The Mystery Of The Austin Yogurt Shop Murders

Yogurt Shop Murders

On December 6, 1991, four teenage girls were scrubbing down counters and sweeping the floors at a yogurt shop in Austin, Texas, when they were brutally attacked and shot to death. The incident would ultimately lead to court decisions that shocked the community, leaving questions unanswered and a murder mystery that still lingers more than 20 years later.

Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas, both 17, were working part-time at “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt!” a small shop situated snugly in a strip mall off of W. Anderson Lane. On the night of the murders, they were busy cleaning up the store after hours, anticipating a sleepover after their shifts ended. Jennifer’s 15-year-old sister, Sarah Harbison, was sitting at one of the tables in the shop, waiting for the girls to finish work. Sarah’s friend, 13-year-old Amy Ayers, sat beside her.

At around midnight, firefighters responded to a fire at the yogurt shop. As they worked to distinguish the flames, one of the firefighters spotted what looked like a human foot. He rushed through the smoke and rubble to take a better look. 

As he drew closer, he discovered three girls near the back door, naked and stacked on top of each other, covered with Styrofoam cups that were drenched in lighter fluid and set afire. As the firefighter looked closer, he realized the young girls were dead, lying in a mixture of blood, smoke, debris, and chocolate syrup. All three had been shot in the head, execution-style.

The youngest teen, Amy, was found a few minutes later, lying alone, barely alive, near the yogurt shop bathrooms. She died shortly after, having sustained two gunshot wounds to the head. Some of the girls had been raped, but it would be years before DNA testing would become available.

Shanon Quaranta, a former student at Austin’s Crockett High School, was a teen when the killings happened. She remembered how it shattered the illusion in the community that teens were safe while working after-school jobs.

“When I found out I was shocked!” she explained. “Here are teens that were out working instead of being at the mall hanging out, partying or sitting around home watching TV.  They were working, they were being responsible and such a horrible tragedy took place…. I think the biggest impact was that could have been me. That could have been my friends.”

Since the firefighters arrived first, the crime scene was contaminated. While they worked to put out the flames, a lot of the evidence was obliterated and washed away. This innocent mistake would prove to be costly in the years to come.  

Austin investigators worked with what they had, trying to piece together exactly what happened that night, but for over a week, they had no leads. Their first break came when a local teen, Maurice Pierce, 16 at the time, was caught at nearby Northcross Mall, carrying a .22 caliber gun.

When questioned, Pierce bragged that the gun was used to kill the “yogurt shop girls.” He said a friend, Forrest Welborn, 15, gave him the pistol, but after police wired Pierce and listened in on a conversation between him and Welborn, it was obvious Wellborn had no idea what Pierce was getting at.

“It was obvious to everyone that Pierce was trying to force the issue on Welborn, who had no idea what Pierce was talking about,” said one of the homicide detectives on the case,

Welborn was brought in for questioning afterwards, and although he passed a polygraph test, he mentioned two other teens, Michael Scott and Rob Springsteen, both 17 at the time. Wellborn said he traveled with the teens in a stolen Nissan Pathfinder just days after the murder, but with no evidence to link any them to the crime, the case stalled. Authorities let Pierce off the hook after the ballistics with the gun he had didn’t match up. Detectives noted that Pierce seemed to have a mental illness.

Five years later, despite thousands of tips pouring in, the case remained unsolved. In 1996, a new detective, Paul Johnson, took over, and while searching through numerous tips, Pierce’s name stood out to him. Working off of an FBI profile for the murders, he brought in Pierce, Scott, Springsteen, and Welborn for questioning. All of them denied any involvement in the murders at first, but after a series of intense interrogations, Scott was the first to break, and admitted that he helped carry out the murders.

According to Scott, both Pierce and Springsteen brought a gun into the yogurt shop, planning to rob it, while Welborn acted as a lookout and stayed in the car. Scott said he took a gun from Pierce at some point after Pierce began yelling at the girls for money. Scott also indicated that Springsteen hit one of the girls and sexually assaulted her. As another girl began screaming for her life, Scott said he shot her in the head at Pierce’s insistence. He then remembered running out the door to the getaway car, while the yogurt shop began to catch on fire. He stated Wellborn had apparently fled the scene while they were inside.

In 1999, all four men were charged with capital murder. Springsteen admitted to shooting one of the girls, but Pierce and Wellborn never admitted to the killings and were let go. The problem remained that most of the evidence had been washed away years ago by the fire department, and aside from their confessions, detectives had nothing else to go on.

Regardless, prosecutors won their case based on confessions and circumstantial evidence. Springsteen was sentenced to death. Scott was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

While the case should have been closed with two convictions, it was only the beginning. In 2006, Springsteen’s sentence was reduced from death to life in prison without parole. In 2007, new testing revealed an unknown man’s DNA on the youngest victim, Amy.

Investigators argued that an additional person was with the suspects that night, but without DNA evidence to place Scott and Springsteen at the crime scene, they were released from prison on the condition that they could be arrested again should new evidence against them arise. Scott was released in 2007, followed by Springsteen in 2009.

Their defense attorneys argued that two teenage boys were railroaded, bullied, and coerced into giving false confessions. Surveillance videos show detectives relentlessly questioning the boys and pressuring them with threats. One detective pulled out a gun and placed it beside one of the teens.

Detectives said that Scott and Springsteen gave similar accounts to what happened without coercion, and that they also detailed things about the crime scene that only the killers would know. For instance, Springsteen knew how Amy was positioned and knew the type of gun used to kill her.

Sgt. Ron Lara, who questioned both teens at the time, said there’s no doubt in his mind that they arrested the guilty parties. Nevertheless, the DNA found didn’t match any of the four suspects, and there was no other evidence linking them to the crime.

Meanwhile, Pierce was reportedly suffering anxiety attacks stemming from the murder investigation. In 2011, he was killed in a run-in with police, after he pulled a knife out and stabbed one of the officers. Family members said Pierce hadn’t been the same since the 1991 murders, and always thought the police were out to get him. In reality, he was stopped for a traffic infraction and allegedly panicked.

The same year Pierce was killed, Springsteen filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking $700,000 for the wrongful conviction. While the lawsuit currently hangs in limbo, prosecutors are adamant that since Springsteen still remains a suspect in the case, the lawsuit is simply “legal fiction.”

Detectives are still working on finding more evidence in the murders, but for now, it remains an unsolved mystery. In the meantime, the senseless killings of four girls persistently hangs in the air in Austin, while many locals await a conclusion that may never come.

Read more:

CBS/48 Hours

Texas Monthly

Photo: CBS/48 Hours

  • This is why you don’t let anyone into the store after you closed up.

    • Jaime Myerton

      I think they snuck in through the back. Of course it’s never been proven because Texas messed up with this case.

      • It’s possible, wheeling out garbage and forgetting to lock the door.

        • Jaime Myerton

          Supposedly one of the guys confessed that he went to use the bathroom during store hours and put a pack of cigs in the back door so that they could go back and sneak in. Who knows—-they ALL recant what they said.

          • Ah, the old dorm room trick – so you could sneak out, get wasted and safely get back in without getting the attention of the nosey security guard.

            NOT that I ever tried that 😉

  • Texas by far is the most incompetent and inefficient when it comes to solving murders – case in point, the Houston Mass Murders from 1973 in which the PD “gave up” after exhuming I believe 27 Dean Corll/Wayne Henley victims at the time. All because they didn’t want to top Juan Corona’s # of victims, like Texas had some reputation to protect. Not to mention some of the victims were misidentified, given to the wrong family and in recent years had to be exhumed and exchanged with remains from ANOTHER grave. Good thing I’m getting out of this state soon, the f*ckery makes me sick.

  • karen

    erik moebius a lawyer in texas has given his take on the yogurt shop murders.

    • magadog

      and it is completely ludicrous.

  • beth

    All they had were a few teens, under harsh grilling, without a lawyer or their parents, pointing fingers at each other. No other evidence. How did they get a death penalty sentence out of that? Seriously.

    • magadog

      Actually, only two of the four admitted they did it, and that was eight years after the fact. The reason there was a confession is because the magnitude of the crime was so great, someone had to be found guilty, regardless. APD made the case fit.

      • Randall Brumfield

        Yes. The cops were willing to send anybody to prison at any cost just to give the victims families and the public a false sense of justice. I saw this on dateline and just looking at the videos of the confessions you can tell easily that they were coerced. They were giving quick vague answers and the cops werw the ones saying what happened and just nagging them to agree. But DNA doesn’t lie. Those soda cans should have DNA on them also besides finger prints.

        • magadog

          And there are serious questions about how thorough the city was at collecting evidence. I believe those cans are the case, I also believe those cans never made it to evidence lockup. They were probably still in the store or at the top of the dumpster out back. You know, the manager of the store said that the backdoor was never opened up, but, the dumpster was in the back alley, if the girls were taking the trash out, they would have to go out the back. If it was some other bad guys, they would have access if they waited out back.

      • Randall Brumfield

        And it’s bullshit that these guys can’t get compensation for being locked up for 10 years. Imagine if they were butt raped or beaten by other inmates. They claim until the court finds them presumably innocent. What a joke. I thought we were innocent until proven guilty.

        • magadog

          Only Springsteen is seeking the money. The problem is that their innocence was not proven. They simply had their convictions overturned because of a 6th amendment issue. They can still be prosecuted and the APD still swears it is them. So they can’t really prove they were innocent and therefore unfairly locked up. WHat is so frustrating is that APD won’t say they are not-guilty and they won’t charge them. Nothing is happening in regards to this case. I have serious doubts about their guilt for sure, but if you have ever read Scott’s confession, man, it makes him look so guilty, it is so detailed. Yes, I understand the coerciion thing, but still.

  • angela73

    Has anyone thought of Paul Dennis Reid for this? It fits his M.O., he also killed 2 young women in an ice cream shop in Clarksville TN, and was known to be in TX around that time.

  • NelsonClick .

    It was the Yogurt Shop murders and the Colleen Reed abduction and murder that changed Austin forever. We were a different city after these two events and it felt that way. I guess it was bound to happen at some point. This was the point.

    • magadog

      We had always had murders, those were just the most publicized.

  • magadog

    Fairly certain the guys they prosecuted were completely innocent. The confessions were coerced and inconsistent. They will never catch the guys that did it because APD and AFD completely contaminated the crime scene. And even today, APD still is locked on to the two guys they have no case against. McDuff makes sense on this, he did say he did it on the day of his execution. The Austin Chronicle had a good piece about two guys that were there that night and it made a pretty strong case,

    • Randall Brumfield

      But they said his DNA didn’t match I thought.

      • magadog

        His didn’t, apparently, but McDuff always worked with a partner. I think McDuff would have been content to just murder and watch,

  • magadog

    The two guys that perpetrated these horrible crimes were in the store prior to closing and they left physical evidence behind. Numerous witnesses reported seeing two suspicious men sitting in the booth next to the counter. One former police officer claimed that the one guy was buying a can of Sprite after 10. Two more witnesses claimed that the two men were still in the store after Harbison locked the front door at 10:50, still drinking soft drinks. The crime happened at or around 11. Well, you have the two men there at that time. The next day police report finding chairs placed on top of all tables, except one, the table where the two guys sat. Napkins were refilled at all tables, except the table where the two men sat. Moreover, there was a can of coke and a styrofoam cup sitting next to the register, as if someone was ordering one last Coke for the road, but did not take it with him. Locked store, two men inside, this is the crime. The one man went back to say he had to use the restroom before he left, the other man controlled the front of the store, bam. They exited through the back after they committed their carnage. Now the million dollar question, where was the trash from the previous night? Is it still in the store or in a dumpster? Odds are, there are some cans of soda with fingerprints on them. And there were no other food stores in that strip mall, none open at that time. Did they fingerprint that table? Did the APD check rape kits on unsolved violent rapes before and after this crime? The physical evidence was out there. But lazy APD decided they would coerce some confessions and just go with that. They are still doing that. The confessions were weak and coached. This was not about robbery, this was a calculated sexual attack by two men that have done this before and after.

  • Mary Carpenter

    Google: “Speedway Burger Chef murders” The comparison of these crimes has been made for years. The Speedway murders were never solved – but the lead detective claims to know who did it (so do I). Anyway – The descriptions of those suspects in those crimes are essentially identical to the yogurt shop suspects. Apparently the son of the bearded man in the Speedway murders claims that his father admitted to being involved in the crimes. So, why couldn’t the Austin Homicide Investigators get the son’s DNA to match with the DNA evidence in the yogurt shop killings? That could clear that up – maybe even solve these crimes.

    • magadog

      Could just as easily exhume a body and get direct comparison. Son’s DNA would not be a 100 match. I think that whoever did this, there are good odds they are both dead.

  • Randall Brumfield

    I just read more articles on this. Whoever did this went pretty out of their way to cover it up and make sure there was no evidence. Back then there was no DNA so they were only worried about finger prints. I’m sure it wasn’t their first time in this store. They knew these girls worked there late and by themselves. It makes me believe the person or ppl that did this most likely was a regular in that store and possibly worked at or visited the other stores around this store. Because to shoot and kill everyone there makes me believe the girls most likely either knew the perps or at least saw them on a regular basis perhaps knew the ppl worked next door or across the street etc. Then to burn everything shows they knew not to leave any evidence. Usually the work of either experienced criminal or at least an older person that understands how the police and laws work. So this is most likely why the weapon used has never been found after the fact. Usually when it’s the neighborhood punks that do it the gun will not be disposed of and someone ends up getting caught in possession of it because the idiots either sold it to them or loaned it to them or they were the actual per himself. But an older person more knowledgeable would get rid of the gun asap. But common sense is because there perps killed everyone there that at least one of the girls had some knowledge of who the person was or the person frequented the shop because they worked next door or shopped next door extc. I’m sure these idiot cops didn’t even look at it in this perspective. Most of it is common sense.

    • magadog

      I never thought robbery played a major cause in this. Four girls were raped and murdered for around $500. No attempt was ever made to get in the office, where the safe was. People don’t rape and murder four young girls as a bi-product of robbing a store for a few bucks. The motivation for this crime was to inflict sexual violence on these girls. And there is no way these culprits have not done this many times, which tells me there are rape kits around the state with their traces. I don’t think they did a great job of covering up, I think they just got lucky with the AFD dousing everything. APD does not have the minds to work this case, they never did, they are only good at sitting in their cop cars outside road construction projects.

  • txfella

    I was living less than a mile from that location at the time, and remember it well. The stated ballistics report is baloney. The gun matched, but APD lost it. So they phonied up the data to cover the misplaced weapon. Pierce confessed immediately, but investigators didn’t believe him. Amy Ayers was shot with 2 different calibres. And the back door was blocked open earlier in order to gain access later. For sure it was amature in the initial investigation.