Austins Yogurt Shop Murders
The 1991 Austin yogurt shop murders refers to the deaths of four teenage girls in a yogurt shop in Austin, Texas, on December 6, 1991, after which the shop was set aflame. The bodies of 13-year-old Amy Ayers (sometimes spelled Ayres), 17-year-old Jennifer Harbison, her 15-year-old sister Sarah, and 17-year-old Eliza Thomas were discovered after the fire was extinguished.
The initial investigation spanned nearly eight years. Two men initially confessed to the murders and were convicted, but they were released by 2009 due to lack of evidence. No new charges have been filed and local media coverage remains ongoing. As of 2011, the Austin Police Department has five cold-case detectives working on the case.
Shortly before midnight on Friday, December 6, 1991, a patrolling Austin police officer noticed a fire coming from an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop and reported it to his dispatcher. After the fire was extinguished, firefighters discovered four bodies with three stacked on top of one another. All were bound and gagged with their own clothes as they were found undressed. Each victim had been shot in the head, thus leading police to determine that they had likely died before the fire was started.
Just before the murders, the girls had been seen alive at the yogurt shop as late as 10:00 pm. They had planned a sleepover for that night.
At the time of the murders, a known serial killer, Kenneth Allen McDuff, was in the area. He had a history of multiple murders involving teenagers, but was soon ruled out of the crime. McDuff was executed for his crimes on November 17, 1998.
Austin police admit that over fifty people, including McDuff on the day of his execution, had confessed to the yogurt shop murders. A confession in 1992 by two Mexican nationals, held by Mexican authorities, was soon disputed and finally ruled false.
1999: Suspects arrested
On Wednesday, October 6, 1999, police in Texas and West Virginia arrested four suspects in connection with the murders. Robert Burns Springsteen, Jr., 24, was arrested in Charleston, West Virginia. Michael James Scott, 25, of Buda, Texas, was arrested in the Austin area. Maurice Pierce, 24, was arrested in Lewisville, north of Dallas, and Forrest Wellborn, 23, was picked up in Lockhart, Texas, southeast of Austin. The prosecution stated at one hearing that DNA evidence in the case had been tested against more than seventy people (including these four men) and failed to match. Charges against Wellborn were dropped when an Austin Grand Jury failed to indict him. Charges were later dropped against Pierce. Only the cases against Scott and Springsteen went to trial.
The investigation was complicated by matters internal to the Austin Police Department. Detective Hector Polanco was fired for allegedly coercing confessions. A relationship between Springsteen’s father and Austin police data processing employee Karen Huntley prompted her transfer.
2006: Springsteen conviction overturned
In 2006, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Robert Springsteen’s conviction on the basis of an unfair trial. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to reinstate the conviction in February 2007.
2008: Scott and Springsteen request DNA tests
On Wednesday, August 20, 2008, the defense lawyers for Scott and Springsteen requested DNA testing of alternative suspects. No matches against evidence discovered earlier that year were found. Seven jurors from the trials have stated they would not have convicted the men had this evidence been available at the time.
2009: Release of Scott and Springsteen
On Wednesday, June 24, 2009, Judge Mike Lynch decided, in response to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg asking that one of the trials be continued, that defendants Springsteen and Scott be freed on bond pending their upcoming trials. At 2:50 PM on that day, they both walked out of the Travis County Jail with their attorneys.
Later that day, Lehmberg responded to Lynch’s decision with the following statement:
- Today I requested a continuance in the case against Michael Scott, a defendant in the yogurt shop murders, whose trial was scheduled to begin on July 6. Judge Mike Lynch granted that motion but also released both Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen on personal bond, as he indicated he would do in his previous scheduling order.
- Requesting a delay in the case was a difficult decision but one that I believe is the best course toward an ultimate successful prosecution of this important matter.
- Knowing that Judge Lynch would release both defendants, we requested certain conditions on their bonds, requiring them to remain in Travis County and report to the Court any change of residence, to have no contact with the victims’ families or witnesses, that they not carry weapons or consume alcohol or illegal drugs, that they report to the Court on a routine basis, and attend all court appearances.
- As you know, both Springsteen and Scott were convicted by juries in June 2001 and September 2002. Their convictions were then overturned by the appellate court, but their statements to law enforcement were found to be voluntarily given.
- Since the original trial of these two men, new developments in DNA technology have become available. As we prepared for retrial, in March 2008, we submitted various evidentiary items for what is called YSTR testing. This test looks for male DNA only and is deemed to be the most accurate test for samples that are mixtures of female and male DNA, as in this case.
- We sought this testing because we have an ongoing duty and responsibility to use the most up to date science available, to seek the truth in this and all the cases we prosecute.
- 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.
- The reliable scientific evidence in the case presents one, and one only, unknown male donor. Given that, I could not in good conscience allow this case to go to trial before the identity of this male donor is determined, and the full truth is known. I remain confident that both Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott are responsible for the deaths at the yogurt shop, but it would not be prudent to risk a trial until we also know the nature of the involvement of this unknown male.
- My office and the Austin Police Department remain committed to these cases. Their further investigation will continue to be a priority. My commitment to the victims, their families, and this community is that we will not give up until all of the people responsible for these terrible and tragic murders are brought to justice.
On October 28, 2009, all charges were dismissed against Scott and Springsteen.
2010: Death of Maurice Pierce
On December 23, 2010, Austin Police Officer Frank Wilson and his rookie partner conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle driven by Maurice Pierce in the northern part of the city. After a brief foot pursuit, Pierce struggled with Wilson before removing a knife from his belt and stabbing him in the neck. Wilson, who survived his injuries, subsequently pulled out his gun and shot and killed Pierce.