Could hypnosis have cracked the Burger Chef murders?

The back view of the former Burger Chef restaurant on Crawfordsville Road in Speedway, Indiana. Image courtesy of the author’s private collection.

You Are Feeling Very Sleepy

What do you do when you run out of leads? When, in the middle of an investigation, all your evidence has been exhausted, everything new turns up a dead-end, and your witnesses have nothing left to add? Do you wonder…can hypnosis crack crimes?

This was the situation faced by Marion County, Indiana, law enforcement in the late 1970s as they sought to determine who had kidnapped and murdered four employees at a local Burger Chef restaurant in Speedway, Indiana. This week marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of the ‘Burger Chef Murders’: a horrific crime that resulted in the bodies of Daniel Davis, Jayne Friedt, Mark Flemmonds, and Ruth Ellen Shelton being found in local woods, shot and stabbed in a seeming execution-style slaying. Whether random act of violence, robbery gone wrong, or drug deal turned sour, no one knew: every lead to that point had turned up dry, frustrating investigators, the families of the victims, and the community at large.

Can hypnosis crack crimes like the Burger Chef murders?
Rear view of a Burger Chef restaurant in Cookville, Tennessee, showing the kind of door Brian Kring would have found ajar when he stopped by the Crawfordsville Road store just after midnight on November 18, 1978. Image courtesy of Kyle Brown’s Burger Chef Memories website.

Every lead except one. The night of the crime, a teenage couple heading home had encountered two men near the parking lot of the restaurant. These two men—both shabbily dressed, one bearded, the other clean-shaven—had approached the couple to warn them that the area wasn’t safe at night due to vandalism. Heeding this advice, the couple hurried on, and didn’t think anything of it.

At least, until days later, when the sorrowful news had broken, and spread throughout the community. Wondering just whom they had met that night, this same couple went to the Marion County Sheriff’s Department to report the encounter. Virgil Vandagriff, a sergeant, questioned them, but given competing descriptions of the alleged vagrants at first, the sergeant decided to try a new technique: one that had not been widely used in this setting before. They wondered…can hypnosis crack crimes? Julie Young, author of The Burger Chef Murders in Indiana, writes:

Can Hypnosis Crack Crimes?

“Vandagriff spent approximately three hours with the young couple trying to extract as much information from their subconscious as possible. He had the teens fix their gaze on an object in the room and relax their minds and bodies and then gently asked probing questions about the men they encountered. He said a person often registers information in their brain that they cannot bring to a conscious level out of fear, tension or simply trying too hard to remember every detail. ‘Hypnosis creates a state of mind where you can pull that information to the surface,’ he said.”

Remarkably, despite their previous disagreement, by the time the hypnosis session was complete, the teens had produced “virtually identical” descriptions of the two men, down to weight, age, clothing, and hairstyle. While these descriptions proved enormously helpful in producing sketches, they did not necessarily mean the men were guilty—only that anyone matching that description would be a person of interest to the Sheriff’s Department.

An image showing a bridge near downtown Indianapolis, where the murder weapon may have been dropped.
The bridge near downtown Indianapolis where Donald Ray Forrester claimed to have tossed the gun that killed Ruth Ellen Shelton and Daniel Davis. Courtesy of Vincent Johnson.

Though over time, many individuals in the Marion County area who matched that description were found and interviewed, some with extremely high levels of suspicion, unfortunately this new technique didn’t prove to be the magic bullet that investigators had hoped for. As Young details, the murderers were never found, and the case remains one of the most notorious unsolved crimes ever committed in Indiana.

Hypnosis has enjoyed a mixed career in law enforcement since then, and it’s still not widely used in investigations. There is one interesting wrinkle, though. Months later, Donald Ray Forrester, the chief suspect in the case was himself subjected to hypnosis by law enforcement, in order to recall where he buried certain pieces of evidence. For that story, however, you’ll have to read Young’s book: provided, of course, you don’t start feeling very sleepy yourself…

An image of the Burger Chef Murders in Indiana book cover.