Twenty-five years after evil walked into a yogurt shop in Austin, Texas, investigators are still searching for answers.
Mention the words “yogurt shop” in the Texas capital and just about everyone knows the gruesome details from Dec. 6, 1991, when firefighters responding to a suspected arson at a strip mall in northwest Austin found the bodies of four young girls after dumping hundreds of gallons of water on the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop.
The bodies of all four of the girls — Amy Ayers, 13, Eliza Thomas, 17, and sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison, 15 and 17 — were discovered naked, bound in their own clothing and shot in the head. Three of them were stacked atop each other. At least one of them had been raped, and three were burned so badly that they melted into the macabre scene, where just minutes earlier customers had enjoyed swirl cones and hot fudge.
Sarah Harbison, 15, and Eliza Thomas, 17.
“It was really, really gruesome,” said author Beverly Lowry, whose encyclopedic book on the killings, published by Knopf, hits shelves Oct. 11. “Of course, cops don’t think in terms of evil, as in good versus evil, but I had heard the word ‘evil’ applied many times to this crime. I can see why they called it evil. It was so beyond a murder and a robbery, just beyond what you thought was possible.”
Lowry took more than eight years to write “Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders,” a 384-page true-crime page-turner that seamlessly weaves narratives from key investigators, court transcripts and a dizzying array of attorneys, prosecutors and judges. Lowry exhausts every possible scenario behind the shocking, unsolved quadruple murder that haunts Austin to this day — and offers a theory on what really happened on the night the city “lost its innocence,” according to the author.
The four-part book begins with an authoritative account of the crime, before detailing — among other topics — each of the girls who was cut down in the prime of her life, the four men charged with capital murder in relation to the case in 1999, US Supreme Court decisions that impacted the case and scores of remaining unanswered questions.
There are also passages on the DNA testing that would eventually get charges dismissed against two of the four men charged in the crime: Robert Springsteen IV, Michael Scott, Maurice Pierce and Forrest Wellborn. Juries convicted both Springsteen and Scott of capital murder, despite claims that their confessions (which were later recanted) were coerced by detectives determined to put a city’s collective mind at ease. Springsteen was sentenced to death; Scott received a life sentence.
Pierce and Wellborn never went to trial, due to a lack of evidence and juries declining to indict. 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. Then, in 2009, new DNA evidence not available during the original trials turned the entire investigation on its head after an unknown man’s DNA was found on at least one of the girls. Prosecutors who were preparing for a retrial instead saw all charges dismissed against Scott and Springsteen on Oct. 28, 2009, more than 10 years after they were arrested.
“We don’t know where that came from,” Detective Jay Swann of the Austin Police Department told The Post of the DNA. “The question is, where does this DNA come from and how does it fit?”
Swann, who said the department has spent an “incalculable” number of hours on the case, said he still thinks Springsteen and Scott were involved in the crime. Both men have provided details not released to the public about the crime, investigators have said.
(L-R) Robert Burns Springsteen, Jr., Maurice Earl Pierce, Forrest Brook Wellborn and Michael James Scott.
“I cannot rule them out, they’ve not been eliminated as suspects,” Swann told The Post. “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.”
Both Springsteen and Scott walk free today.
Swann said he also believes that Pierce was involved in the killings as well. Pierce, who remained a suspect despite never being brought to trial, was fatally shot in 2010 after slashing a police officer following a traffic stop in Austin.
Swann acknowledged that a “large number of people” have actually confessed to the killings, ranging from the mentally ill to those merely 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 only thing I’m interested in finding is the truth,” Swann said. “That’s it. I have no other agenda.”
Tips still trickle in, Swann said, sometimes one per month, less frequent during other stretches. But what doesn’t change is the hunt to find the true killer of those four young girls.
“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.”
Lowry, meanwhile, said a theory detailed at the end of her book — one that received “general support” from attorneys for Springsteen and Scott, as well as the first cop on the scene — strikes her as the most probable. The theory involves two mystery men who entered the shop just prior to closing time and specific pieces of evidence: an unopened can of Coke with a nearby cup of ice, a booth at the yogurt shop with an empty napkin holder and the credible testimony of two late-night customers.
“In this version of what happened, once [the customers] had taken their yogurt sundaes and gone home, Jennifer locked the front door, flipped over the OPEN sign and continued with her cleaning routine,” Lowry wrote.
“The two men were still sitting there. The girls were chatting. They would unlock the front door when their last two customers were ready to leave.”
Lowry, the author of six novels and three previous nonfiction works, including a memoir about infamous murderer Karla Faye Tucker before her execution in 1998, said what she thinks happened next inside that yogurt shop is hard to stomach even for those accustomed to crime and carnage.
“What’s possible, and again, this is speculation, is that one of the guys ordered a Coke while Eliza was at the register,” Lowry told The Post. “She had to bend down to get the Coke in the refrigerator beneath the counter, and when she stood up, perhaps one of the guys was there with a gun.”
Lowry said protocol at the shop allowed employees to lock the front doors 10 minutes prior to closing time. Employees wouldn’t kick out anyone in the store at that time, but they didn’t want anyone else coming in as they cleaned up and closed for the night, she said.
When responding firefighters arrived at the shop that night some 25 years ago, the front door was still locked, with the girls’ smoldering bodies still inside.