Review: ‘The Speedway Murders,’ starring Essie Randles, Nya Cofie, Davida McKenzie and Jo Cumpston

June 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Theresa Jeffries in “The Speedway Murders” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“The Speedway Murders”

Directed by Adam Kamien and Luke Rynderman

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Speedway Murders” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people) who are connected in some way to the Burger Chef murders, a notorious unsolved case about the abductions and murders of four employees of a Burger Chef restaurant in Speedway, Indiana, in 1978.

Culture Clash: People have different theories about who committed these crimes.

Culture Audience: “The Speedway Murders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about unsolved mysteries, but the documentary’s quality and credibility are significantly lowered by excessive use of scripted scenes depicting the ghosts of the murder victims.

Essie Randles, Jo Cumpston, Davida McKenzie and Nya Cofie in “The Speedway Murders” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

The true crime documentary “The Speedway Murders” has a good mix of interviews about the 1978 Burger Chef murders in Speedway, Indiana. But the movie is ruined by tacky drama scenes of the murder victims as ghosts trying to solve their own murders. Many documentaries have dramatic re-enactments. However, it’s just downright exploitative for a documentary to fabricate dramatic scenes that speculate what the murder victims would say and do after they died. These “ghost” scenes do not help the real-life investigation of this unsolved case. And they certainly don’t help the victims’ loved ones.

Directed by Adam Kamien and Luke Rynderman, “The Speedway Murders” would have been sufficient without these unnecessary ghost scenes. When these ghost scenes show up (and they are about half of the movie), they are utterly distracting and diminish the impact of the compelling interviews in the film. “The Speedway Murders,” which is a production from Australia, filmed these dramatic scenes in Australia with cast members who are from Australia or New Zealand but are portraying Americans. The interview scenes with non-actors were filmed mostly in Indiana.

Perhaps “The Speedway Murders” filmmakers wanted to do something different in a true crime documentary by having these ghost scenes. However, it comes across as tone-deaf filmmaking where it looks like the filmmakers spent more time on the movie’s production/set design and writing the screenplay’s fictional dialogue for the “ghost” characters than doing any real investigative journalism. The documentary offers one “bombshell” interview at the every end. But considering that many of the so-called witnesses who are interviewed in the documentary are admittedly shady people with a history of lying and criminal activities, viewers can have a lot of skepticism about who is credible.

The facts of the Burger Chef murders are retold at the beginning of the documentary. On November 17, 1978, the Burger Chef (a fast-food restaurant) in Speedway was found unlocked and unattended late at night when the restaurant was supposed to be closed and locked up. The safe in the restaurant’s back room was open, in what looked like an apparent robbery. The four Burger Chef employees who were supposed to close the restaurant were missing and found murdered about 20 miles away in a wooded area in nearby Johnson County on November 19, 1978.

The murdered Burger Chef employees were 20-year-old Jayne Friedt, the assistant manager of the restaurant, who died by stabbing; 17-year-old Ruth Ellen Shelton, who died by gun shooting; 16-year-old Daniel “Danny” Davis, who died by gun shooting; and 16-year-old Mark Flemmonds, who was beaten to death. Some reports have listed Shelton’s age as 18 at the time these kidnapping and murders happened. But her younger sister Theresa Jeffries, who is interviewed in “The Speedway Murders,” says that Shelton was 17 and one month away from turning 18 at the time the crime happened.

In “The Speedway Murders” scripted dramatic scenes, Friedt is portrayed by Essie Randles; Shelton is portrayed by Davida McKenzie; Davis is portrayed by Jo Cumpston (also known a Joseph Zada); and Flemmonds is portrayed by Nya Cofie. Other cast members are in re-enactments portraying various witnesses or persons of interest. The cast members depicting the murder victims have more screen time than anyone else, which is probably why the movie’s marketing materials list them as the stars of the movie. The “ghosts” of the murder victims are only seen at the movie’s reconstruction of the Burger Chef restaurant that was the scene of the crime.

Friedt is depicted as the feisty and outspoken one in the group. Shelton is shown as introverted and somewhat nerdy. Davis is portrayed as a generic regular guy. Flemmonds’ personality is presented as amiable and fun-loving. The cast members in these roles have credible American accents and give adequate performances, but the dialogue they’re given in this movie is often cringeworthy. For example, there’s a scene where the ghost of Friedt exclaims: “I’m not just a footnote in a murder mystery … I’m me!”

A major problem with the real-life investigation is that when police showed up at the scene in the early-morning hours of November 18, 1978, they thought that the restaurant was left unlocked and unattended by irresponsible employees and did not think that the missing employees had been kidnapped—even though worried family members of the employees had reported them missing. The police let other Burger Chef employees clean up the restaurant so that it could be open for business, not knowing at the time that the restaurant was a crime scene. Therefore, valuable evidence was destroyed, thrown away or contaminated.

“The Speedway Murders” has interviews with four current or former police detectives with close knowledge of the case: Todd McComas, a retired Indiana state police detective who was assigned the case in 1998; James Cramer, a retired Indiana state police detective who was the lead investigator on the case continuously from 1981 to 1986 and intermittently from 1986 to 1999, the year he retired; Mel Willsey, a captain of Indiana’s Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Criminal Division, who joined the case in the mid-1980s; and Bill Dalton, an Indiana state police sergeant who is currently the lead investigator of the case.

Dalton is the police investigator who has the least to say in the documentary and only offers vague commentary, such as he thinks it’s still possible for the case to be solved. Dalton comments, “I’m chasing answers … for [the victims’] family members. They deserve closure.” It looks like the “Speedway Murder” filmmakers were only able to get brief comments from Dalton at a press conference where Jeffries and Dalton were two of the speakers.

Cramer is the former police investigator who is shown the most in the documentary. He responds to accusations that the original team of investigating police re-staged the crime scene in crime scene photos, in order to cover up the police’s major blunder of letting the crime scene be cleaned, thereby ruining or disposing of crucial evidence. Cramer says, “I don’t know if I would characterize it as re-staging. All I know it was an attempt to pass off photographs as if [they] were actual crime scene photos.”

Cramer adds, “It became common knowledge amongst all the investigators that the crime scene wasn’t handled properly … There should’ve been pictures, fingerprints. People should’ve been interviewed—witnesses and so forth. I don’t believe much was done.”

McComas is the former investigator who is the most adamant in saying his theory of who committed these horrific murders. The documentary does a fairly good job of laying out and explaining four of the most popular theories about who the culprits are. Almost everyone with a theory believes that there was more than one culprit who kidnapped the murder victims from Burger Chef.

Most of the theories and witness statements mention two unidentified white men in their 20s as the most likely perpetrators. One man (described as the “leader”) was about 5’8″ with dark hair and a beard. The other man (the less talkative one) was described as younger, taller (about 6 feet tall, give or take a few inches), dark-haired and clean-shaven. The culprits were widely believed to be driving a van (witnesses can’t agree on the color of the van) when they arrived at the restaurant. This van was also believed to be the same vehicle that the Burger Chef employees were forced into during the kidnappings.

On the night of the Burger Chef kidnappings, two men who fit these descriptions approached witnesses Mary Rhines and George Nichols (who were dating each other at the time) in the Burger Chef parking lot. Rhines and Nichols, who are interviewed in “The Speedway Murders,” say that they were smoking marijuana in the Burger Chef parking lot when they were approached by the two men, close to the time that the kidnappings were believed to have occurred. The man with the beard was the only one who spoke to Rhines and Nichols, and he told them to leave because some young people had gotten busted for committing vandalism at that same restaurant. Rhines and Nichols left because they didn’t want to get in trouble for smoking marijuana.

Here are the theories presented in “The Speedway Murders” documentary:

The Robber Gang Theory: Prior to the murders, a group of armed robbers had been stealing money and other valuables from several Burger Chef locations in Indiana. S.W. Wilkins and Gregg Steinke, two men who confessed to the robberies and spent time in prison for these crimes, have denied any involvement in the Burger Chef murders. However, McComas is certain that Wilkins and Steinke are the most likely suspects for the Burger Chef murders because they fit the witness descriptions of the two men seen in the parking lot before the kidnappings happened. McComas says that Wilkins and Steinke also lived in Johnson County near the rural area where the murder victims’ bodies were found.

The Don Forrester Theory: On January 9, 1989, Indiana prison inmate Don Forrester (a convicted rapist) gave a videotaped confession to police by saying that he helped in the kidnapping of the Burger Chef employees by hustling them into the van. Forrester did not name the other culprits, but he said they were all under the influence of drugs at the time. Forrester said he killed Davis and Shelton and gave details of the crime scene. It was later proven that Forrester could’ve gotten those details from crime scene photos that he saw in the police station where he was interrogated. In his confession, he said that Jayne Friedt was the main target of the kidnapping because she owed $15,000 related to cocaine deals. Jayne’s brother James “Jimmy” Friedt was a convicted drug dealer, and Forrester said that Jayne was mixed up in drug dealing too. Willsey believes this theory, but admits that Forrester (who died of cancer in 2006) had questionable credibility because Forrester changed/recanted his story many times and failed multiple polygraph tests about this confession.

The Speedway Bomber Theory: During a six-day period, beginning in early September 1978, bombs were detonated in various parts of Speedway. Brett Kimberlin was eventually convicted of the bombings and spent 15 years in prison for it. No one died in the bombings, but a man named Carl DeLong had to have one of his legs amputated because of a bomb injury, and he committed suicide in 1983. The theory is that the bomber was also involved in the Burger Chef murders. Kimberlin, who is interviewed in the documentary, denies anything to do with the bombings, the Burger Chef kidnappings/murders, or his suspected involvement in the 1978 murder of Julia Scyphers, who was the mother of Kimberlin’s girlfriend at the time. Kimberlin will only admit that in 1978, he was definitely a marijuana dealer. He describes any reports that he’s a bomber, kidnapper or murderer as “fake news.”

The Jeff Reed/Tim Willoughby Theory: Allen Pruitt, a mechanic who spent time in the same prison as Jimmy Friedt, claims that the Burger Chef murders happened because of a drug deal gone wrong. Pruitt (who died in 2022) is interviewed in the documentary. In his documentary interview, Pruitt says that a drug dealer named Jeff Reed had a dispute with Jimmy Friedt over drug dealing issues, and Jayne Friedt was involved because she was allowing this Burger Chef location to be used as a transaction location for Jimmy Friedt’s drug deals. Pruitt says on the night of the Burger Chef kidnappings, he saw Reed force Flemmonds, Shelton and Davis into Reed’s van in the parking lot of the restaurant, and Reed’s friend Tim Willoughby (also a known drug dealer) was nearby having an argument with Jayne Friedt. Pruitt said he saw the van drive off but didn’t think at the time that anyone had been kidnapped. Pruitt (who says he gave this information to police years ago) states emphatically that Reed and Willoughby committed the Burger Chef kidnappings and murders, based on what Pruitt says that he saw that night.

One of the problems with this theory is that Willoughby (who was clean-shaven and slightly resembled the clean-shaven mystery man in the Burger Chef parking lot that night) is believed to have gone missing before the Burger Chef murders. Willoughby was reported as last seen in June 1978. He has never been found. The reason for his disappearance—as well as the possibility that Willoughby could have still be alive in November 1978—remain unknown. Another problem is that Pruitt admits that he was very intoxicated when he saw Reed, Willoughby and the Burger Chef employees on the night of the kidnappings. Pruitt’s impaired state of mind makes Pruitt a less credible witness than if he had been clean and sober at the time he says he saw the suspicious activity that night.

The documentary also includes a more compelling interview with Tim Boyer, who was a friend of Reed’s in a clique they called the Riff Raff Social Club, which had Reed as the unofficial leader. Reed and his van matched the descriptions from witnesses who say they saw a bearded man in the Burger Chef parking lot close to the time that the kidnappings were believed to have taken place. Boyer says in the documentary that in 1978, not long after the Burger Chef Murders, Reed confessed to Boyer that he and Willoughby committed the crimes. Boyer also claims that Reed told incriminating details to Boyer as proof.

According to Boyer, this is what happened: Reed and Willoughby went to the Burger Chef restaurant to rob the place, but victim Flemmonds saw the intruders and confronted them in a back room. The criminals assaulted Flemmonds, possibly knocking him unconscious. The other three Burger Chef employees also saw a crime taking place, so all four were kidnapped and murdered because the employees were witnesses.

Boyer said he kept this secret for decades because he didn’t want to be a snitch. In the documentary, former police investigator Cramer seems to think this is the strongest theory of what happened in the Burger Chef murder case, but since there’s no proof, it’s unlikely this case will ever be solved. Reed, who died in 2011, was never formally interviewed by police about this case. Cramer said he once informally confronted Reed about the Burger Chef kidnapping/murder case in an unnamed year after Reed had been arrested and was out on bail for an unrelated case. Cramer says that in this conversation, Reed did not make any comments when asked if Reed was involved in the Burger Chef kidnapping/murder case.

“The Speedway Murders” also has interviews with Russ McQuaid, a reporter for Indianapolis TV station WXIN/Fox 59; true crime podcaster Chris Davis; a man named Charlie (no last name is given), who says he was Jayne Friedt’s boyfriend in 1978; Kirk Thompson, a friend of Flemmonds’ who had plans to meet up with him after Flemmonds’ work shift ended that night; Ginger Anthony, a Burger Chef employee who asked Flemmonds to substitute for her that night because she wanted to go on a date with someone; Norma Davis, the mother of Daniel Davis; David Brosman, a Speedway bombing witness; and Jean Bland, a witness who claims to have seen a man forcing the Burger Chef employees into a van, although she admits she never saw the front of the man’s face.

Jeffries is given a small amount of screen time to talk about her murdered sister. Thompson says that he and Flemmonds liked to hang out at a youth-oriented nightclub called the Galaxy, which allowed people under the age of 21. There’s a clip of an archival TV interview with Robert Flemmonds (Mark Flemmonds’ father) where he mentions that Jayne Friedt told him that Mark was like her “protector” on the job. Norma Davis says her son Daniel called her earlier that evening to tell her that he was asked to help close the restaurant and he would be working later than usual that night.

Almost all of these interviewees have something interesting to say. It’s too bad that “The Speedway Murders” filmmakers chose to waste so much screen time on cheesy re-enactments (including the obligatory slow-motion shots) and outright fabricated dialogue of the murder victims discussing and debating various theories about their own murders. Not surprisingly, the “ghost” of Jayne Friedt vehemently denies she was involved in drug dealing.

In an interview for this documentary, Jeffries says that too often in media coverage about murders, the victims don’t get as much coverage as the suspected or convicted killers. “The Speedway Murders” is certainly guilty of that too. Despite spending an offensive amount of time on scenes showing actors portraying ghosts of the murder victims, these drama scenes and the rest of the movie tell almost no details about these victims before their lives were cruelly taken away.

What were the hopes and dreams of these murder victims? What were some of the most memorable things that they did when they were alive? Who were the people who were most important to them? Don’t expect the documentary to answer these questions. Instead of offering more insight into who the murder victims were, “The Speedway Murders” gives way too much screen time to showing these murder victims as babbling ghosts who’ve returned to the scene of the crime.

And if you’re still not sure that this misguided documentary is like a slap in the face to the victims and their loved ones, then the last scene in the film removes all doubt. This final scene is obviously manipulative and intended to make viewers cry by showing a “what if” scenario speculating what would’ve happened if the victims hadn’t been kidnapped and murdered that night. Simply put: “The Speedway Murders” is shameless exploitation of murder victims. If people want to know more about this tragic case, there are much better resources—including Investigation Discovery’s 2022 documentary “Murders at the Burger Joint,” which has been renamed “The Burger Chef Murders”—that have information without exploiting the victims.

Vertical released “The Speedway Murders” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on June 21, 2024.

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