The Unsolved Yoghurt Shop Murders
On the 6th of December 1991, Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas were serving the last few customers of the day at I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! in Austin, Texas. Despite being 17 years old, their manager trusted them to close the shop on their own and they were cleaning up as they went, to get the store closed on time, at 11 pm.
Jennifer’s sister Sarah, 15 and her friend Amy Ayers, 13 had spent the day at Northcross Mall, a ten-minute walk from the yoghurt shop. The plan was for Jennifer to give the younger girls a ride home to the Harbison’s residence, as Sarah and Amy had a sleepover arranged that night.
At 9.30 pm, Eliza’s mother dropped in to see how the girls were getting on. All the parents of the teenagers who worked there stopped by at the weekends, to make sure their children were safe. Nothing was out of the ordinary, her mother recalled, and she bought some yoghurt and left.
The final sale on the register was clocked at 10.42 pm, and the store began to close. The policy of the yoghurt shop was to lock the doors 15 minutes before closing and to manually let the final customers out of the shop while leaving the key in the lock. It stopped further people coming in and protected the girls while they cleared up.
Around midnight, police officer Troy Gay called in a report to dispatch of rising smoke from the strip mall where the yoghurt shop was situated, on West Anderson Lane.
Dozens of firefighters extinguished the flames and they were met with the horrifying sight of four naked and burned bodies. The presumed arson had now become a quadruple murder investigation.
Eliza, Jennifer and Sarah were discovered at the back of the shop, near the office. Amy was found further towards the bathroom. All of the girls were burned almost beyond recognition.
At least two of the young women had been sexually assaulted and all had been shot in the back of the head. Three of them were bound. $540 was missing from the register and the store and bodies had been soaked with an accelerant.
The funerals were attended by over 1,500 members of the community. Brice Foods, the company who owned I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the girls’ killer. This figure would eventually rise to $125,000.
On the 14th December, Maurice Pierce was arrested for possessing a firearm at Northcross Mall. Police also took his friend, Forrest Welborn into custody. They were 15 and 16 at the time. Pierce told detective Hector Polanco that he had given the gun to Welborn who committed the crimes at the yoghurt shop. Pierce also confessed to leaving Austin in a stolen vehicle with his friends, Welborn, Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott, soon after.
Maurice Pierce’s confession was buried in the case file and wasn’t followed up. Detective Polanco was taken off the case due to strongarming false confessions out of multiple people in the past and was eventually fired but reinstated years later. The suspects were released, and lead Detective John Jones spoke to the media;
“The killers have to tell us certain things that only the killers would know. That didn’t happen in this case. They started telling us stuff that wasn’t true. They were giving information that they had heard off the street.”
Over the next few years, leads poured in including a false confession from a teenage girl who tried to implicate her boyfriend, but no arrests were made. Investigators interviewed over 100 suspects before the end of December but the case went cold.
Pulling at threads
At the start of 1992, police took the route of questioning local “Satanists” and anyone dressed in black and accused many people of being part of a cult. Satanic Panic was still rife in America, and investigators were pulling at threads, trying to find a reason for the murders at the yoghurt shop.
The case began to receive high-profile publicity and 48 Hours and America’s Most Wanted included segments of the four murders in their shows. In reality, the investigation was falling apart and there were still no new leads.
In 1998, Kenneth McDuff confessed to the murders of the four girls. McDuff was currently finishing up his sentence on Death Row and was due to be executed shortly. However, seven years earlier, McDuff was on parole and living in Austin, Texas, where the murders took place.
Dubbed the Broomstick Murders, McDuff killed at least nine people in total but was initially imprisoned for raping and killing three teenagers in 1966. He was paroled in 1989, due to overcrowding in Texas prisons and continued his killing. He was apprehended in Kansas City after he was profiled on America’s Most Wanted in 1992 for continuing to kill.
McDuff was executed on the 17th November 1998 and was cleared of the yoghurt shop murders, with the help of DNA and fingerprinting.
In August 1999, the investigation was fully reopened, and detective Paul Johnson was assigned to the cold case. His team came across the paperwork relating to Maurice Pierce and Forrest Welborn, and all four of the men were brought back in for another round of questioning.
Robert Springsteen was picked up in West Virginia, while Maurice Pierce was arrested outside of Dallas. Both were 24. Michael Scott, now 25, was arrested in Austin, and Forrest Welborn was brought in from Lockhart, outside of Austin. He was 23.
Michael Scott eventually confessed to his part in the murders after 20 hours of interrogation, as did Robert Springsteen. Eventually, all four of the men would be detained and arrested for the murders of Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, Eliza Thomas and Amy Ayers.
The defendants’ lawyers got Pierce’s .22 calibre shotgun tested and found that the gun didn’t match with the evidence at the crime scene. It brought into question why the gun hadn’t been brought in as evidence earlier.
Charges against Welborn and Pierce were dropped due to a lack of evidence, and the case never went to trial. The pair were released after three years in prison.
In April 2001, Springsteen was found guilty by a jury despite a lack of evidence against him. He would be given a sentence of death. On the 24th of September 2002, Michael Scott was sentenced to life in prison.
On the 30th May 2006, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Robert Springsteen’s sentence. The confession of Michael Scott written in the ’90s which implicated Springsteen was improperly used against him in court and was withdrawn.
In 2008, DNA technology had finally caught up and samples taken from Amy Ayers’ body showed unknown DNA, that didn’t match any of the four men or anyone involved in the case.
On the 24th of June 2009, Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott walked out of Travis County Jail, freed on bond pending upcoming trials.
“Currently, it is clear to me that our evidence in the death of these four young women includes DNA from one male whose identity is not yet known to us. The defense asserts that the testing reveals more than one unknown male, but the evidence presented at the hearing on Thursday, June 18 contradicts that notion.” — District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg
On the 28th of October 2009, the charges against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen were dismissed.
Many never believed that the men were responsible for the murders, but the police were eager for someone to take the blame.
“We all believe that if these four boys had walked in there, [the girls] would’ve laughed at them and said get the hell out of here” — Amber Farrelly, defence clerk.
In 2011, Michael Scott’s lawyer Carlos Garcia was still looking for clues in the case. He searched through the binders of information and evidence given in the case and came across the photos of the crime scene and the witness statements from customers at the yoghurt shop.
What he found placed the investigation on a different trajectory.
Garcia gave the binder of information to defence clerk Amber Farrelly. She began to create a timeline of events which stretched several poster boards, showing which witnesses saw who, and when.
The timeline revealed two potential suspects.
Security company owner Dearl Croft remembered seeing two couples and a single man when he dropped in to buy yoghurt on the night of the murders. Another man, wearing an army surplus jacket asked nervously if Dearl was a policeman due to his car, which looked like a cruiser. When Dearl told the man he wasn’t, the man told him to go in front of him in the line, which Dearl refused to do.
The fidgety man bought a can of Coke and asked the girls if he could use the bathroom. By the time Dearl has been served, the man still hadn’t returned from the bathroom and Dearl left to continue his evening.
The photos on the timeline were snapshots of the interior of the yoghurt shop. They revealed that the girls had finished their cleaning duties as they were supposed to. Chairs were stacked on top of the tables, the napkin dispensers had been refilled and the tables had been cleaned. However, on further inspection, there was one table at the back which hadn’t been cleared for the evening.
The key was also still in the door when the fire was extinguished, so the last customer hadn’t been let out.
Dearl Croft and another customer were never called to testify at the trials and the nervous man and his friend were never identified and the case once again went cold.
“One is described as having lighter hair, maybe like a dirty blond… about 5 foot 6… late 20’s, early 30’s. The other is described as a bigger man. Both are described as wearing bigger coats… one [is] a green coat… Army fatigue kind of looking jacket, the other with a black jacket.”
The yoghurt shop is now a nail salon and nearly 30 years since the murders, friends and family still hold candlelit vigils for the girls.
“If someone were to come in with an open mind, with no ties to the previous cold case … and to look at the original investigation … I think they would come up with a different theory, and I think that they would be on the right path.” — Amber Farrelly
In 1994, the families of the murdered girls sued I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! and the shopping centre owners for negligence, who did nothing to protect workers from the numerous robberies that had occurred throughout the strip in prior months. The families were awards $12million and set up We Will Not Forget SAJE in honour of their lost children.
In December 2010, Maurice Pierce ran from a routine police check. When he was apprehended, Pierce grabbed a knife from his belt and cut one of the police officers. In retaliation, he received a fatal gunshot from another police officer and died waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
While the FBI battles against local investigators and the families to use familial DNA methods to find the killer, the parents grow ever more frustrated. Bob Ayers, Sarah’s father told USA Today;
“That’s all we’ve ever done is ask for help and now that we’ve found something, we can’t get it.”
Eliza Thomas, Amy Ayers and Jennifer and Sarah Harbison were cheerleaders and horse riders. They led sports teams and danced. They were children, who were given grown up responsibilities to close up a business after dark and someone took advantage of that.