fix, I'm going to play you that first episode here. You'll still get a full story hosted by me. But it's even better because as soon as this episode is over, you can search for Red Ball on Apple podcast, Spotify or most podcast directories. And if you subscribe to the Red Ball show, you'll be able to hear the other three episodes right away. It's a true podcast binge best Monday ever. Right?
So without further ado, this is Red Ball.
Hi, I'm here to see Sergeant Bill Dalton. OK, thank you. That was me making my first trip to visit First Sergeant Bill Dalton at the Indiana State Police over a year ago. To say I fell into this story is, well, accurate, but it feels like an understatement. I've been volunteering with Crime Stoppers of central Indiana for years now and begging them to give me one case, any case to cover on a podcast. I wasn't looking for the biggest or the oldest.
I'm just as passionate about the ones no one's heard of. I used my first show, Crime Junkie as a case study. Not to say that I'm capable of solving anything. I'm going to leave that to the professionals, but to show them that I can tell stories that are hard to tell and I can get people to care about cases and victims that might be long forgotten because the public you listening right now, your powerful your interest in cases is what keeps stories alive, and it's what puts pressure on those who committed those crimes so they know you haven't gotten away with it.
It is not over now.
I didn't get a lot of traction in the first couple of years. I don't know if you know this, but the relationship between law enforcement and the media can be rocky. And I was asking for something that had never been done at the time. Before this show. I was easy to criticize police for not working with media. Why not try something new? I'm pretty sure I could have literally been quoted as saying, you know, it's been forty years at this point.
What do you have to lose? But telling you this story now, over a year later, I get why the relationship is so strained and navigating those waters between police and the public and the media has become as much of a journey as covering the investigation of this case. Back in 2013, I'd almost given up on the idea of working with the police completely. I had tried to start a lot smaller. I asked if I could just get an interview for a single episode of my other show, Crime Junkie, rather than doing a whole podcast together.
And I didn't hear anything right away, so I thought it was a no until one day in April. And it's one of those memories that's seared into my brain and feels like it just happened yesterday. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing.
I was riding along a busy road on the east side of Indianapolis when I got a call from an unknown number and I never answer unknown numbers, so I'm not sure why I did that day. But I pick up the phone and I heard the stern voice of an Indiana state police investigator. And listen, I don't care how much you work with the police or what a perfect cookie you might be in life. If the police call you unexpectedly in the middle of the day, you automatically start trying to figure out what it is that you did wrong.
But I was in the clear. And to make a long story short, and mostly because I was so excited that I blacked out a little and I probably couldn't recount this to you in detail if I wanted to.
The Indiana State Police had recently promoted a new first sergeant in charge of investigations, Bill Dalton, in addition to managing their active caseload and overseeing all of the detectives for the Indiana State Police, Indianapolis, he would also be managing cold cases.
And that year was the fortieth anniversary of Indianapolis's most notorious cold case, the Burger Chef murders. First Sergeant Dalton was going to be looking into the case again. And the state police wanted to work with me to bring attention back to this story, the story of what happened to four kids back in 1978 after they were taken from their jobs at a Burger Chef restaurant driven about 40 minutes away and killed in a rural area of Johnson County. In many law enforcement agencies, they have a name for cases like this.
The case is that rock a community and require all hands on deck, the ones that will cause a media frenzy and often only leave fear and grief in their wake. They call it a red ball. Over the next four episodes, I'm going to tell you the story of the Burger Chef murders and what happened to Ruth Shelton, Danny Davis, Mark Flemons and Jean Freed in hopes that someone, somewhere listening to this podcast might hold the single piece of information needed to reinvigorate this case.
But I want to be clear up front on what you're going to get. I'm not going to dive deep into all the nitty gritty details or theories or name suspects. Those stories have been told. This story is about Ruth, Danny, Mark and Jane. But along with telling you their story, I'm also going to take you along side the investigation, a place we armchair detectives don't often get to see to show you the people who haven't given up on this cold case and what they're doing to try and solve it and what obstacles get in the way when detectives try to take a new approach at solving a 40.
One year old cold case, this is Reibel. When I met First Sergeant Bill Dalton, both he and I were at an even playing field in this case, Dalton was new to his position and like me, he had just heard about this case second hand or seen anniversary specials on the news. Just because he worked for the Indiana State Police for many years didn't mean he had any exposure to the case before coming to this position. Sergeant Dalton wasn't planning coordinating the logistics of big investigations.
He is a details guy to the nth degree. He likes things color coded, neatly filed, organized by name and date. To put an even finer point on it, he once got written up for organizing another person's stuff off hours because they said that wasn't his job. But don't mistake that for thinking. He's been a desk man all his life. He's been a real cop. He worked as a field detective and a hostage negotiator before his time in planning.
And if you work around real cops long enough like I have, you can spot them. And it's not because of their distinctly cropped haircut or the way they always positioned themselves in public facing the door or even that instinctual way their dominant hand creeps to their head when something makes them uneasy. To me, it's in their eyes when they manage a smile. And I've thought a lot about this and what it is that I think is so different. And I think it's because when you see the worst in humanity, what people can do to one another, you have to throw away your favorite suit because the smell of death won't wash out of it.
Or when you have to hold a man's brains in your hand on the side of the highway and watch him die, then go home to your wife and kids and pretend you weren't a normal nine to five. There is something about living all of that, that when you see something good in the world, big or small, they appreciate it more than the rest of us do in a way I don't think we ever can. First Sergeant Dalton has seen all of that and more.
He gave me that crinkled, I smile when he thanked me for working with them. He was ready to try something new, anything to solve this case, but it came with a stern warning. What we were about to do made people uncomfortable. Police didn't work with outside agencies this way and the possibilities seemed wonderful, but the pitfalls were great. And it was hard for me to wrap my head around that. Then I just wanted to help and I couldn't see the downfall, but I would eventually.
First Sergeant Allen explained to me that he was new to the job, only been there a couple of months and he decided of all of the cold cases he could pick, he was going to focus on Burger Chef. The fortieth anniversary was coming up, and it was now or never. The 20 plus three ring binders and over 100 audio cassette tapes have their own designated closet at the ESP office.
So why not start there? Dalton was only a grade schooler when the murders happened. He hadn't been on the scene in 1978. He was never assigned the case before, but it was his. Now, kind of the way it works with the Indiana State Police is that they don't have a cold case division. So you have to do your normal job, work the active cases, which for Dalton, that means reading and approving every case, report that his seven detectives file at any one point.
Each detective could be juggling a double digit caseload and Dalton had to oversee all of it. And then in your free time, nights, weekends, you take PTO, you can work on cold cases. Someone once told me that a detective gets brought in when shit is fucked up and their job is to fuck the shit. Basically, unless cops speak, they have to bring order to chaos. But it's no easy task, especially when that shit got fucked up so many years before you were even on the job and Dalton Meds that the system is far from perfect.
It is a waterfall of cases that come in and they don't stop coming. But we give you a garden hose to get them up because the process takes slow.
And then the shooting guys, Dalton decided that it was now now was the time to tackle the waterfall. That was Burger Chef, along with all of his active cases. The first time I met with him, we were joined by Lieutenant Jim Tilley. He works active cases over at the Speedway Police Department, but he was designated as Dalton's liaison for speedway in case he needed anything from them. Dalton until intially asked me what I'd heard about this case beforehand.
We talked for a little while about my understanding, which coming in was pretty limited. Most of what I knew came from living long enough. In the city of Indianapolis, people would hear that I host a crime podcast and start to recall their own memories of the case. To me, someone always knew, someone who knew someone who went to school or worked with or somehow was connected to one of the victims. Around mid November, every year, I'd catch glimpses of anniversary specials from local news outlets where the same basic information and facts were repeated.
I laid out an overview of what I knew to First Sergeant Dalton, and he corroborated most of the publicly known facts, but also corrected some of the others. Based on his knowledge of the case, though he was quick to admit he still had a lot of learning to do in the past. It's taken new detectives years before they could wrap their heads around this case, and Dalton wasn't claiming to be any better than them. Once we got done talking about our general knowledge of the case, I asked for Sergeant Dalton.
Well, what now? Where do you start?
The pictures and stuff are interesting. There's all these reports, but the reports tend to tell the story of what they've done. But investigative wise, we start with the crime scene. We're going backwards. So I think that's the way of looking at this case because there's so many rebels, there's so many different things.
So let me tell you what's known about the crime scene, or rather both crime scenes from that cold night that started on November 17th, 1978.
From. The area of town where this crime took place is called Speedway, it's located on the western outskirts of downtown Indianapolis, and they have their own police department, a department that's actually just a stone's throw away from the Burger Chef restaurant, where our story starts a little after midnight on November 17th.
A young Burger Chef employee named Brian Kring was driving by the restaurant when he saw the lights on. The restaurant was supposed to be closed, not that he was even scheduled to work. He was just on his way home from a date, but it closed at the same time. Every night, he decided to stop in and see if his friends needed help with any of the closing duties. But nothing in the restaurant was how he expected to find it.
For starters, no one was there. He entered through the back door, but the store was deadly quiet. No one hauling trash, no one counting money, wiping down tables, no one there at all. He looked in the office to see if the assistant manager, Jane Freep, was there. He'd expected to see her reconciling the register, but her chair was completely empty and the safe in the office was wide open with all of its contents removed.
Brian started to worry, but I don't think he thought the worst right away, though, everyone's coats were gone, there were still two purses in the back. James and Ruth, since they were the ones working, they couldn't have gone too far without their purses. So Brian decides to use the office phone to call around and try and find Jane, and he tries to do it in a way that won't get her in any trouble. So first, he calls another Burger Chef restaurant on a different side of town.
The manager over there used to work at Speedway and he knew Jane and was familiar with the location. But that guy hadn't heard from Jane at all that night and had no idea where she or any of the other teens might be. But this guy was worried to nothing like this had happened before and it just didn't sit right. A small phone chain was started. Bob, the current manager of the Speedway Burger Chef, was called and he told Brian to call the speedway police, but he was going to head over.
In the meantime, when the speedway police arrived, the scene was just like Brian described nothing super out of the ordinary except for the fact that a little over five hundred dollars for kids and one of their cars was missing.
If you were to go online and Google this case, you would find Facebook groups message form and multiple articles that have been done over the last 41 years. A lot of people speculate that the speedway police botched this case from the beginning. The rumors are that they assume the kids ran off with the money and case was closed. But I don't think that's the whole story. I haven't talked with any of the original speedway police officers who responded. But here's what I know from talking to First Sergeant Dalton in the same early morning hours that the kids went missing.
Jean's car was found a couple of blocks away. It was found around 430 in the morning across from Leonard Park, which sits adjacent to the Speedway police department. Jane and Danny were the only two who drove to work that night. And of the two, Jain's vehicle was the only one missing from the Burger Chef lot. So, sure, someone may have thought the kids walked off for a little bit, but within hours, police knew this case was something more and they were seizing her car for evidence collection.
Now, while I don't think police were just quick to write this off as menacing kids, I cannot say that mistakes weren't made. Somehow the scene at the restaurant was not sealed off. Workers the next morning were permitted to come in and clean and go about their business on the 18th like nothing was wrong for a full day. No one knew what happened to Jane, Ruth, Mark and Danny. That is, until a call came in on the 19th from a property owner down in Johnson County.
He had found something awful on his land.
Johnson County is about a 40 minute drive south of the restaurant and really at the time it was kind of the middle of nowhere. When police responded, it was worse than they would have ever imagined. All four of the missing kids were there in that rural wooded area. It was private property, but you probably wouldn't have known it from the street. So why there? It's a question I kept asking Dalton. Why drive them all the way out there?
And Dalton agrees with me. And he points to an area on Google Maps just west of the restaurant that the kids went missing from.
This was just as rural as Johnson County. Why take them all the way down from where they were found was all the way down here.
So they could have drove like 20 minutes west and been in the same kind of area less than a minute. Yeah.
So why that was Lieutenant Teeley at the end and he was right. You didn't need to drive 40 minutes away. So why there? Today's episode is brought to you by thread up, I'm not really sure where my head was, but I was fully convinced that maybe you could wear her winter coat from last year, you know, when she was like one and a half years old again this year when she is racing towards a three year old mark. But guess what?
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Get an extra thirty percent off your first order at threat up dotcom slash crime junkie. That's r e d yuppy dot com slash crime junkie for thirty percent off your first order threat dot com slash crime junkie for an extra thirty percent off today. Terms apply. The way police found Danny, Ruth, Mark and Jane was as unusual as the location itself, and it's still a cause for great speculation to this day, Ruth and Danny were found lying on the cold ground side by side, Ruth to Danny's right.
They didn't fall there, though.
First Sergeant Dolan tells me that it's clear from the crime scene photos that Danny and Ruth had laid down on their own. He says their arms were up around their faces to cushion them so that they wouldn't be laying directly in the dirt and leaves. Dalton says Rufus was buried so tightly in her forearm that her glasses were pushed up on to her forehead. I thought a lot about that scene over and over and over, and I imagine them being forced to the ground, Ruth pushing up her glasses and bearing her tear soaked face into the sleeve of her coat.
But, Bill, imagine something different.
He says that Ruth was religious. He said that when he looks at the pictures, he sees them praying in their final moments. Both Ruth and Danny were shot as they lay on the ground and they died right there crying or praying or maybe both. But Mark and Jane weren't found by them and they weren't even killed in the same way, police have never disclosed the exact locations or distances from one another. But what First Sergeant Dalton will tell me is that Jane and Mark were found away from Ruth and Danny and in almost opposite directions.
It's known that Jane was stabbed in the chest with a hunting knife. The second blow to her chest was so severe that the knife blade broke off and remained inside of her. And Mark, he's the biggest question mark of all. To me, his manner of death is by far the most discussed and the most speculated upon online. He was found near a tree against some distance away from the other three, and he was laying on his back with his face cut up and swollen online.
You can read in any number of articles or discussion groups or blogs that he was either being with a chain or was running so fast that he ran into a tree and knocked himself out. But when I brought this up to First Sergeant Dalton, this was one of the facts that he was quick to correct. He said, no way. Dalton tells me that the tree theory is completely unfounded. The rumor is that it started because some offhand comment that someone at the scene made over 40 years ago when they saw him next to the tree think he ran into it.
One guy asks, and it's something that was ruled out almost immediately but has persisted over all of these years. And I'll tell you my theory on why. It's because, by all accounts, Mark shouldn't have died that night. Yes, his beating was severe, but that's not what killed him. Mark died because he choked on his own blood, meaning he was beaten, knocked unconscious, and then lay flat on his back long enough that he fixated.
What are the odds? Here's Dalton.
And again, he suffered no broken bones. And when they left him, he presumably was still alive. I don't understand why they would leave a living witness.
It's this more than anything else in the case that keeps me up at night. If Mark would have been turned over just a few degrees or been on his stomach, he could still be here. And what happened on that night wouldn't be a mystery all these years later. Why did the killer or killers take that chance? We know they had a gun. We know they had a knife, and yet they risk leaving a victim alive to become a potential witness.
In the early days of my working with First Sergeant Dalton, this is what I kept coming back to. Mark was the key to solving this case. I just didn't know how yet. When autopsies were conducted, they found that all four of the victims had died in the early morning hours after they were abducted and they definitely were abducted. But Dalton doesn't think that they knew what their demise would be. In fact, he doesn't even think the killers knew.
I don't think it was the intention at the time to take them out to kill.
First Sergeant Dalton says this because of one key clue. All of the victims were wearing their coats. Why allow them to take their coats if you plan to kill them? Why would they grab their coats and put them on and go with an abductor if they knew what their fate was going to be? If the plan wasn't to kill them, though, what what happened that night? How did things get so out of control?
There are many theories, many stories, or, as Dalton says, so many rabbit holes, which we will dive into next time on Redwall. If you want to get into those rabbit holes with me, you can listen to the rest of the episodes in this series. Right now, just search for Red in your favorite podcast directory and subscribe. And if you're listening on Apple and you enjoy the series, please leave Redwall a five star rating and review.
Thank you for listening. And we'll be back next week with a brand new Grandjean episode. Crime junkie is an audio production.
So what do you think, Chuck, do you approve?