The billboard haunted me. It hung beside Interstate-35 near downtown Austin, Texas: the faces of four smiling teenaged girls. Four words glaring at me: “Who killed these girls?”
That’s what they were—girls. Mere children. The youngest, 13. The eldest two, 17. The fourth, 15. Filled with teenage laughter, they were Future Farmers of America who loved animals and country music and had big dreams. They were the kind of girls with whom you wanted your kids to hang out.
That’s what the two youngest were doing on Friday night, December 6, 1991—hanging out at the neighborhood mall. By 10 p.m., they had either walked or been driven a few blocks down West Anderson Lane in Austin to the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop located in the Hillside strip center to meet up with one of their older sisters who worked at the store. The sister liked her job there because she got to spend time with one of her school friends, who also worked there.
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I’d driven down West Anderson Lane many times but had never noticed the yogurt shop, until its wet, smoky exterior showed up on local newscasts. At first, the televised images were of fire trucks, ladders and firemen. Later, the pictures showed yellow crime-scene tape, orange-and-white-police barricades and police officers in winter jackets.
Finally, there were the photographs of the girls: Amy Ayers, 13; Sarah Harbison, 15; Jennifer Harbison, 17; and Eliza Thomas, 17. In death, they became known as the Yogurt Shop Girls.
National and international media covered the story. True-crime author Corey Mitchell wrote a book about the crime, Murdered Innocents.
Mitchell opened the story the way so many true-crime writers do, setting the scene: It was a blustery winter night, just before midnight. Austin Police Department (APD) officer Troy Gay was patrolling the city when he spotted smoke rising from the strip center. Firefighters soon arrived and entered the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop.
As fire Lieutenant Rene Hector Garza and firefighter David DeVeau crawled through the store with flashlights in hand, they spotted a foot, then an arm, then a body. Eventually four bodies. Burned. Naked. Bound with their own clothes. Their legs spread. All shot in the head.
When Detective Sergeant John Jones entered the flooded scene, the first thing he said was “Holy shit.” Whether by the force of the water or an act by the killers, at least two of the bodies were stacked on top of each other. All but one were burned beyond recognition. Not even their race was obvious.
Many claim that Austin lost its innocence that day.
In fact, the crime was so outrageous that all of the victims’ autopsy reports were sealed—something that rarely occurred in Travis County.
One of the things the autopsies showed was that the youngest, Amy Ayers—the only victim whose body wasn’t burned beyond recognition—had been sexually assaulted. That was probably no surprise to investigators since an ice cream scoop had been found between the legs of one of the bodies.
Eight days after the murders, police interviewed 16-year-old Maurice Pierce, who had been hanging out that Friday night at the very same mall as Amy and Sarah and was picked up for carrying a .22-caliber handgun, the same caliber as one of two guns used in the crime.
Pierce told police that 15-year-old Forrest Welborn had borrowed his gun and had killed the girls. Welborn claimed he didn’t know a thing about the murders. He and Pierce, along with Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, both 17, had taken a stolen car to San Antonio that night.
Jones believed the four didn’t commit the crime. Eventually, the billboard went up alongside I-35, and he was moved off the case. Then on October 6, 1999, nearly eight years after the crime, Pierce, Welborn, Scott and Springsteen were arrested and charged with capital murder; Scott and Springsteen had confessed to the murders under rugged interrogation by Detective Hector Polanco, an officer who was later removed from the case after allegations he coerced a confession in a different case.
“Austin was in total fear for 10 years or so before the four defendants were arrested,” a local attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity due to not being able to officially comment on the matter, emailed me. “I’m not arguing that those guys were railroaded. I am saying that the public needed the case solved—like a tidy ‘Law & Order’ TV episode—because the chaos of the crime terrified them.”
Indeed, Scott was questioned for 12 hours on September 9, 1999, questioned again the next day and questioned again on September 13, 1999, resulting in 20 hours of videotaped interrogation.
In June of 2000, after two grand juries refused to indict Welborn, charges against him were dropped. One year later, Springsteen, who had confessed to raping Ayers, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. In September of 2002, Scott was also convicted of capital murder but received life in prison. Meanwhile, Pierce sat in jail awaiting trial until January 2003, when charges against him were dropped.
One year after Mitchell’s book was published, Springsteen’s conviction was overturned due to violation of his 6th Amendment right to cross-examine witnesses: Scott’s confession had been used against Springsteen, but Scott didn’t testify in court and therefore couldn’t be cross-examined by Springsteen’s attorneys. The following year, Scott’s conviction was overturned for the same reason—Springsteen’s confession had been used against Scott and Scott’s attorneys hadn’t been allowed to cross-examine Springsteen.
That billboard of four smiling girls above the freeway hadn’t haunted just me. It haunted author Beverly Lowry. She knew what it was like to lose a child to violence. Her 18-year-old son, Peter, had been killed in a hit-and-run and his killer had never been found. That made Lowry think she just might be the person who should write about the Yogurt Shop Girls. She understood uncertainty, she understood that the yogurt shop parents might never know who killed their daughters. “And I understood that if I did write a book it might end in uncertainty,” she says.
Still, Lowry wasn’t sure if she could add something new to the story. But in 2009, the same year that Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg announced that the D.A.’s office was not—at the present time—going back to trial against Scott and Springsteen, Lowry attended a hearing for Springsteen and decided she was in: She had to write Who Killed These Girls?: The Unsolved Murders That Rocked a Texas Town.
Sergeant Jones, who, according to Lowry, was bitter about his removal from the case and wanted redemption, gave her all of his files: fire department and police department minute-by-minute reports, memos between Jones and the chief of police, and the FBI profile of the killer. She also watched the videos of the coerced confessions.
As we sit outside a coffee shop on a sunny Austin day, Lowry paraphrases a portion of the Scott confession.
Police: “Well, what did you use [to tie up the girls]?
Scott: “Venetian blind cords.”
Police: “Not Venetian blind cords.”
Scott: “Um, napkins.”
Police: “You can’t tie somebody up with napkins.”
It went on and on until, through the process of elimination, he correctly guessed that the girls had been bound with their own clothes. “It was just heart-breaking to hear that poor, stupid guy saying, ‘Well, if you guys say so, I guess I was there, but I don’t think I was,'” says Lowry.
The coerced confessions, the crime-scene photos, they stay with Lowry, as well as that feeling that plagues parents when they lose their children and don’t know who did it. “There’s a point at which you have to yield to that—that I’ll never know.” Lowry says she’s reached that point; she doesn’t think any of the Yogurt Shop parents have.
But many people consider this a closed case—certainly some in the DA’s office, some in the APD and some of the parents. They believe Welborn, Pierce, Springsteen and Scott committed the crime, despite the fact that their DNA doesn’t match any found at the crime scene, a fact that the DA’s office knew when it announced it wasn’t immediately going back to trial against the two eldest defendants. The APD no longer has the case listed on its cold-case website.
However, Sergeant Ron Lara, head of APD’s cold-case and missing-persons unit, says the case has never been closed and investigators are receptive to new tips. “Every now and then,” he says, they do get new tips,” but so far “nothing exciting.”
“Nothing exciting,” Lara explains, means citizens contact the department with theories, but the theories aren’t based on the facts of the case. Lara hopes that will change since the Travis County District Attorney’s Office has opened its own cold-case unit that will work closely with APD’s. However, there are approximately 200 other open cold cases in APD files.
Since that blustery December night in 1991, Pierce has died. In December of 2010, almost eight years after murder charges were dropped, he was pulled over for a traffic stop. He jumped out of his car and ran, was apprehended and sliced an officer across the neck. The officer shot and killed Pierce.
Today, the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop is Classy Nails Salon. I stopped by the salon recently, and by happenstance, parked right beside a bronze plaque laid in memory of the girls. It rests beneath an oak tree. And at the base of the plaque there were four filled doughnuts and four apples.
Inside Classy Nails, I asked if workers put the treats there. The answer was yes, every day they place something there. In fact, they put a few coins there every day, too, to let people know the girls aren’t forgotten. Some days, they think about skipping the coins. But then, before midnight, they lay a few pennies or a dime there. And every Chinese New Year, in Chinese tradition, they give the girls red envelopes filled with money.
“Do their parents know you do this for the girls?”
“They must,” I’m told. “They come in here.”
I think about Eliza Thomas’s mother. She died in March 2015, a year before Lowry’s book came out.
“Do you feel the girls’ spirits?” I ask.
A pedicurist shakes her head no. “I’m still happy,” she says.
I look at the walls of the salon. There’s a sign that says “Always and forever.” Another that says,
“Love never fails.” And a third that reads, “Happily ever after.”
That’s better than “Who killed these girls?” But the fact remains that no one but the killers knows for certain who killed Amy, Sarah, Jennifer and Eliza.
And no one else may ever know.