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Here's why police think a photo of a knife might help them solve the Burger Chef murders

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 11/15/2018 Will Higgins

Stymied over four decades in their efforts to solve one of Indianapolis' most shocking crimes, police on Wednesday took a new tack. They released a photograph of a knife blade.

The blade itself is 4 and 1/2 inches, but the photo of the blade, unveiled at a news conference, was enlarged. Investigators want its image to make an impression on the public. They think it could jog someone's memory. 

The knife was broken off at the handle, and the handle was never found. The knife was removed from the body of Jayne Friedt, 20, the assistant manager of a fast-food restaurant in Speedway. Friedt was the oldest of four victims in what has become known as the "Burger Chef Murders."

Friedt and three teens who worked at the Burger Chef were abducted from the restaurant at closing time and taken to a remote field in Johnson County. Their bodies were found two days later.

Ruth Shelton, 17, and Daniel Davis, 16, were shot in the back of the head as they lay face down next to each other. Mark Flemmonds, 16, died choking on his blood. He might have run head first into a tree while trying to flee and been knocked unconscious.

The killings occurred Nov. 17, 1978, 40 years ago Saturday.

a close up of text on a white background: The knife blade used to kill Jayne Freidt, the assistant manager of the Speedway Burger Chef.

The knife blade used to kill Jayne Freidt, the assistant manager of the Speedway Burger Chef.
© Will Higgins/Indianapolis Star

Ruth's sister, Theresa Jefferies, stood with State Police officers and expressed confidence in a new computer-aided approach investigators are taking to the case. "Technology is wonderful," she said, "and I hope before my time comes that we have answers."

She pointed to enlarged photos of the four victims mounted on a placard. "These aren't just victims," she said. "This was my sister."

More on the Burger Chef Murders: A thorough accounting of where the investigation stood exactly one year ago

Indiana State Police officials Wednesday called reporters to a conference room in the State Police museum on East 21st Street to tell them they were still on the case. The news conference was attended by IndyStar, local TV stations and even a film crew from Australia.

The case continues to horrify and fascinate. The crime has its own Facebook page, with 1,700 members.

"Our commitment stands. We'll continue to address this issue," Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter said. "We can send a message here we're not going to stop." 

The State Police detective now overseeing the Burger Chef case is 1st Sgt. Bill Dalton. Dalton is a veteran state trooper who got the Burger Chef assignment in February after the retirement of Detective William Stoney Vann, who had managed the case since 1998.

Probing the case wasn't a full-time job for Vann, and it isn't for Dalton, either. Dalton said he didn't know how many hours he has devoted to it, but "it's always on my mind."

Vann thought he had figured out who had done the killings, but he couldn't prove it. Other investigators have had different ideas. In the first weeks after the slayings, more than three dozen detectives from five agencies, including the FBI, swarmed the case.

Dalton, noting that the previous theories "all fell short of prosecution," said he preferred to start from scratch. "I'm coming in with fresh eyes," he said. "I'm going to use my lack of experience on this case. We're going to start at the beginning."

Showing the knife blade, for example. It clearly was no pocket knife but rather the kind of knife that would be kept in a leather sheaf and worn on a belt. In 1978, which was the height of disco, a knife on a belt would have been an unusual accessory.

"I'm hoping someone will remember" a person who back in the day wore a knife on his belt, Dalton said. "I'm hoping this will generate some tips."

Tips have never stopped coming in. So far this year Dalton said he has received about a dozen. The Speedway Police Department also regularly receives tips and turns them over to the State Police, said Jim Thiele, the Speedway department's investigations chief.

The amount of evidence gathered over the years includes interviews with hundreds of people who have a theory or thought they might have seen something suspicious. The investigators' notes alone fill more than two dozen thick, three-ring binders. 

"Unstructured data," Capt. Chuck Cohen, a State Police tech expert, calls it. "How do we make that useful?"

Cohen answers his own question. He has been scanning the documents, which include hand-written interview notes, and running them through a computer program "that might spot patterns or inconsistencies," he said. "The human brain might not make that connection, but the computer ... ."

The police were asked several times by several reporters how confident they were this case would be solved. These questions did not get answered.

"I'm confident we'll have answers we didn't have before," Cohen said.

Said Dalton: "I'm optimistic. I want to see resolution."

Contact Star reporter Will Higgins at 317 444-6043. Follow hiim on Twitter @WillRHiggins.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Here's why police think a photo of a knife might help them solve the Burger Chef murders

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