On the night of December 6, 1991, 17-year-old friends and coworkers, Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas were working at an Austin, Texas yogurt shop called I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt when Jennifer’s sister, Sarah, 15, and her friend, Amy Ayers, 13, stopped by to help the girls close up shop for the night.
Sometime between 11:00 p.m. and just shy of midnight, all four girls were shot to death, and at least two had been raped. The killers then lit the shop on fire to destroy any evidence.
Just before midnight, a police officer noticed smoke coming from the store and called in the fire department.
When the firefighters arrived at the scene and went into the building, they discovered the bodies of four girls.
Austin Police Department lead detective John Jones and his partner, Mike Huckabay were called in to investigate. The bodies were at the back of the shop near the back exit. Eliza’s body was laying over Sarah’s. Jennifer’s body was next to them, and Amy’s body was a short distance away from the other three near the shop’s bathrooms.
The girls had been stripped and bound with their own clothes. Three of the girls were shot once, Amy Ayers was shot twice.
Because the fire department were the first to arrive on the scene and had already walked through the crime scene, the crime scene itself was compromised. The water from their hoses washed away potential evidence as well.
About $540 was taken from the store, and two guns were used in the murders – a .380 and a .22. A slug and shell casing from the .380 was found at the scene, but not much else.
At one point early in the investigation, Jones and Huckabay had 342 suspects, false confessions from people bragging about the killings, and six actual written confessions, not to mention, an overwhelming amount of leads and tips flooding in. However, none of these people were arrested for the crime.
Even though the fire and water destroyed most of the physical evidence at the scene, coroners were able to get DNA off one of the bodies.
The first possible suspect in the case was 16-year-old Maurice Pierce. He had been arrested at the Northcross Mall with a gun. Shortly after, cops looked at three of his friends – 16-year-old Robert Springsteen, 17-year-old Michael Scott, and 15-year-old Forest Welborn. It is very unclear why, out of all the suspects the police had, they zeroed in on these four boys.
When Jones had Pierce’s gun tested, the ballistics didn’t match up. With no evidence tying the other three to the crime as well or a confession from any of the boys, all four were released.
Witnesses who were at the yogurt shop the night of the murders came forward.
That night, Dearl Croft, a former police officer who in 1991 ran a security company, visited the shop around 10:00 p.m. He was there buying yogurt for himself and two friends. As he stood in line, he was approached by a man wearing a military fatigue-style jacket. According to the Austin Chronicle, the man was loitering in the customer line, ushering other customers to order first; when Croft came in, the man asked if he was a cop and offered to allow Croft to also pass him in line. Croft refused, and when the man finally approached the counter, he ordered only a soda. After he paid, he moved around the counter and headed to the back of the store; Croft asked where he’d gone and was told by Eliza Thomas, who as the store’s shift supervisor was operating the register, that she’d allowed him to go into the back to use the restroom.
Feeling uneasy about the situation, Croft hung around for a few more minutes, but the man never returned from the back room.
Croft testified in 2002 and said he was unable to identify a suspect out of numerous lineups given to him by police, presumably the four young men, as well.
A married couple saw the girls just before 11:00 p.m. when they stopped in the store for some yogurt. . The couple said they saw two men sitting in a booth drinking a soda instead of eating yogurt, which they thought was strange considering this was a yogurt shop. The wife said the men made her feel uneasy, so the couple left to go home.
Despite a large amount of suspects, and a few witnesses who were at the store before the murders occurred, the case eventually went cold.
Eight Years Later and New Investigators
Three years after the murders, Jones and Huckabay were taken off the case. In 1999, new investigators were assigned. Soon after, four arrests were made. Pierce, Springsteen, Scott, and Welborn were all arrested for the yogurt shop murders. Springsteen and Scott actually confessed to the murders after being interrogated by asshole investigator, Robert Merrill, who refused to let them leave until he got a confession.
Pierce and Welborn never caved, so with no confessions from either one of the men or any evidence tying them to the crimes, they were released.
The only “evidence” police had was a confession and they went to extreme measures to get one, including putting a gun to Scott’s head.
The original fire investigator on the scene that night said the fire started in the back where the office supplies were. However, after Springsteen and Scott confessed, investigators went out and got a second opinion that matched Scott’s confession that he poured lighter fluid on the girls and lit their bodies on fire.
In May 2001, Springsteen was the first to go on trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to death row.
Scott’s trial followed, and he was found guilty and sentence to life without parole.
The story could have ended there, but it didn’t.
Springsteen’s sentence was commuted to life, and in 2006, both mens convictions were overturned because their civil rights had been violated during interrogation. The Sixth Amendment entitles a person to confront an accuser. Springsteen’s and Scott’s confessions were used against each other, but they were not allowed to confront one another in court.
In 2008, defense lawyers for Springsteen and Scott requested DNA testing of other suspects. No match came back. So, of course, police came up with the stupid theory that there was a fifth person involved. I guess when you need to prove your version of events is true, a lie is better than nothing.
In 2010, Maurice Pierce, who by this time was very fearful of cops, and rightly so, was pulled over in Austin by Officer Frank Wilson and his rookie partner. Pierce took off on foot, and Wilson followed in pursuit. After a brief struggle, Pierce pulled out a knife and stabbed Wilson in the neck. Wilson then shot Pierce to death. Wilson survived his injuries.
To this day, the yogurt shop murders remain unsolved.
Books on The Yogurt Shop Murders
Here are a couple of books written on the murders.
(If you decide to purchase one of these books through my links, Amazon will pay me a commission for it at no additional cost to you.)
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
I don’t believe those four young men committed these murders for two reasons. One, their DNA did not match what was found on one of the girls. As bad as their bodies were burned, I am assuming that the DNA was taken from inside one of the girls. If this was the case, then it absolutely rules out the four men, at least as far as the rape is concerned because Springsteen confessed to it. This proves he lied and didn’t rape anyone. If there was a fifth person, where is he? How come cops can’t find him? He doesn’t exist, that’s why.
Also, fingerprints and hair were collected at the crime scene and DID not match any of the the four men.
Two, the boys were teenagers at the time, and Jones and Huckabay never got a confession out of them. Hector Polanco also interrogated the group. He was known as a pit bull investigator because of his strong methods used in interviewing suspects. Even he was unable to get a confession from the boys. I would think it would be easier to get a confession out of a teenager than an adult. The only way the new investigators got two of them to confess in 1999 was because they were asshole investigators who broke the boys down over several days time and refused to stop until they got what they wanted – a confession. False confessions happen more often than we would like to believe.
I also don’t believe that four teenagers could have pulled off the perfect crime without messing up somehow.
This was not a robbery gone bad. I don’t think robbery was the motive at all. Who in the hell robs a yogurt shop? Any person who has any intelligence would know that a place like that isn’t going to carry much cash. There were two killers, in my opinion, so if they split the $540, that left each receiving only $270. That’s hardly worth killing over. Why not just take the money and run?
I think the man Croft had felt uneasy about that night was scoping the place out. The fact that he only bought a soda, had asked to use the bathroom, and fled out the back door, tells me this is could have been why he was at the yogurt shop. I also wonder if this man was one of the two men the couple saw sitting at a booth drinking a SODA. It’s very clear to me that these two men were the ones responsible for the crime, not four teenagers who had no motive whatsoever to commit murder.
This was either a sexually motivated crime or something far bigger than we may ever know. I’m thinking it’s the latter. Regardless, this was a planned crime. An accelerant (lighter fluid) was used to the start the fires, showing that this crime was premeditated, which begs the question: who would want to kill these girls and why? Who would benefit from the murders? Did someone hire these men to kill the girls? If so, who? Who would want one or all of them dead? Was it over insurance money? Laundering of money and Jennifer or Eliza found out and threatened to expose the person or persons? There was a reason for this crime. It wasn’t random. Someone wanted these girls dead.
In the book, Murdered Innocents, it mentions Eliza’s mom, Maria, being at the yogurt shop the same time as Dearl Croft. In fact, she arrived at the shop around 9:00 p.m., so she had been there about an hour before Croft showed up. She even chatted with him for a bit, according to the book. However, this information is not found in any news report I read or on 48 Hours Mystery (the show did a segment on the murders in 2010), which I find a bit interesting because Maria had to have seen the suspicious man who went to use the bathroom. Yet, she insists that these four men killed her daughter and the other 3 girls. I don’t see how you could be so sure when there is no evidence, but hey, that’s just me. Eliza’s father also showed up at the store as well, around 10:30 p.m. with his wife, Eliza’s stepmother. Again, this is not mentioned in news reports that I read. What else is not mentioned is whether or not the father saw anyone suspicious at the store that night.
I don’t know why the cops were so focused on these four men as being the killers. It makes you wonder if there is a bit of a cover-up going on here. Botched investigation, false confessions, etc. Doesn’t look good, does it?
This case reminds me of the February 10, 1990 Las Cruces, New Mexico massacre where seven people were shot multiple times in a bowling alley. Of the seven victims, four died – the bowling alley security guard and his two young children, and a 13-year old friend of the bowling alley manager’s daughter. The cook, manager, and the manager’s daughter survived the shootings. Two Hispanic men were involved in the shootings. One was carrying a .22. They stole about $5000 from the safe. After shooting the victims, they set the office on fire to destroy evidence. None of the female victims were raped, though. This case also remains unsolved to this day. Some believe that robbery was not the motive in this case. It appeared to the cook that they were looking for something else prior to stealing the money out of the safe. She also had seen these same two men before that awful day, sitting at a table, watching everyone. They were not bowling, playing pool or anything offered at the bowling alley. They were just watching, possibly scoping out the place. The murders happened about 40 minutes before the bowling alley was to open for the day. Police in this case believe the killers were from out of state, and were hired to commit these crimes. Las Cruces is about 622 miles northwest of Austin.
Sources: 48 Hours Mystery, The Austin Chronicle, Texas Monthly