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Thriller Thursday: The Yogurt Shop Murders

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!

Today is the thirty-first anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. Loved by millions, the singer was gunned down in front of his home in New York City by Mark David Chapman. The news broke during Monday Night Football, and the world went into mourning.

Lennon’s murder is legendary. But December marks the anniversary of another (possibly even more) tragic event–the Yogurt Shop Murders.

On December 6, 1991, four teenaged girls were brutally murdered at The “I Can’t Believe Its Yogurt” shop in Austin, Texas. The murderers set the shop on fire, and the bodies of thirteen-year-old Amy Ayers, seventeen-year-old Jennifer Harbison, her fifteen-year-old sister Sarah, and seventeen-year-old Eliza Thomas were found after the blaze was extinguished.

Firefighters put out the flames and made their way to the back of the shop where the fire started. There, the bodies of the four girls lie on the floor of the shop.

The murder of four children isn’t even the worst part. It’s the manner of their deaths—stripped down, tied up, and burned. The bodies were stacked.

“I’d seen homicides, but not four. And not four all tied up, and not four stripped down, and not four burned.”
–Lead Detective John Jones.

Police believe the killers forced the girls to remove their clothes, then bound them. Each girl was shot in the head with a .22. Amy was shot twice–once with the .22 and another with a .380 caliber.

Eliza, Jennifer, and Sarah were stacked in a pile, doused them with accelerant, and then lit them on fire. Amy was found a short distance away from the others.

The murders remains unsolved. No security cameras, no eyewitnesses. But there are suspects, men that are walking around free today while the debate over DNA and the legal system rages.

There was evidence the killers were looking for cash, but the nights earnings had already been deposited in the drop box in the back of the store. Dozens of interviews followed, including questioning devastated friends and family, as well as anyone visiting the shop that night.

A customer reported seeing a strange male outside the shop earlier that day, and a crime scene analyst matched the sketch to a wanted rapist. He’d been identified as Alberto Cortez but had fled with two other men – Carlos Saavedra and Ricardo Hernandez.

Eventually Saavedra was caught and confessed, but then recanted, claiming Mexican authorities forced the confession. Austin police agreed. They had a list of suspects, but not enough evidence to do anything. The case eventually went cold.

Eight years later, a new task force revisited the now cold case. Sgt. Ron Lara believes the murders cased the shop during the day and later re-entered through the back door. And he had a new person of interest: Maurice Pierce.

Pierce was only sixteen in 1991. He’d been arrested a few days after the murder for carrying around a .22 at Northcross Mall, a location near the yogurt shop.

In 1991, ballistic tests on the gun were inconclusive. Pierce named friends he was hanging out with that day, and police followed up. Michael Scott, Forrest Welborn, and Robert Springsteen backed up Pierce’s story.

In 1999, Scott agreed to come in for questioning. He confessed to all four murders and claimed his three friends had also participated. Police tracked down Springsteen in West Virginia. He confessed and named Welborn and Pierce as participants.

Springsteen’s trial began in May 2001. His defense claimed the confession was coerced, but the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to death. Scott saw the same results a year later, this time with a life sentence.

Pierce and Welborn managed to walk because the prosecution decided there wasn’t enough evidence to win.

Four years later, on May 24, 2006, the families of the victims suffered yet another tragedy. Scott and Springsteen’s convictions were overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Defense attorneys used the Sixth Amendment—stating the defendants had a right to face their accusers.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case titled Crawford v. Washington, changed 25 years of how we prosecuted cases. The court said that you cannot use another person’s confession in a co-defendant’s trial without the co-defendant being allowed to call his accuser to the stand.
— Travis County ADA Efrain De La Fuentes.

The prosecution had used snippets of Scott’s confession at Springsteen’s trial and vice versa, but neither had the chance to question the other on the stand. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled both had the right to a new trial.

Lovely system we have, isn’t it? If these men are in fact guilty, it seems their rights are more important than the victims. But what if they are innocent? Is it possible both Springsteen’s and Scott’s confessions were false?

Prosecutors were sure they had the right men and resubmitted evidence for new DNA testing, a science that had greatly improved since 1991. A new male sample was found on Amy Ayers, but the DNA didn’t match any of the four suspects. Either the suspects had help from a fifth, unknown male, or none of the accused were involved.

Prosecutors were forced to dismiss the case rather than risk an acquittal. Remember, murder has the double jeopardy rule. Once a person is found not guilty, they can’t be tried again.

The debate over the men’s culpability centers on two theories:

1) the DNA was tainted, having come from a first responder or someone in close contact with Amy.

2) Police and prosecutors insist they have the right men, but have always suspected a fifth person was involved. During questioning, Scott had mentioned another man being with them that night, but claimed he couldn’t remember his name.

Police have reached out to the first responders and anyone who could have touched Amy that night, as well as presented the community with a description of the man but so far have no new leads.

In an odd twist, Maurice Pierce, one of the men suspected but untried, was killed by police during a chase in 2003.

Tuesday, December 6th, marked twenty years since the lives of four innocent girls were taken. Police and defense attorneys are still at odds. The defense claims the police botched the case from the start, and police insist they have the right men. But the DNA is still hanging over their heads. Who does it belong to? Could both Scott and Springsteen’s separate confessions have been coerced?

What do you think? Should the Austin police admit their error and start over, or are two coldblooded killers on easy street thanks to a flaw in the system?

For more information, read 48 Hours Mystery consultant’s Erin Moriarty’s piece on the murders. She’s followed the case since 1991.

20 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: The Yogurt Shop Murders”

  1. That’s so sad. There’s nothing more innocent than hanging out at the yogurt shop. I could never write thrillers, I can hardly even read blog posts like this. More power to you Stacy!

  2. Since my mystery novel has an arson event (and I researched arson quite a bit), the thought that kept running through my mind was how much evidence was destroyed by the fire. How much did the police really have to go on? It sounds like the police and prosecution are trying their best to nail the right culprits, but a confession was insufficient in trial.

    What kills me about these stories is the families of the victims. I know that these girls can’t be resurrected and their murders will never be okay, but there is something good about having the closure of sentencing those who committed this heinous crime. Once again, an intriguing post, and so well-researched.

    • First off, your novel sounds really interesting. Second, that was one of my first thoughts as well. A lot of forensic evidence had to have been lost. And I keep wondering why Amy appeared to have been treated differently than the others. Did the killers know her?

      Absolutely. It’s got to be simply horrible for these families. Most seem to believe the men are guilty, and that’s just salt in the wound. So sad.

      Thank you!

  3. This is another case that just makes me say, “What is wrong with people?” I mean the fact that someone could be capable of something this horrific is mind blowing to me. I agree with Julie. The families deserve some sort of closure. Not that it will bring their daughters back, but they should be able to know who did this to them.

    • I know. These men very easily could have robbed the place and let the girls be. I still wonder if things weren’t more personally motivated. And I can’t imagine not having the closure. I don’t think I would ever be able to heal (if that’s possible) without it.

      Thanks!

  4. Stacy, at first glance I laughed at the headline…Yogurt? Then read in horror. It sounded so planned out. And the truth is still so muddled. Thanks for bringing these crimes to our attention, especially the ones I had not heard about. They stay with me for a long time.

    • You’re very welcome. I saw this on 48 Hours a few years ago, and when I realized it was a December crime, I knew it was once I wanted to talk about. It’s so tragic, and the families deserve closure.

      Thanks!

    • Me, too. I can’t imagine what those families have gone through over the years, especially with the killers-whomever they may be-still walking around. Absolute injustice.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. What tragedy! I am with Julie in wondering how much evidence was destroyed by the fire and how limited were the police back then with knowledge and technology to process crime scenes of that nature. Add to that, the inadequacies of the justice system and voila, you have murderers free.
    Happens all the time, people exploiting the justice system’s loop holes to get off with terrible crimes. I understand that no system is perfect but I can only imagine the devastation of families who are forced to watch their children’s killers go free. Digusting!
    Loved the post Stacy – wow!

    • Yep. Investigative procedures have changed, and fire is great at destroying evidence. I’m sure more hair, fibers, etc. could have been recovered with it.

      The loopholes in the justice system are outrageous, and at times it seems the criminals are able to make them work to their advantage, and yet there are innocent people sitting in jail. So many people recently freed because of DNA, etc.

      Thanks, so glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Oooh, how interesting. I had never heard of this. We’ve discussed watching episodes of disappeared and other crime documentaries on TV. It’s interesting (and infuriating) to me how many of these cases were a breath away from being solved but stay unsolved because of legal technicalities. I feel so sorry for those girls’ families. You know it’s heartbreaking to them.

    Great post. 😀

    • Ha! I finally found a crime you hadn’t heard of, lol. I know what you mean. Disappeared breaks my heart every time. I always hope that maybe this will be one with a happy ending, and it never easy. And it’s amazing how many cases go unsolved because of legal crap.

      Thanks!

  7. Stacy, this post was difficult to read because of how horrific the crimes were. Oh my god, the poor girls and their families … Though it’s no excuse, there are flaws in every system. Let’s hope they find the right match to that DNA found on Amy soon.

    • Yes, it was. Very difficult to write as well. I can’t imagine what their families have gone through and continue to go through with no one in jail. Hopefully they continue to deal with the DNA and there is a breakthrough.

      Thanks for commenting.

  8. That is awful! I can’t imagine how those parents can hold it together knowing the men that brutally killed their daughters are free. It must be too much pain to bare. I agree…the system is terribly flawed!

    • Me, either. I don’t know that I’d be able to handle my anger. Even if those men happen to be innocent, the fact that the killers are walking free would make me crazy.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  9. It’s sad … That people get all tied up in the who and never wonder why ? Why were these 4 young beautiful people killed ? And who has the power to cover it up, and then profit from this horrific crime….? This was old fashioned insurance scam, with ah new twist.
    If you have the time and money and investigative skill, follow the money. What you will find at the end …?

    This was an insurance scam. That involves hundreds of millions of dollars and money laundering and tax evasion. Corrupt courts, crooked Judges, lawyers, police and insurance investigators.

  10. I am currently sitting in the the stripmall ( I am in a salon, possibly the exact location) these murders took place in…..so sad. I am an Austinite and remember this horrible act from my childhood! I hope for justice someday. Such a pointless crime and tragedy.

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