At approximately midnight, December 6, 1991, Troy Gay, an officer in Austin, TX, notified emergency services that smoke was rising from the area of the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop. Inside the shop, firefighters found the bodies of four young women – a horrific discovery (C. 2020). While the firefighters who made the discovery were initially told to keep quiet about the details, later they came out and said they found the bodies of three of the young women piled on top of each other. The last victim was found approximately half an hour later in another location within the shop (Amie 2019).
The victims were Amy Ayers (or Ayres, depending on report), 13, Sarah Harbison, 15, her sister Jennifer Harbison, 17, and Eliza Thomas, 17. Sarah and Amy were keeping Jennifer and Eliza company that night while they closed the shop (Amie 2019). Supposedly, the girls had plans to have a sleepover that night. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the girls never got to have that sleepover (C. 2020). Reports show that Sarah was found nude, tied, and gagged with her own underwear. Evidence showed that the young girl had been raped before being shot in the back of the head with a .22 lead bullet. Jennifer was also nude, but she was not bound as Sarah had been. Her hands, however, were behind her back suggesting that she may have been at some point when she died. Just like Sarah, Jennifer had been shot with a .22 bullet, which was recovered from her remains. Like Sarah, Eliza was also nude, bound, and gagged, and like Jennifer, the .22 bullet that killed her was recovered. The remains of the first three victims were all severely burned to the point of being described as char (Amie 2019). Reportedly, the girls’ legs were splayed open and an ice cream soup had been placed between at least one of the girls’ legs (C. 2020).
Poor Amy, however, was different. She was found away from the other victims with something, possibly a sock, tied around her neck with a half-hitch in the back. Just like the other victims, Amy had been shot with a .22 caliber, the same used on the other victims, but the bullet did not enter her brain. A second gunshot of an unspecified caliber, however, caused significant brain damage to the young girl, exiting the right cheek and jawline. While the other victims were nearly charred, Amy’s body had severe second-to-third degree burns covering 25-30% of her body. It is believed that, when the bodies of the victims were piled up and the fire was started, Amy was still alive and managed to pull herself from the pile and to the area where her remains were recovered by firefights (Amie 2019).
At the time that the murders occurred, the police force in Austin was not emotionally equipped to take on a case like the Yogurt Shop Murders. The officers in the area were hardly used to the level of public pressure that came with a case so widely publicized and this led to several issues, including false confessions. There was eventually a suspect list of over 300 possible perpetrators and over 50 false confessions had to be debunked (Walsh 2018). The forensics unit in Austin was small, with only one unit for fingerprints and one actual homicide detective. The department was woefully unprepared for the realities of this case (C. 2020). We do know customers at the shop claimed to have seen two suspicious, unknown men in the yogurt shop the night that the murders occurred (Amie 2019). We also know that, according to management and the investigators, there was approximately $540 stolen from the shop. Whether the intention of the murderers was originally robbery or if the robbery was secondary is unknown (C. 2020).
There were arrests made in the case in late 1992, and those arrested were even convicted. However, after it was discovered that the confession made was encouraged by arresting officers using cayenne pepper and a coke bottle full of water to essentially torture a confession from the suspect, the suspect was acquitted and released. The confession given by the suspects, Carlos Saavedra and Alberto Cortez, had been to the November 1991 rape of a woman in Austin and to the yogurt shop murders. After the suspects recanted, they admitted to knowing nothing of the yogurt shop murders. Another suspect was serial killer, Kenneth Allen McDuff, who was known for crimes against teenagers, but DNA proved he was not the killer of the young girl (Amie 2019).
The DNA was recovered from Amy’s remains. Y-STR DNA, which is passed between male family members, was extracted from the recovered DNA. With more and more Y-STR databases becoming available to investigators, it would seem that we have a door with which to find answers. In 2017, the DNA was run through one of these databases and a hit did come back. However, as anyone who works with DNA can tell you, a Y-STR hit does not mean the DNA being searched for has actually been found. Y-STR can be found in all men in the same family; fathers, sons, uncles, and cousins. A hit through Y-STR only gives a male family member and that could be a distant relative. According to the information available on the DNA match, the match came from the University of Central Florida’s database and had been submitted by the FBI. As of February 2020, the FBI has not shared with Austin investigators who the DNA match was and it would seem it is because it is a Y-STR match and not a standard DNA match (Plohetski 2020).
More arrests were made in 1999, but just as before, the confessions were not as they seemed. There were four suspects this time, Robert Springsteen IV, Maurice Pierce, Forrest Wellborn, and Michael Scott. Scott gave a written confession in 1999 admitted that he, along with the other three, had committed the awful crimes against the young girls in the yogurt shop. In June 2000, however, an image came to the public of Scott making the written confession. In it, the officer interrogating him had a gun to his head. The detective, Robert Merrill, admitted to the gun being near his head, but would not admit to the gun being against his head as it appears in the photo (Amie 2019).
Springsteen was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, later commuted to life, in 2001, along with Scott who also received life in prison. The convictions were overturned in 2006 when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that the two had not been given the chance to properly cross-examine each other. DNA later entirely exonerated the two in 2008 and in October of 2009 the charges against them were dismissed. Wellborn Pierce were never tried due to lack of evidence (Amie 2019). The two were released from prison in 2009 after spending 10 years there for the murders. In 2010, Pierce died when he reportedly attacked an officer after fleeing a traffic stop. The officer’s partner apparently shot him (Walsh 2018).
It has been nearly 30 years since four teenage girls met an awful end at the hands of unknown individuals. False confessions muddled the investigation early on and lead investigators down false leads. The firemen, while they were doing their job, likely washed away evidence that could have solved the case. Y-STR DNA may hold the answers to the case, but unless the FBI is willing to tell the investigators who the match belongs to, or at least the family, the Y-STR DNA will likely be a dead end. For now, the answers will remain a mystery. Hopefully for the families and for the victims, someday the perpetrators will be caught.
Amie. (2019, August 19). The Yogurt Shop Murders. Retrieved August 08, 2020, from https://truecrimesociety.com/2019/08/18/the-yogurt-shop-murders/
Walsh, R. (2018, March 28). The Brutal Austin Yogurt Shop Murders of 1991 Remain Unsolved Decades Later. Retrieved August 09, 2020, from https://the-line-up.com/yogurt-shop-murders-austin-1991
Plohetski, A. (2020, February 09). Why is the FBI withholding DNA evidence in Austin’s 1991 yogurt shop murders? Retrieved August 09, 2020, from https://www.kvue.com/article/news/investigations/defenders/1991-austin-yogurt-shop-murders-killer-dna-fbi/269-d28e6099-7c69-4e10-bb45-3054fde938aa
C. (2020, January 16). The Unsolved Austin Yogurt Shop Murders. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://thetruecrimefiles.com/austin-yogurt-shop-murders/