(Part one in a series)
On July 8, 1995, Brightwood resident Johanna Weaver, a 29-year-old mother of two known for her vivacious smile, was last seen alive by her family.
Relatives first became alarmed when Weaver failed to pick up her daughter Dannisha Shawnta Radford, 6, and son Tyree Harper, 8, from her mother’s home. “She dropped us off, and never came back,” recalls Radford.
Det. Sgt. Jeffrey A. Coffey, who is investigating Weaver’s homicide, noted that like many homicide victims, she had become enmeshed into a lifestyle of addiction. “It can happen to the best people in the world,” he said.
On July 13, a maintenance crew found the charred, stabbed body of an African-American woman while mowing grass in the median area called the “north split,” approximately 190 feet north and west of the intersection of 13th and Lewis Streets in Indianapolis.
Today Radford, now a mother of two herself, is still awaiting justice. Due to her mother’s murder and its attendant trauma, she said she recalls little of her childhood prior to gazing at Weaver’s closed casket at the Stuart Mortuary Funeral Home. Her mother’s homicide, now almost two decades old, is officially a ‘cold case.’
Cold cases on rise
Weaver’s unsolved murder is one of an estimated 211,000 national ‘cold case’ homicides committed between 1980 and 2012, according to a recent investigation by Scripps News Service.
The number of cold cases includes men, women and children of all races and creeds, and represents more people than the population of Des Moines, Iowa. Contributing to the swelling ranks of cold cases, a low ‘clearance rate.’
The FBI states that the rate at which homicides are “cleared” or in which someone is arrested and sentenced, has plummeted from 90 percent in 1965, to 64 percent in 2012. In Indianapolis, there are an estimated 600 unsolved murders for the period between 1990-2014.
Burger Chef murders
Among the Indianapolis-area’s most infamous cold cases are the ‘Burger Chef murders’, the abduction and killing of four young people from a Speedway fast food restaurant on Nov. 17, 1978. The victims included Mark Flemmonds, 16, an African-American high school student whose family had recently relocated to Speedway from Indianapolis; and his coworkers, Daniel Davis, 16; Jayne Friedt, 20; and Ruth Ellen Shelton, 18.
Two days after their disappearance, the four were found dead in wooded area in Johnson County. Flemmonds had suffered fatal blunt force trauma to the head, while Friedt had been stabbed to death, while Davis and Shelton were shot. Over the years, change came to the area; the former Burger Chef restaurant at 5725 Crawfordsville Road is now a Cashland store.
“I think it became sort of renowned in Indianapolis because it was truly a whodunit, and it involved children, high school aged children,” reflected Indiana State Police Sgt. Bill Vann, who continues to investigate the case. “Also it involved girls, boys, one was African-American, the others were white, there’s a cross-section of victimization there.”
Over the years, some have wondered if Flemmonds or his co-workers did something to compromise their safety, said Vann. However, there’s no evidence of that, he said. “There have been fingers pointed at all four of the kids, speculation about the kids about what would have contributed to their murder. He (Flemmonds) was a good kid. “
Vann said the Burger Chef homicides and other cold cases weigh heavily on the minds, and hearts, of police investigators.
“Those type of cases, you don’t just work them 9 to 5. You take them home with you. They wake you up in the morning, you think of something that might be a possibility that you can pursue. They become part of your life,” said Vann.
“There’s been many, many investigators work on the Burger Chef murders over the years. Some have even died without that closure. In a sense, they start to victimize the very detectives working the case. We want to solve it for the family as much as we do anyone else. We want to solve it for ourselves as well.”
It’s tragic to contemplate any life cut short by homicide, Coffey said. “Unfortunately, Johanna didn’t get to see her daughter grow up or see the grandchildren that she has now,” he said. “There’s things that I’m sure she would have liked to have been able to do.”
Waiting for someone to speak
Like many family members who mourn victims, and the police investigators tasked with solving their cold cases, Radford, Vann and Coffey say they hope that someone, sometime, will speak out about what they know.
“There’s a time in people’s lives they feel they need to get things off their chest,” said Vann. “Clearly, we’d like to talk to those people. They could be elderly, they could be ill. There comes a time and place, you don’t want to die with a lie on your lips. We’d like them to come forward with what they know, if they have information.”
Radford believes that there are those who could help solve her mother’s murder.
“People knows things, they just don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “The times we’re living in, people say you’re a snitch or bringing up old things from the past, but somebody knows something. I’ve even talked to family members. “
She has a message for those who say helping solve the case would be “snitching.”
“I hope it doesn’t happen to nobody in their family,” she said quietly. “I hope they never have to feel my pain.”
If anyone has information about the Burger Chef murders or the murder of Johanna Weaver, they can contact the Indiana State Police at 8620 E. 21st Street, (317) 899-8577 or 1-800-582-8440. Anyone with information about any cold case can call (317) 262-TIPS to reach Crimestoppers of Central Indiana.
Next: Who are the cold cases? And how do age, race and gender play a role in whether a homicide case is solved?