The yogurt shop murders: Are two never-identified customers key to solving Austin, Texas, murders?
[This story was originally posted on February 5, 2022. It was updated on August 27.]
More than 30 years ago Four teenage girls murdered At a yogurt shop in Austin, Texas, the case remains unsolved. At one point, someone was arrested, then convicted, but those convictions were later overturned on appeal, and ultimately, new DNA technology The involvement of those initially arrested has been questioned.
The case appears to have brought investigators to a standstill, but as journalist Erin Moriarty reports on this week’s “48 Hours,” there’s a theory that the two identities seen at the yogurt shop on the night of the murders The unidentified man may have been involved in the unsolved killings that have plagued Austin for decades.
On December 6, 1991, Eliza Thomas, 17, Amy Ayers, 13, and two sisters, Jennifer Harbison, 17, and Sarah Harbison, 15, were tied up and shot in the head in “I can’t believe this Yogurt!” Shopping in Austin.
The city has never seen a crime like this. Eliza and Jennifer had been working at the yogurt shop that night. They were getting ready to close when Jennifer’s sister Sarah and their friend Amy were there to greet them home. Investigators believe at least two men entered the store and committed brutal crimes before setting fire to most of the evidence.
At the time of the crime, John Jones was working with the Austin Police Department and was the lead investigator on the case. He has retired. Jones told Moriarty that as part of an early investigation, he and his team tracked down customers at the yogurt shop on the day of the crime to see if they found anything suspicious. According to Jones, multiple customers described two men who “looked out of place” and sat in the store just before it closed. Neither of them reportedly bought frozen yogurt — but just a drink.
“They were never found. We did everything. We even hypnotized some people,” Jones told Moriarty.
Despite the investigators’ efforts, the lead was to no avail, and the case ended up deadlocked. Then, in 1999, nearly eight years after the murder, the case came to a halt when new investigators decided to re-investigate another old lead.
Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Maurice Pierce and Forrest Welborn were teenagers at the time of the crime. They also landed on Jones’ radar early, days after the crime, when one of them, Maurice Pierce, was arrested at gunpoint in a shopping mall near the yogurt store. At the time, the men were questioned by Jones and his team, but were later released for lack of evidence.
In 1999, new investigators decided to re-interrogate the men. Two of them, Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott, pleaded guilty to the yogurt shop murders, implicated Pierce and Welborn in the process. All four men were subsequently arrested.
But it didn’t take long for Springsteen and Scott to retract their confessions, saying they were coerced. The charges against Pierce and Wellborn were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.
Springsteen and Scott were the only two to stand trial. They were both convicted, but their convictions were overturned on constitutional grounds a few years later. The Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to confront plaintiffs, whose confessions were used against each other in Scott and Springsteen’s trials, but does not allow them to question each other in court.
Prosecutors plan to retrial Springsteen and Scott, but not before they order DNA tests on vaginal swabs taken from victims at the time of the murders. At this point, investigators are beginning to believe that at least one victim was sexually assaulted, and prosecutors hope to use a new type of DNA test called the Y-STR test. It only searches male DNA.
No one expected what it would reveal. The test turned out to have obtained a partial DNA profile from one of the victims, but to the prosecutor’s office’s surprise, the DNA sample did not match any of the four men arrested. The charges against Springsteen and Scott were dropped, and they were released after serving 10 years in prison.
Attorney Amber Farrelly has worked on Scott and Springsteen’s defense teams. She is convinced that the police were completely wrong in arresting Scott, Springsteen, Welborn and Pierce. She told “48 Hours” that she believed the two unidentified customers from the yogurt shop were the ones police should really be concerned about.
While working on Scott and Springsteen’s defense team, Farrelly was tasked with sifting through old police records, including interviews Jones and his colleagues conducted with customers who visited the yogurt store on the day of the murder.
“They (police) have identified and interviewed 52 people who were at the yogurt shop that day,” Farrelly told “48 Hours” Erin Moriarty.
Several of the customers mentioned two men who were seen sitting in the yogurt store before it closed that night, Farrelly said.
“We don’t have names for them. When you see — when you step back, you think, ‘They’ve spoken to 52 people and haven’t missed a single one from 4:30pm to 11:00pm. There Several people talk about one or two people and they describe them the same way? We don’t know who those two people are? They never call? … In my opinion, this raises suspicions …. ..these are the gentlemen who do it,” Farrelly said.
“As far as you know, those two people who were never found were the last people in the yogurt shop?” Moriarty asked Farrelly.
“Of course,” Farrelly replied.
Farrelly said the men were described as “kind of leaning against the table, talking and whispering to each other as if they didn’t want anyone to hear what they were saying.”
She said one of the men was described as having short light hair, “like a dirty blonde” and said to be about 5ft 6in tall and in his 20s or early 30s. She said the other man was described as “bigger” and observed that both were wearing large coats. One was thought to have a green “army fatigue-like jacket,” and the other was thought to have a black jacket, she said. According to Farrelly, the men are believed to be driving a green car that night.
The case’s former lead investigator, John Jones, is haunted by the unsolved yogurt shop murder despite his long retirement. He told 48 Hours that he was still curious about the unidentified customers.
“Yes, that’s a problem for me, and to this day, they haven’t been detected,” he said. “Is this evidence that they did? No, but this is evidence that we do need to talk to them.”
If you have information about the yogurt shop murder, please call 512-472-Tips.