Unsolved: The Yogurt Shop Murders (1991)

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Our Next Case on Crime Blog is, The Yogurt Shop Murders, this case takes place in Austin, Texas, 1991. On December 6th, fifteen-year-old Sarah Harbison and her thirteen-year-old friend, Amy Ayers were hanging out at the Northcross Mall in Austin, Texas. They were trying to waste time until Sarah’s sister Jennifer and her friend and co-worker Eliza Thomas were done with their shift at the “I can’t believe its Yogurt!” shop located in the Hillside strip Mall on Anderson Lane.

It was sometime after 10:00 PM when Sarah and Amy started to make their way to the yogurt shop to help close up, the store was closing at 11:00 PM and all four girls had plans to have a slumber party.

It was just before midnight when one of the Austin Police officers noticed smoke rising from the strip mall while out on patrol. The officer reported the fire and firefighters were soon on scene, as they were extinguishing the fire, they came across one of the most horrific scenes even the veterans officers were shook.

Jennifer, Sara, Amy, and Eliza were all dead. They were all naked, bound, and gagged with their own clothing. Amy’s body was in the middle of the back room, while Jennifer, Sara, and Eliza were all found in the back of the room gathered in one corner. Eliza and Sara were on top of each other while Jennifer was close by.

The girls’ were laying were their legs wide open and ice cream scoop was placed in between one of their legs. The bodies were burned, almost beyond being able to identify them, the killer/killers had collected napkins and other items that were flammable from around the yogurt shop and poured lighter fluid, but they didn’t only put lighter fluid on the items they found, they also put the lighter fluid all over the bodies before lighting the shop on fire and fleeing the scene.

What made these girls special? And how did they get into the shop? Were they suppose to be meeting boys before the slumber party? Did they hide in the shop until they knew it was just the girls in the shop?

Autopsies were done on the girls and it uncovered that all 4 girls had been shot in the back of the head – execution style and at least 2 of the girls had been raped. Police informed the media that 2 guns had been used in the crime to murder these girls, they suggested that there could have been 2 killers because of this.

While investigating the shop after the fire was out, management and police also determined that approximately $540 was missing from the store. So was the motive robbery and the girls were there and they didn’t want witnesses so they killed them? Or was this more of a coverup for the murders?

Despite the lengthy police investigation, numerous suspects, and an outraged community, these horrific murders still remain unsolved today.

Police have come up with multiple theories as to what happened. But this is the one that seems to fit together with all the evidence that they were able to collect that wasn’t contaminated at the scene.

Since there was a fire, all the forensic evidence had been washed away because the fire department did their job. In the early 1990’s, Austin police department lacked forensic expertise, having one only fingerprint unit. Plus with size of the city’s homicide their was only one investigator on shift the night that murders occurred.

Regardless of the shortfalls within the department, they had more than their fair share of suspects. The phones at the police station rang off the hook as tips were flooding in. The investigators were understandably overwhelmed when they had 342 suspects and dozens of false confessions to this crime.

Could you imagine, having understaffed department, and had a horrific and gruesome murder happen in your town? If you are from a small community then you will know, the department would be in over their heads.

Considering the nature of the the crime, the investigators first looked into serial killers who may have been at work in the area, and the first one was Kenneth Allen McDuff.

McDuff was sentenced to death but was reduced to changed to life with the possibility of parole in 1972 after the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment. Due to overcrowding in the prison, MC Duff was paroled in the 1989. It is now believed that McDuff committed many other murders after his release, including Melissa Ann Northrup, a 22 year old in 1992. After running from police for years, he was finally taken into custody and sent to death row.

McDuff was scheduled for execution on November 17, 1998 and he confessed thinking it would spare his life but he was sadly mistaken they went on with the execution as scheduled. After the execution, McDuff was ruled out when the fingerprints and hair collected from the crime scene could not be linked to him.

The second person of interest was Maurice Pierce, just 8 days after the murders, investigators got a tip to into a teenager named Maurice Pierce. At 16 years old, he was seen at the Northcross Mall with a gun the same night Sarah and Amy were there. The gun was a none other than a .22 caliber handgun, the same one that used to execute the girls.

When investigators questioned Pierce along with his 3 friends, Michael Scott, Robert Springsteen and Forrest Welborn but nothing came of the lead. When the gun was tested it showed it didn’t match the murder weapon and also just like McDuff, the fingerprints and hair collected did not match any of the 4 teenagers, so investigators moved on.

So 2 times the police have struck out multiple times and still no answers to these horrific crimes and they have not gotten any closer to who murdered these girls. But something happens in 1999.

Years had got by with no arrested, no leads, and the case had been passed onto new detectives. Then, all of sudden in 1999, 4 suspects in their twenties were taken into custody for the murders, the names were, Forrest Welborn, Michael Scott, Robert Springsteen and Maurice Pierce, now hold on a second, these were the same suspects who were questioned just 8 days after the murder initially occurred and released but why are they being arrested now?

That would be because Michael Scott, confessed to the killings, and he was not alone in confessing. Robert Springsteen also confessed to killing the girls and raping at least one of them. Of course the police were convinced that they had their killers.

The police tried twice to indict Welborn from the murders, but since the lack of evidence can not link him to the crime all charges were dropped against him, another blow to the case was the charges against Pierce were also dropped due to the lack of evidence, this one was particularly hard for police and the victims families as he was considered the leader behind the crime and the killings.

That’s what you usually happens, the leader doesn’t do the dirty work and the he has the people below him do the dirty work for him and they get to take all the wrap for the crime or crimes that were committed.

Springsteen and Scott were tried separately, and they were found guilty of capital murder. Springsteen received the death penalty even though Supreme Court ruling took that off, the State of Texas had passed a new death penalty law, and Michael Scott was sentenced to 99 years in prison. The police department and families im sure were relieved to have finally been able to put the killers behind bars, but….good news doesn’t last long.

Shortly after the trails, there was concerns that suggested Springsteen and Scott may actually be innocent. There was no physical evidence linking either of them to the crime and additionally both men and said that the confession was coerced, and to make matters worse, there was some evidence to back up the claims. One of the detectives on the case was transferred after he extorted confessions in another case, but what put the topper to the cake, there was a photo of another member of the police department pointing a gun at Scott’s head during his interrogation.

Look I get it, there was a lot of pressure on the detectives and police department for this case and they wanted it to go quickly, but that doesn’t mean you frame and harass the suspects until they give you want you want. That’s interrogation 101.

And just like that 15 years later, both convictions were overturned after the courts found that the 6th amendment was violated. Scott and Springsteens confessions were used against one another and their lawyers were not given the opportunity to cross examine the accuser.

In 2008, DNA test was done from the evidence that was collected al the crime scene and the mall DNA found did not match either Scott or Springsteen and for a matter of fact, it didn’t match any other men that was suspected of the crime.

Some of the lawyers and investigators who have studied the case think the killers might actually be 2 unidentified customers who were in the shop at closing time. The 2 men who witnesses placed there at closing time have never been found still to this day.

We are all hoping these 4 girls families finally get closure after their murder and these last 2 men can be identified to see if they really are the killers and finally have justice for the teenage girls. If you have any information that can help solve this case, please call 512-472-TIPS.

Sources:

The Unsolved Austin Yogurt Shop Murders – The True Crime Files

The Austin Yogurt Shop Murders — Unresolved

1991 Austin yogurt shop murders – Wikipedia