The Yogurt Shop Murders

The Yogurt Shop Murders

In 1991, a terrible thing happened in the most unlikely of places; a yogurt shop called I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! in Austin, Texas. Four teenage girls were found raped and murdered inside after a passing police officer noticed that the building was on fire. Despite there being a good number of viable suspects, this horrific crime has been unsolved for almost 30 years.

On December 6, 1991, friends Sarah Harbison (15) and Amy Ayers (13) went to I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! to help Sarah’s sister Jennifer (17) and her co-worker Eliza Thomas (17) close up after their shift at approximately 10 PM. The girls planned to have a slumber party that night, but they would never make it.

Hours later, Officer Troy Gay of the Austin Police Department was out on patrol when he noticed that the strip mall housing I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! was on fire. He called it in, and firefighters arrived to fight the blaze. When they got inside, they discovered the bodies of all four girls, charred beyond recognition. They had all been stripped naked, bound and gagged with items of their clothing. Jennifer, Eliza, and Sarah were found close together in the backroom of the shop, while Amy was found in the middle of the room. The killer had placed flammable items such as napkins around the bodies and doused them all in lighter fluid to light the fire, so the girls were severely burned. Amy was less charred than the others; later, it would be found that the bullet meant to kill her had missed her brain. Some theories state that Amy might have survived the initial attack and tried to crawl for help, but succumbed before the fire consumed them.

A diagram of the crime scene, including where the girls' bodies were found.

 

Autopsies found that all of the girls had been shot execution-style in the back of their heads. Evidence of rape was found on two of the bodies. Authorities also discovered that two guns had been used in the murders; a .22 pistol and a .380 pistol.  Had there been two killers? 

Investigations of the crime scene led police to believe that robbery might have been the initial motive; $540 was missing from the cash register. However, efforts to fight the fire had washed away a lot of potential evidence. On top of that, the Austin Police Department was ill-equipped to handle any forensic evidence that had survived in the 1990s. 

Despite the lack of physical evidence, investigators weren’t short of suspects. The public was eager to help, and the police were bombarded with tips and false confessions. They eventually had to weed through 342 suspects. 

Police interviewed 52 customers that visited the shop that day, and discovered three customers who left the store just before it closed. These customers said that they noticed two men sitting in a booth as they left, and that Jennifer had locked the door behind them so that no new customers would enter while she was closing the shop. 

These men were not found in the police canvas of the shop’s customers, but the witnesses provided a description. One man was in his late 20s or early 30s with dirty blonde hair. The other was only described as “bigger.” Both were wearing heavy coats, with one wearing what looked like the jacket from army fatigues. Neither of these men have ever been identified, but many police officers and armchair detectives think that they are the most likely culprits.

Maurice Pierce

The week after the murders, investigators received a tip that a sixteen-year-old boy named Maurice Pierce was spotted at a mall near the yogurt shop carrying a gun on the night of the murders. Coincidentally, Sarah and Amy had hung out at the same mall before going to help Jennifer and Eliza close up at the yogurt shop. More damningly, the gun was described as a .22 handgun - the same calibre as one of the weapons used to execute the girls.

However, when investigators questioned him, they ruled him out. Further, fingerprints and hair at the scene did not match him, and ballistics tests on his gun showed that it did not match the murder weapon. And that would have been the end of the police’s interest in Maurice Pierce - until 8 years later. 

The Four

Clockwise: Maurice Pierce, Forrest Wellborn, Robert Bruce Springsteen, and Michael James Scott.

In 1999, the case was firmly in the cold files. The original investigators had moved on to other cases, and new investigators were assigned to this file. Then, seemingly out of the blue, four arrests were made; Maurice Pierce was taken into custody. Alongside him were three friends that allegedly had been with him in the mall that night: Forrest Wellborn, Robert Springsteen, and Michael Scott. These friends had also been questioned at the time of the murders but were ruled out due to lack of evidence.

Upon questioning, Scott and Springsteen confessed to the Yogurt Shop Murders. According to their stories, the four had only planned to rob the yogurt shop that night. But something went awry, and they ended up killing all four of the girls. Pierce and Wellborn remained steadfast in their claims of innocence, and charges were eventually dropped against the two of them, even though police considered Pierce to be the ringleader.

Springsteen and Scott were tried separately and convicted; Scott was sentenced to 99 years in prison, while Springsteen received the death penalty. However, people weren’t so sure that they had actually done the deed. There was no physical evidence to prove that they’d committed the murders, and both men had recanted their confessions, claiming that they had been coerced. This claim wasn’t entirely unfounded; one detective on the case had been transferred after allegedly extorting confessions from suspects in other cases. On top of that, a photo of another officer holding a gun to Michael Scott’s head during his questioning surfaced, putting the nail in the coffin for the convictions.

In 2006, both Scott and Springsteen’s convictions were overturned on the grounds that they had not been allowed to be cross-examined in each others’ trials, therefore violating their Sixth Amendment right to confront their accuser. In 2008, DNA testing was finally conducted on physical evidence from the crime scene, and it was found that the DNA did not match Scott, Springsteen, Wellborn, or Pierce. Authorities claim that there must have been a fifth participant and that’s whose DNA was found, but notably, no one mentioned this idea until the DNA results came to light.

Kenneth Allen McDuff

On November 17, 1998, a serial killer was set to be executed. Kenneth Allan McDuff is suspected to have committed upwards of 14 murders, though only 9 have been confirmed. Most notoriously, he was convicted of brutally murdering 3 teenagers in Everman, Texas in 1966 - these crimes were dubbed The Broomstick Murders because he broke the female victim’s neck with a broomstick after raping her. 

Hours before he was set to be executed, McDuff confessed to the Yogurt Shop Murders from 1991. Many think that it was merely McDuff attempting to escape execution; it didn’t work, and he was executed that day as scheduled. Authorities did check into his claim but ruled him out after the fingerprints and hair that they’d collected from the scene could not be linked to McDuff. 

The brutal murder of four innocent girls shook Austin to its foundations. The mayor at the time called it “the crime where Austin lost its innocence.” Residents began questioning their safety. I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! is gone now; the building became a nail salon. A memorial plaque is in the parking lot of the strip mall under an oak tree, bearing the names of the girls and the haunting memory of murders yet unsolved.

The memorial for the victims near the site of the murders.

The case later inspired Scott Blackwood’s novel, See How Small. The plot is strikingly similar, though Blackwood apparently hasn’t stated the inspiration publicly.

Though the case has remained cold for almost 30 years, there is still hope that we will one day know the identity of the perpetrators. There is DNA evidence available in the case, and some sources state that a Y-chromosome match has been found in an FBI database. However, no suspect has been named because the match is only partial. It’s also possible that the two men that were seen in the shop shortly before the murders could be identified. 

If you have any information about the murders of Sarah Harbison, Amy Ayers, Jennifer Harbison, and Eliza Thomas, please call the tip line at 512-472-TIPS (8477). 

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