AUSTIN, TEXAS – An unsolved quadruple murder that took place 25 years ago still haunts Austin to this day. Evoking the gruesome details of the crime stir up memories that are difficult to take, even for someone inured to crime and carnage.
On Dec 6, 1991, four young girls were brutally murdered. They were executed and burned at I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt where firefighters who responded to a suspected arson found their bodies after dumping hundreds of gallons of water on the blaze.
The bodies were discovered naked, bound in their own clothing and shot in the head with three of them stacked atop each other. At least one of them had been raped and three were severely burned.
Author Beverly Lowry who wrote the book, Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders, described the crime as “really, really gruesome.” She said, “I can see why they called it evil. It was beyond a murder and robbery, just beyond what you thought was possible.”
The victim’s were identified as Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas, both 17, who worked at the store. Sarah Harbison, 15, Jennifer’s younger sister, and Amy Ayers, 13, were present waiting for a ride home.
Around midnight, firefighters responded to a structure fire at the yogurt shop. The doors were locked upon their arrival. As they worked to extinguish the flames, one of the firefighters discovered three girls near the back door, naked and stacked on top of each other. They were covered with Styrofoam cups that were drenched in a lighter fluid, which accelerated the fire.
The youngest teen was found a few minutes later, lying alone, barely alive, near the yogurt shop bathrooms. She died shortly after, having sustained two gunshot wounds to the head
Since the firefighters arrived first, and were unaware of the homicides, the crime scene was understandably contaminated. While they worked to extinguish the flames, a lot of the evidence was destroyed and washed away. This would prove costly in the years to come.
— Eugene Hegerty (@EugeneHegerty) October 7, 2016
The investigation continued, and years passed without resolution. Yet in 1999, a long-awaited break came almost eight years later after the crime. An Austin police cold case unit announced that two suspects admitted to the killings. Robert Springsteen IV and Michael Scott confessed. They also implicated Maurice Pierce and Forrest Wellborn.
Springsteen and Scott were both indicted and convicted by juries despite the claims that their confessions were coerced by detectives just to put a city’s collective mind at ease. Springsteen was sentenced to death; Scott received a life sentence without parole.
Due to lack of evidence, Pierce and Wellborn were never indicted.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later overturned the convictions of both Springsteen and Scott, ruling that their confessions were improperly used against each other.
In 2007, new testing revealed an unknown man’s DNA on the youngest victim.
Investigators argued that an additional person was with the suspects that night, but since there was no DNA placing Scott and Springsteen at the scene, the case against them unraveled.
“We don’t know where that came from,” said Detective Jay Swann of the Austin Police Department “The question is, where does this DNA come from and how does it fit?”
As the convictions were overturned. Scott was released from custody in 2007, followed by Springsteen in 2009.
Their defense attorneys argued that two teenage boys gave false confessions because they were intimidated, bullied, and coerced. They pointed that surveillance videos show detectives relentlessly interrogating the boys and pressuring them with threats.
On the other hand, detectives said Scott and Springsteen gave similar accounts to what happened without coercion, and they also detailed things about the crime that only the murderers would know.
Sgt. Ron Lara, who questioned both teens at the time, said there’s no doubt in his mind they arrested the guilty parties. Nevertheless, the DNA found didn’t match any of the four suspects, and there was no additional evidence linking them to the crime.
Detective Swann was still convinced that Springsteen and Scott were involved in the murders as both men have provided details about the crime not released to the public. “I cannot rule them out, they’ve not been eliminated as suspects,” Swann said. “I am keeping a very open mind to alternate theories or additional perpetrators, but I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe that.”
Swann acknowledged that a “large number of people” have actually confessed to the killings, ranging from the mentally ill to others seeking notoriety. As one of 175 unsolved murder cases now under investigation by the department’s Cold Case Homicide Unit, Swann promised to take the case — and the 2,200 pages of reports it has generated so far — wherever it leads, the NY Post reported. “The only thing I’m interested in finding is the truth,” Swann said. “That’s it. I have no other agenda.”
“This case remains at the forefront of our cases that we work on,” he said. “This one just strikes me as a little bit unique because it’s such a turning point in the history of Austin. We really don’t ever, ever quit on these cases.”
Pierce was killed in 2011. During an encounter with the police, he pulled a knife and stabbed one of the officers. According to his family, he was suffering from anxiety attacks stemming from the murder investigation.
In the same year that Pierce was killed, Springsteen filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking $700,000 for the wrongful conviction. While the lawsuit currently hangs in limbo, prosecutors are adamant that since Springsteen still remains a suspect in the case, the lawsuit is simply “legal fiction.”
Detectives are still on the hunt for more evidence to facilitate a prosecution. But even if successful, the deaths already tore into victim’s families as well as the people of Austin. For many, the pain and horrific memories remain.
Photo and video source: crimefeed.com