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Who Killed These Girls - The Yogurt Shop Murders

 Source: Who Killed These Girls by Beverly Lowry. 

Sometimes a homicide can rock a city to its core - this is what happened to Austin, Texas in 1991 when four teenage girls were murdered in a Yogurt Shop. The victims were as follows: 

  • Amy Ayers aged just 13. 

  • Eliza Thomas aged just 17. 

  • Jennifer Harbison is also aged 17. 

  • Sarah Harbison aged only 15. 

This was a tragic event that shaped the future of the city. It should never be forgotten, but even more devastatingly, the crime was never solved. We are over thirty years since the murder and the case has grown cold. 

Let’s ask the question:  WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? 

It was December 6th 1991 in the I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S YOGURT! shop in Austin, Texas where the four girls lost their lives and the place was burned down with the bodies inside. 

The victims were shot by a pistol (using a .22 calibre bullet), and one of the victims was sexually assaulted (confirmed by forensics) although it remains possible they all were assaulted in this manner. 

This was a crime of horrendous proportions and scope. An act of utter evil. 

The predators came, it seemed, from out of nowhere, like a hurricane on this quiet Texan city and hit a family-friendly yoghurt store, causing a ripple of fear that exists to this day. 

As soon as the bodies were identified, and their names made public, the girls quickly merged in the minds of the public and the media, as if they were alike or the same - they represented a highly desirable kind of American girlhood that was taken at its prime. A billboard campaign ran in the city and the question it asked was WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? 

But it is important to know the girls separately and not as angels or symbols but as living human beings who never did any harm to anyone. 

They were Amy, Eliza, Jennifer and Sarah. 

Sarah and her sister Jennifer were both killed and placed atop one another while bound and gagged. Eliza and Amy were found separately and three of the girls all had up to 30% burns on their bodies. Amy was moved away from the burning and as a result, only had blistering on her body from the fire - as to why she was moved is not known. 

The fire would make police investigation at the scene incredibly difficult throughout the detective’s investigation. 

When the investigators arrived on the scene and walked through the back doors, they may have not realised that they were walking into the worst destruction in their entire careers. 

One important witness to the events before the murders was Dearl Croft, a fifty-two-year-old former policeman and owner of a security company. As a customer of the shop, he paid for his yoghurt, but being a former police, he prided himself on being able to spot aberrant behaviour - your police instincts never leave you. 

Dearl was at the yoghurt shop half an hour before the murders. He spotted at that time a fidgety young man in a green jacket in his early to mid-twenties. He was of medium build 155 to 170 pounds and between 5’10 to 6’0. He was white and Dearl noted there was something just off about him. 

The man asked Dearl Croft if that was his car parked outside, when Dearl said yes he asked “What are you, police? Security?” 

His voice was deep and clear - very deep for someone in their twenties, noted Dearl. The man for some reason walked into the back room and when Dearl asked Eliza where he was going, she said the bathroom was back there. 

Dearl paid for his yoghurt and left the store, possibly avoiding his doom - and would give this information to the police immediately after reading about the murders (the next day). 

At 10.42 - about twenty minutes before the murders - A couple (Tim Stryker and Margaret Sheehan) stopped for dessert after a movie. In the store, they noticed two other customers, large people in hooded jackets sitting across from each other in the last booth to the left - close to the cash register. 

Margaret couldn’t describe their facial features accurately enough to pinpoint their gender, but due to their build, she assumed that they were men. One was sitting with his back to hers and the jacket was either khaki-coloured or beige. The other had a thinner build and light brown hair. Margaret also had a sense for something odd, particularly with those two, but nothing that she could articulate. They were huddled close together and Margaret did wonder if they were gay. 

The couple left shortly after ordering, again, possibly avoiding any tragedy for themselves. 

The explanation that makes sense to the police is that the killer was already in the shop when the girls closed at 11 pm. He/they must’ve been watching the girls clean up, ring the cash register up and place the ‘no sale’ over the cash drawer. 

As defence attorney Carlos Garcia, who worked on the case said - The Yogurt Shop Murder was an act of pure evil and when evil is let loose, it spreads and does not stop. 

Due to the fire and water damage, there was a loss of biological evidence when the bodies were lifted. What we do know is that a sexual assault took place on one of the girls, they were shot before the fire was lit, and the police hold DNA from the scene but are yet to find a match to a suspect. The fire raged at at least 1,221 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The Accused - Leads & Suspects 

In 1999, nearly eight years after the murders, there was a breakthrough. Four men - Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Maurice Pierce, and Forrest Welborn - were arrested and charged based on confessions from Springsteen and Scott. 

However the confessions were later deemed coerced, and the evidence was insufficient. The charges against Welborn were dropped, and Pierce was released due to lack of evidence. Springsteen and Scott were convicted but later had their convictions overturned on appeal.

In 2009, DNA testing revealed that the male DNA found at the crime scene did not match any of the four men. This revelation cast further doubt on their involvement and left the case wide open once again.

Around that same time, serial killer Kenneth McDuff was in Austin and on the radar of the police. He was an active serial killer who murdered six women between the years of ‘89 to ‘92. But the police did eventually rule him out because this was not within the methods of his usual crimes and did not bear any of his trademarks. McDuff was executed for his crimes in 1998. 

Christopher Ochoa confessed to law enforcement the crimes - however, the confession was not obtained without controversy. Ochoa said of his confession: It’s like you don’t have a choice. Life sentence, death penalty. Life sentence in prison… you’re going to die a slow death at an old age… You’re twenty-two years old. What do you do?” 

One of the detectives in the interrogations, Hector Polanco, had been accused of coercing false confessions in a previous, notorious case involving exonerated defendants Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger. 

Maurice Pierce 

Maurice was an interesting suspect.

Sixteen years old at the time of the murders, he was arrested just a few weeks after the murder for unlawful possession of a weapon, this put him into the sights of the bombastic Hector Polanco.

Maurice told Polanco that the .22 pistol was probably the one used to kill the yoghurt girls and that Forrest Welborn was the one who had done it. 

Now, obviously, given that Maurice was just sixteen years old and confessing to a policeman known for his unlawful interrogation techniques - what can we make of this? 

Polanco had the three friends of Maurice picked up, after diming on them and telling an elaborate story that implicated all of his friends. 

After prison and release for the Yogurt Shop Murders, Pierce died violently during an altercation with a police officer: 

On December 23, 2010, Austin police officer Frank Wilson and his rookie partner, Bradley Smith, conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle driven by Maurice Pierce. 

After a brief pursuit on foot, Pierce struggled with Wilson before removing a knife from his belt and stabbing Wilson in the neck. 

Maurice set in motion the ugly chain of events when he showed up at Northcross Mall with a loaded .22 in his trouser waistband and then told police that his friends used it during the Yogurt Shop murders - he then dropped the names of Robert Springsteen, Mike Scott and Forrest Welborn. 

They were just four young guys hanging out in Texas, but because of Maurice’s stupidity - they faced a decade of legal wrangling and accusations of multiple murders and rape. 

Robert Springsteen and Mike Scott 

Wilson, who survived his injuries, subsequently pulled out his gun and shot and killed Pierce. When Pierce died, any knowledge he had on the Yogurt Shop Murders died with him. 

It is rare for the Texas Court of Appeals to overturn a conviction. However, in this case - they did overturn the guilty verdicts on Mike Scott’s Conviction and Robert Springsteen’s Conviction. 

Springsteen confessed to police in a rather crude and obtuse way. He later said this was done out of desperation and having given up on himself - he told law enforcement - I put my d—k in her p—y and r—-d her. The prosecution would build their entire case around this horrific confession, but Springsteen later said that this was a false confession done under the pressures of aggressive police tactics. The comments sealed his fate - this was even though neither the DNA matched Springsteen. 

After a long investigation, later prosecutions which do not hold up upon appeal, and mistakes made by investigators - the Yogurt Shop Murders remain unsolved and a tragic scar on the history of Austin, Texas. 


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