The Unsolved Case of the Austin Yogurt Shop Murders

Friday, December 6th 1991. Shortly before midnight, a police officer patrolling sees a fire in a ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt’ shop in Austin, Texas. He calls it in and the fire department is sent out to extinguish the fire. But… after the fire is under control, fire fighters find the nude bodies of 4 girls inside the yogurt shop. The girls are identified as sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison (17 and 15 years old), Eliza Thomas (17) and Amy Ayers (13).

The ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt’ shop in Austin

All the girls had started this Friday morning at school. Amy and Sarah then went to the mall, driven by Jennifer, who was on her way to her night shift at the yogurt shop. Eliza was a colleague of Jennifer at the yogurt shop and was scheduled to share the night shift with her. Northcross Mall, where Amy and Sarah wanted to go, happened to be down the road of the yogurt shop, so the girls waited at the shop for Jennifer to be done working, to get a ride back home (around 11:00 p.m.).

Amy Ayers (13), Eliza Thomas (17), Jennifer Harbison (17) and Sarah Harbison (15)

After the fire had been extinguished and the following horrifying discovery of the remains of the girls by the fire fighters, an investigation by police quickly started. It was clear all girls had been murdered, as they had obvious gunshot wounds to their head. The remains of Sarah, Jennifer and Eliza were found together and were severely charred by the fire. They all had been tied up and gagged with their own clothes. Amy’s body was found in a different part of the shop. Her body had burn damage, but less severe than the other girls. She had also been shot in the head, not once but twice. Two different guns were used, a bullet of a .380 was found as well as the .22. At least one of the remains showed evidence of sexual assault.

Police diagram of the yogurt shop (from the

Investigators believed that at least two men had shot the girls and had set the shop on fire to conceal the evidence. Accelerant was found at the crime scene. John Jones, the lead investigator, later said that in the beginning stage of the investigation, he and his team looked at all the customers in the shop that night to see if they witnessed anything. Multiple customers had noticed two men sitting in the back of the shop in a booth, not eating frozen yogurt, but just drinking something. All witnesses said they ‘looked out of place’. Every customer had left by 10:42 pm, except for the two men in the back. However, these men could not be identified by the police team. John Jones said this about the men to ’48 hours’: ‘They never have been identified. And we did everything. We even hypnotized some folks.’

Multiple witnesses had also seen a man sitting in a car outside of the yogurt shop at the night of the murders. A police sketch was made and… someone recognized it. A fellow investigator, from the Sex Crimes Unit, claimed they had a sketch just like it.

Left is a suspect in a sexual assault, on the right is the man sitting in a car outside the yogurt shop

The Sexual Crimes Unit investigator told them that three weeks before the murders a woman in Austin had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted. Three men were thought to be involved, with one of those suspects looking remarkably like the sketch of the man sitting in a car in front of the yogurt shop. So could this be one of the murderers? A later tip resulted in the arrest of two men in Mexico, one of them looking like both the sketches.

The two men arrested in Mexico, with the man on the right looking a lot like the sketches

When interrogated by the Mexican police, both men confessed to the yogurt shop murders. But then John Jones learned that the confession was wrong on some important details and did not match the crime scene. So Jones and his team went down to conduct their own interview and the men recanted their whole confession… claiming to be coerced by Mexican officials. This would not be the last confession John Jones and his team would face, over the years another 6 people confessed to the yogurt shop murders. All were ruled out as suspects.

The case of the yogurt shop murders went cold. Investigators had no further leads, until in 1999 four men were arrested in connection the the murder of Amy, Eliza, Jennifer and Sarah. Robert Springsteen, Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn and Michael Scott had been teenagers at the time of the murders in 1991. They all had been questioned in the days immediately after the crime, and were released due to lack of evidence. Maurice Pierce was arrested in possession of a gun at a mall near the yogurt shop in the weeks after the murders at the yogurt shop. This weapon was not connected to this case.

The four men arrested in 1999. Clockwise from top left: Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn, Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott (via AP photos)

In 1999, investigators decided to re-question all four, due to new information (it is unknown what this was). In a surprising twist, Springsteen and Scott confessed to the killings in the yogurt shop and also implicated Pierce and Welborn in the crime. Of course, all 4 men were then arrested for the murders. But… after a couple of days, Springsteen and Scott recanted their confession, claiming they had been coerced by investigators (yes, again!). Robert Springsteen later said – in an interview- when asked why he would falsely confess to something so horrible: ‘I was berated and berated and berated by the police officers. Until they obtained what it was they wanted to hear, they were not going to allow me to leave. And I basically— they broke me down’.

Charges were dropped against Pierce and Welborn after the grand jury failed to indict them, but Springsteen and Scott went on to stand trial for murdering Amy, Sarah, Jennifer and Eliza. There was no evidence linking Springsteen and Scott to the crimes, other than their -now recanted- confessions. The two men were convicted, resulting in the death penalty for Springsteen in 2001 and a life imprisonment for Scott in 2002, as he had been 15 at the time of the crime.

However, in 2009, both convictions were overturned on the Confrontation Clause. The Sixth Amendement (of the American Constitution) gives defendants the right to confront their accuser. The two men had been tried separately, but because neither of the men would testify against the other, the prosecution had used their ‘confessions’, reading parts out loud to the jury. This was against the 6th amendment, as it also meant that the defense could not cross-examine the other defendant.

Springsteen and Scott were now free men, released, but not exonerated. The prosecution was determined to do a re-trial, until… the DNA found at the scene did not match Springsteen or Scott (and also did not match Pierce or Welborn, for that matter). The District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg stated about the DNA evidence: ‘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 Springsteen and 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.‘ Scott and Springsteen asked for compensation for their time spent in prison, but Texas’ courts later stated they were not entitled to compensation as they did not prove in a court of law that they were innocent of these crimes. Seven jurors of the 1999 trial later claimed that – had they known all the information at the trial – they would not have convicted both men.

Attorney Amber Farrelly worked on the defense team of both Scott and Springsteen. She was interviewed on ’48 hours’ about this case and said: ‘They (police) have accounted for and interviewed 52 people that were in the yogurt shop that day. Several of those customers mentioned the two men sitting in the yogurt shop just before it was due to close. We have no names to them. And when you look at — when you step back and you look and you think, ‘They’ve talked to 52 people and didn’t miss one person from 4:30 until 11:00 at night. And several people talk about a guy or two guys, and they describe them in the same manner? And we don’t know who those two guys are? And they’ve never called in? … That raises, in my opinion, the suspicion… that these are the gentlemen who did it.’ Farrelly says that one of the men was described as having light (‘dirty blond’) short hair, and in his late 20s/early 30s. He was about 168 cm tall (5’6″). The other man was said to be ‘bigger’ and both were wearing big coats, one black and one looking like a army jacket. They were seen driving a green car. John Jones, the former lead investigator, agrees with Farrelly that these two men are suspects in the case, saying in ’48 hours’: ‘Yeah, it’s kind of a question to me that to this day, they haven’t been identified. Is that evidence that they did it? No, but that’s evidence that we really need to talk to them’.

Years later, using a public database, a match was found for the DNA located at the crime scene. But… it turned out the the matching sample had been submitted by the FBI, anonymously. The FBI refused to name the person from whom the DNA sample was taken, saying it would violate privacy laws. Also the sample was partial, only having 16 markers (where in genetic genealogy testing they would usually use 67 or 111 makers at least). The FBI later did assist in further testing of the sample, which lead to identifying 25 markers instead of the original 16. However, some of the additional markers found did not match the FBI sample, ruling this person out as the contributor.

A known serial killer, Kenneth Allen McDuff, was also a suspect in this case. He was in the Texas area in 1991 and had a history of killing teenagers. After investigating, he was ruled out by police. Kenneth Allen McDuff was executed in November 1998. His known victims are Edna Sullivan (16), Robert Brand (17), Mark Dunnam (15), Sarafia Parker (29), Brenda Thompson (36), Regenia DeAnne Moore (21), Colleen Reed (28), Valencia Joshua (22) and Melissa Northrup (22). A more detailed version of all the crimes committed by Kenneth Allen McDuff will soon be published on the blog.

The murders of Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, and Sarah and Jennifer Harbison are still unsolved to this day.

Jennifer Harbison was the head of the drill team and a member of the track team. She had bought a blue Chey truck that summer, and was working to pay it off. Sarah, her younger sister, also loved playing sports and was a cheerleader. She was, with her older sister, a member of the Future Farmers of America. The parents of Jennifer and Sarah lost their whole family that day, with their mother Barbara saying to ’48 hours’: ‘My life was focused around them from here to eternity. Someone took eternity away from me.’ Amy Ayers loved animals and arts. She was also a member of the Future Farmers of America program and wanted to become a veterinarian one day. Bob Ayers, Amy’s father, said about her in an interview (also with ‘48 hours’): ‘I lost my daughter.  I lost my first dance.  … I won’t see her graduate. I won’t see her become a veterinarian. … She was a Daddy’s girl.’ Sonora Thomas, Eliza’s sister, was 13 years old when her sister was murdered. She remembers Eliza wanted to become a rancher and a veterinarian. Sonora also remembers the shock of hearing Eliza had died and fantasized about her coming back soon. Sonora said her parents did not talk about Eliza, stating :‘My family never talked about my sister after she died. It’s too painful.’ Eliza’s mother Maria died in 2015, with a lot of unanswered questions about the murder of her daughter. Sonora later said: ‘There is a kind of torture that continues by the fact that it’s unsolved and it’s ongoing.’

If you have any information about these murders, call 512-472-TIPS.