25 Years Later, Still No Clear Answers in the Yogurt Shop Murders Case
Twenty-five years ago today, four girls were murdered in a North Austin yogurt shop. Dozens of lives were forever changed and Austin lost much of its innocence. Despite years of investigations, we’re still asking the same questions that were asked that night.
December 6, 1991, a night that started innocently enough at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop off West Anderson Lane. In a nice part of town, late on a Friday night, two girls were closing up the yogurt shop. Eliza Thomas and Jennifer Harbison – both 17 – were working at the shop. Like a lot of kids back then, they took the job to maintain their cars. Eliza helped Jennifer get the job. Jennifer’s 15-year-old sister, Sarah, was along for a ride home from hanging out nearby at Northcross Mall. Tagging along was Sarah’s friend Amy Ayers, just 13 years old. The two were going to have a sleepover at Sarah’s house. All four girls were last seen alive at around 10 o’clock.
When Sgt. John Jones with the Austin Police Department took questions from reporters 25 years ago, he couldn't provide many answers.
"We’ll give you as much as we can," Jones said Dec. 6, 1991, "But we are going to have to hold a lot things of things back because we are handling it as a murder.”
We have since learned a great deal more about what happened to the girls. They were stripped, bound, shot and burned. Amy Ayers, just an eighth grader at Burnet Middle School, was sexually assaulted.
Because it was initially thought to be only a fire, the crime scene was compromised from the beginning. Thousands of gallons of water along and an untold number of firefighters finished what the perpetrators started with the fire. Destroying most of the evidence against them. Austin author Beverly Lowry says there were also other factors.
“They had no forensics unit, except a fingerprint unit. And in an arson homicide, that wouldn’t be worth much," said Lowry. "There was only one homicide cop on the street that night. The homicide division was small.”
She’s written an exhaustive book on the case and all of its turns called “Who Killed These Girls?”
“There is just no way a city of that size, not just Austin, would have been up to thoroughly and efficiently investigate such a horrendous and chaotic thing, I think.”
The case has seen a lot of twists since. Sgt. Jones and his partner interviewed a number of suspects. There were dozens of false confessions, even forced ones in Mexico.
“As I used to say back in the day...'That’s a nice confession. Where’s the gun?'” Jones said.
Speaking at his office, which is coincidentally just a couple of miles from the site of the yogurt shop, he says there was a lot of pressure, but there was a lot of help.
“Ronnie Earle, who was the DA then, helped us out a lot. So did the administration. I get asked all the time, ‘Could the city or PD administration done more to help you?’ The answer is no. We got whatever we needed. From the chief and from the city manager, they gave us whatever we needed," Jones said. "They wanted it solved as much as anyone else. No, we did the best with what we had.”
In 1999, after Jones and his partner were moved from the case, APD made more arrests. Armed with written confessions, Maurice Pierce, Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott and Forest Welborn are taken into custody.
Police believed Pierce, Springsteen and Scott – teens at the time of the murders – committed the acts inside the yogurt shop, while Welborn served as lookout. But, when the cases went to court, only Springsteen and Scott were indicted. In separate trials, Springsteen was sentenced to death and Scott to a life sentence.
"It’s one of those odd situations that seems destined not to end."
There was a big problem with their convictions. Their written confessions were used against one another in the trial, but neither was allowed to face his accuser in court. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Springsteen’s conviction in 2006. Scott’s was also subsequently overturned.
Then-Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg tried to lock down the case against the two with DNA evidence found on Amy Ayers in 2009. The problem: it wasn’t a match for Springsteen, Scott, or even Pierce and Welborn. The two were released and charges were dropped.
“Going to trial and risking a result that could forever prohibit us from trials of these men again is a risk that I will not take," said DA Rosemary Lehmberg. "My office and the Austin police department remain committed to these cases and our investigation will continue.”
So, 25 years later, we still do not definitively know who killed those girls.
Without closure, families have had to carry the weight of that night with them, and so has Jones.
Now retired from APD, he spent much of his career investigating homicides in Austin. That one has always stood out. It hits him in different ways at different times.
"So there was at one point, I’m watching on television, watching 'MASH,' and I just kind of broke down in the middle of the night," said Jones. "Of course, I was the only one up. It was three in the morning. Everyone else was asleep. Three in the morning is ‘me’ time. It still is. I still have insomnia. But, you know, the case is the case.”
Maurice Pierce was killed six years ago by an Austin police officer. Pierce apparently tried to stab the officer after a traffic stop. The officer didn’t know he one of the four arrested in 1999.
Springsteen and Scott are still in legal limbo. They are free, but cold case investigators with APD still believe they had something to do with it – even with DNA pointing to another person. Earlier this year, Springsteen pushed to clear his name. Travis County prosecutors still consider him a suspect.
But, will we ever know what happened that night?
Investigators believe the DNA will one day match someone, providing some answers. But Lowry is less certain.
“It’s one of those odd situations that seems destined not to end,” said Lowry.
Armed with DNA, Jones thinks there will be an answer one day either with advances in technology – or just luck, he said.
"That’s why there’s no statute of limitations on murder.”