The 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders

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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.

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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.

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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.

Possible Suspects

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.

Top left: Michael Pierce; Top right: Forest Welborn; Bottom left: Michael Scott; Bottom right: Robert Springsteen
Top left: Michael Pierce; Top right: Forest Welborn; Bottom left: Michael Scott; Bottom right: Robert Springsteen

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

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Author: truecrimediva

True crime blogger

  • Doc Rocker

    This story also sadly resembles the infamous unsolved Burger Chef Murders of Speedway, Indiana from 1978.

    As for the massacre in the bowling alley, I recall “Unsolved Mysteries” did an episode on that case; in that episode re-enactment, it showed the two suspects appear to be going through some type of bizarre ritual in the parking lot where one suspect was down on one knee while the other presented a weapon to him…gang initiation perhaps?

  • Claire

    well, it’s great read and thanks for the article. I’m from Europe and I was always fascinated by criminal/murder mysteries, read all Agatha’s Christie books etc. I first heard of this case watching 48 hours episode& my opinion was always there’s no way the killers were these 4 boys. I also live long enough, to know (coz I saw it) how bias&cruel police and entire justice system can be, once u sucked in. The Court of moronic public opinion, loving the cheap gossip & often seeing only superficial things instead of the facts etc doesn’t help either. Just look how many cases of innocent people on death row & later executed, we had! So I’m glad these 4 boys were released, coz theres not one piece of evidence linking them to this horrific crime. But who really did it? I have no theory, no idea. I just hope one day we’ll see lucky break, it happened before, even after decades later, with science so advanced nowadays, I’ll keep the faith this case will be solved.

  • girls

    Maybe y’all should get all the facts correct before you comment. If you are not fully capable of understanding dna testing you should not comment or try and explain the DNA.

    • If you know so much, by all means, feel free to enlighten us, oh wise one.

  • terryrense

    What a biased,non factual article. The police originally focused on these 4 because days after the crime happened Peirce was arrested at the nearby mall with a 22 pistol, and told the cops it was used in the murder’s that took place at the Yogurt shop, and implicated the other 3. He was not interrogated by anyone at this point, he volunteered the information.

    • First of all, it isn’t biased or nonfactual. I used credible sources when writing this. Anything under “True Crime Diva’s Thoughts” is just that – THOUGHTS, meaning I give my OPINION on it. If that comes across biased to you, I really do not give a shit. This is my blog. I write what I want and how I want.

      Second, as for Pierce, the gun was never linked to the crime. Police assumed he MADE UP the story; therefore, no charges were filed at that time. Even the cops didn’t buy his volunteered information.

      • girls

        Really credible sources.. not likely, also they threw the gun in the river. Police did not make up the story they can back it up with documents and friends and associates of the accused.

        • If you don’t like what is written here, go elsewhere.

  • R. Springsteen Sr.

    I agree with the similarities to La Cruces, Phoenix, and the West Memphis cases and one not mentioned, Derek Tice of The Norfolk Four (has it’s own website); check that one out for DA stupidity and lack of justice.

    You mentioned not knowing why these four guys were picked.
    Here are several possible reasons I could think of:
    1 – Professional advancement/rewards as in “I solved that case.” – for instance, Ron Lara went from APD to be an investigator for the DA’s office (this is not an accusation on my part; but a related part of the case) – also a Texas Ranger received a commendation from the Texas Dept of Safety for solving the case about 18 months before the first trial took place.
    2 – An election for DA was coming up, although I don’t think Earle needed the help; but it would demonstrate how committed they were to criminal justice.
    3 – It was the end of the century (1999) and getting the case solved before the end of the century, I think, created some pressure on getting results.

    One of the overlooked pieces that defy conventional logic – at Springsteen’s intense interrogation, he supposedly confessed to participating in four brutal murders. What did both APD and CPD (Charleston) do? They sent Rob home and didn’t arrest him until three weeks later – what kind of police work is that, unless they knew he wasn’t involved and they needed time to assess whether they had enough to get a conviction.

    • barabajagal

      I am of the opinion that (your son?) was coerced into a false confession because of exhaustion from his work situation and the police interrogation tactics used. You make some good points as to the possible police and prosecutors motives. I have always found the date of the ruling in the Cresendo Group & others suite against Brice Foods head officers and Hugh Scott a business associate from a San Antonio jury could be more than coincidence. (October 5, 1999)

      I have often wondered why the FBI suspect profile was similar to the four young men accused, when most people think the the crime scene would indicate a person with more criminal experience. When I reflect on my life I have to admit that I was influenced by a charismatic intelligent friend to commit criminal acts (non violent) at about the age of your son and friends. When you think back to that time was there indications that your son could have been influenced by Pierce in this way?.

      I have also been uneasy over the accused involvement of the Harbison sisters step father by Moebius. I have never given it much credence, but have wondered if he attended any of the trials? Frank “Skip” Suraci had a brother Carl and wife Jane meet a similar death as the girls in a unsolved double homicde and fire in AZ on 11/01/07.

  • Katie Merritt

    I believe the serial killer/sadist/rapist McDuff and an accomplice did the crime. He even confessed to it on the day of his execution. He enjoyed hurting women and then he would shoot them. I think they were wrong to rule him out. If they could make the mistake of getting false confessions out of two innocent men who were kids at the time of the crime, then they could have made a mistake about McDuff. I pray that they will find out the truth one day but sadly they probably won’t because McDuff is dead and gone now. The only hope is the second man coming forward and confessing or they get a hit on his DNA if he ever gets arrested and goes to jail.

    • I think it is possible, but I’m not so sure McDuff committed this crime. The crime doesn’t fit McDuff’s normal MO. He usually took his victims away from their abduction locations to rape and murder them in a secluded location. He did this with most of his known victims, and from what I read, he never set anything on fire to destroy evidence. I also think he would have focused on just one victim, and he would have taken her out of that shop.

      McDuff did not shoot all of his victims. Some were strangled. I also think LE would have his DNA on file, which could have been tested against the male DNA found on Amy Ayers. I do know they had tested a sample of McDuff’s hair at one point in the 90s.

      I believe the killers were in the yogurt shop before the murders took place, scoping it out. If McDuff was there, surely someone could have identified him at some point.

      From what I understand about his “confession” was that it didn’t match key details in this case, which is why he was ruled out. This confession was given by an unnamed source to an Austin television station, so we don’t know for sure how legit that confession was or even if McDuff had really confessed to this crime on the day of his execution.

      While he does make a great suspect for obvious reasons, I don’t believe McDuff committed this crime. Just because he was in the area at the time doesn’t mean he was responsible for this crime.

  • Tracie

    I just finished reading the book and it ends in 2005 with no amended update so I was thrilled to see that at least 2 people had to pay for such a horrific act. As a native Texan who moved to SC I did not follow the case except for what I heard back in High School. Today after finishing the book I wanted to see pics of the players in this case and to my dismay it was all for not!!! Unbelievable I’m sad all over again.
    No justice for those girls…something ain’t right and it will come to the light and I’m sure we’ll all be shocked as hell. Evil never sleeps!!!

  • mophead1

    I don’t think those four boys did it either, but to say that the investigators were responsible is ludicrous. Why would a homicide investigator rape, torture & murder four teenagers? I think the whole reason the police won’t change their story, is because they don’t want to look like incompetent idiots. The police already have so many people that are against them and they know they screwed up the investigation by pinning it on four, dumb boys. These murders were done by someone that was already very experienced in doing crimes like this. Wasn’t there a serial killer in the area at the time that would shoot his victims too? I am not sure if they ever tested his DNA against the sample. Kenneth McDuff was his name. He used accomplices on some of his crimes too. I think they might have ruled him out, but you never know. Listen, I know there are bad cops out there, but there are just as many good cops too. Not all of them are bad. This mentality of hating cops is “in style” for the moment, but I am sure if any one of these moronic cop haters needed the police, they would be the first to be calling 911. They suck, until you need them, right?

  • leanne luckie

    Four girls was mine close friends i have. I was close to Jennifer Harbison. I can’t believe it four girl’s is gone. I remember them have great friends and family always talk to them about everything. We will miss them alot. We never forgotten about them.

  • John Smith

    I grew up with parents who ran several small franchised ice cream shops in the Midwest, from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s and you’d be surprised how many morons robbed them over the years and their multiple locations, often lucky to get $540, which was about the most anyone who wasn’t an employee ever got. One “mensan” even robbed one location during Superbowl Sunday – how many customers would you have then, during a January in the Midwest? Never rule out stupidity. Additionally, did I mention that the cops usually acted as though they couldn’t be bothered regarding the investigations into the half dozen robberies we had? It opened my eyes to regarding LE as mostly lazy and only concerned with collecting revenue or publicity.

    That said, it was likely that the motive was rape/sadism/murder and any money taken was just “gravy.” I’ve read some APD cops found evidence of torture in addition to rape, but this was never disclosed and the botched crime scene investigation wasn’t sufficient to make the claim. I tend to think my parents were lucky, as were their employees – a lot of whom were teenaged girls, more so than boys. A lot of them would do dumb things like open the back door to take the trash out before a manager got there to help them close up or let someone go into the back room to use the bathroom, including when the store was otherwise empty of customers.

    When you do something for so long, you tend to see a lot and have likely served a million people or more, which means rapists, murderers, probably including a serial killer. Some even worked for us, as we had one boy who later killed his mother, and also their family, as another girl’s mother shot the girl’s father to death after her daughter told her that dad had raped her (far from the only instance of sexual or physical abuse we had seen). We certainly had a number of perverts, even a few who openly masturbated while eyeing girls, who often were so shocked they didn’t know what to do for a while.

    Having had such experiences with the public and the teens who worked for us, one becomes a bit jaded to the lows of humanity, but also gains a bit of an insight as well, especially how kids behave. This would make me question the cops’ attempts to pin this onto the four boys and speaks to older, more streetwise offenders. My previously mentioned lack of confidence in LE only comes back to me here – a closed case is out of mind, no matter how it got closed.

    • Thanks for commenting! Great points here! I think it probably was more of a rape/murder motive but I wouldn’t be surprised if the LE was involved in some way.

    • Mark Guszak

      Grew up in Austin and was living in Austin when this took place, still remember when it happened. This was a complicated case. The main problem was that there was no physical evidence, zero. APD was getting raked over the coals daily, people wanted this crime solved, four innocent girls were cruelly slaughtered. APD is not noted for being particularly efficient at anything. They were literally interrogating anybody and everybody. The problem was, they were letting inside information about the crimes out when they were doing these interrogations. Before you knew it, most of the facts about this case were public knowledge, pretty much depriving the police the ability of who actually knew what and how, no inside info was held back. The arrest of Pierce for something unrelated to the murders caused the police to lock on to four guys that probably had nothing to do with it. But the police got some dubious confessions primarily through coercion (giving Pierce inside information and having him implicate Springsteen. Then giving Springsteen inside information and having him implicate Pierce). The police could point to Springsteen and Pierce and say “they know everything about the crime.” Yeah, because you gave them all of the information, you taught them the details. However, they had zero physical evidence, and no circumstantial evidence either. They had recanted confessions that came about because of coercion. The DA purposely presented a constitutionally flawed prosecution that stepped all over the 6th amendment right to face the accuser. No charges have been refiled since the convictions were overturned and they never will, zero evidence, outside of questionable DNA that can’t be connected to anybody.

      In my opinion, these girls were murdered by a serial rapist/killer. The intent of this crime was to rape the girls, the murders and fire were meant to cover up evidence and witnesses. There was sadism involved in this incident. SQUASH THAT INSURANCE CRAP! That nonsense bothers me and is bogus. I am aware that Kenneth McDuff was in the area when those crimes were committed, but he was cleared (supposedly). My guess is that the two men that murdered these innocent girls were most likely arrested for something else later and spent most of their lives in some prison, unknown. The DNA sample evidence that connects the rape to the suspects is very hard to matchup. you cannot just enter it into a data bank and find a match.

      I am convinced that this case will never be solved. I do not think the four guys arrested were guilty. I think blame for this mess is squarely placed on the APD and the state of Texas. The crime scene was mishandled, the interrogations were horrible. The police tried to make it go away by framing four kids. This historical incident always saddens me and has left a stain on Austin, one that will always remain. To me, this case was very very similar to the case of the West Memphis Three years later, almost identical circumstances.

  • Raquel Gonzalez

    Why doesn’t anyone see the obvious. The investigators who forced false confessions out of Springsteen and Scott are the real suspects, rapists, and murderers. Their DNA should be tested! That’s why the false confessions had so many matching details, that’s why the written confession used the word more common amongst hmmm Investigators . So someone please rule that out or true and end this shit please. Again, the investigators who replaced the original investigators should be tested! Also, the proof is in the tips, verify the tips were from real sources, if you can’t then its obvious again that an investigator responsible of a premeditated murder would have planned to have alot of false lead tips to deter the actual good investigators who originally took on the case. Also look at the shadows in the interrogation video and what you don’t see because it isn’t facing you…and think about it. I know this seems far fetched, but why not prove my theory wrong?

    • I don’t think your theory is far-fetched at all! It’s happened countless times and still does. I wouldn’t rule anything out in this case!

    • Mark Guszak

      Every fireman and police officer’s DNA were tested. The guilty parties were not cops or firemen.