Recalling a somewhat morbid childhood memory this evening. Today marks the 40th anniversary of what many consider to be the worst unsolved crime in my home town’s (Indianapolis) history — the Burger Chef Murders. It also marks what to this day I think of as maybe the scariest time in my childhood.
For those that weren’t around back then, or aren’t Indy natives, the short version of the story is: An entire shift crew, most of them teenagers, working the late shift at a Burger Chef on the west of Indy went missing that Friday evening. A few hundred dollars had been stolen, and the initial premise was that the kids had taken the money for partying. A couple of days later, the bodies started turning up, and police realized something far more sinister had taken place.
The level of fear in the air was palpable. The west side was already on edge from a series of random pipe bombings a couple months previous by the so-called “Speedway Bomber” (another story for another time). The murders dominated local media and individual conversations.
I remember being really freaked out by it all. Like most little kids, I’d had moments in my life where I’d been scared by something, or had a bad dream or two. I think this may have the first time, though, where I ever felt actual fear, and for any length of time. My older siblings were of high school age, and most were working evening fast food jobs themselves. So, you can imagine how I took the Burger Chef story.
As fate would have it, the local media would quickly shift its focus due to another Indiana-related event. As the local police were trying to figure out what happened at that Burger Chef, the world was becoming aware of the Reverend Jim Jones and the Jonestown Murders.
Again, for those that weren’t around back then: Jim Jones was a fanatic who established a cult down in Guyana. Said cult was a weird mix of Marxism and establishing Jones as a sort of God-like figure. At any rate, when an outside delegation led by a Congressman named Leo Ryan and an NBC news crew began investigating, Jones resorted to murder and then mass suicide. Nearly a thousand people drank (or were forced to drink) cyanide-poisoned Kool-aid. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the term “drinking the kool-aid” or “drinking the special kool-aid” people use for describing political zealots today, it comes from Jonestown.
If the Burger Chef murders freaked me out, the stories of Jonestown made my blood run cold. I can still remember the footage of an NBC cameraman filming an attack by Jones’ supporters as he and the delegation were trying to take off from an airstrip. The cameraman, like most of the delegation, was killed by gunfire. The camera kept recording even as it hit the ground, capturing the events still unfolding.
I slept with the light on for a week after that.