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.
Photo: CBS/48 Hours