In the early 1990s, Austin, Texas was shell-shocked by a tragic, vicious crime. Late on December 6, 1991, firefighters responded to reports of smoke rising from the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop on West Anderson Lane. Once inside, the responders found a scene of unmitigated horror. Amidst the inferno, were the brutalized bodies of four teenage girls–Amy Ayers, Jennifer Harbison, Sarah Harbison and Eliza Thomas.
At least one of the girls had been raped. Three were stacked atop each other like cordwood, and all had been bound with their own clothing before being shot in the head with a .22-caliber handgun. It was a murder that could appall even the most hardened homicide detective. Immediately, the public placed pressure on authorities to catch whoever was responsible.
Four suspects, all teenagers themselves at the time, were charged with the crime eight years later: Forrest Wellborn, Maurice Pierce, Robert Springsteen, and Michael Scott. Grand juries, citing a lack of evidence, declined to indict Wellborn. The charges against Pierce were later dropped.
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Scott and Springsteen, however, were convicted in late 1999. The pair had confessed to the crime, saying that they committed the rape and murders while the other two stood watch. Scott was sentenced to life imprisonment. Springsteen, however, went to one of the best-known and most-feared places in Texas–death row.
Before long, cracks began appearing in the case against them. They centered on the fact that their confessions, which they alleged had been coerced, were very detailed. Too detailed for some people’s liking. One of the yogurt shop case’s investigators, Detective Hector Polanco, was transferred off the case after allegations of his extorting similarly-detailed confessions in an unrelated case.
It didn’t help the Austin PD when a photograph surfaced on the internet from video footage of Scott’s questioning. The image came from the Austin PD’s own camera and it showed Detective Merrill, aiming a gun at Scott’s head.
By this point, the defendants had been sentenced to life and spent almost a decade in prison. The confession provided were, according to one report, ‘stunningly detailed but decidedly false.’ The allegations against Palanco contributed to having Springsteen’s and Scott’s cases reviewed and their convictions eventually overturned.
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There were a number of factors making investigations especially difficult. The Austin Police Department were relatively inexperienced in handling such horrific cases and the public pressures that went with them. They also faced a plethora of false confessions, useless information, and leads that went nowhere but still had to be checked. At one point, the investigation had a list of 342 potential perpetrators.
All told, over 50 false confessions had to be debunked, including one from serial killer Kenneth McDuff. McDuff, executed in 1998 on unrelated murder convictions, made a confession on his execution day. He was known to be active in the area at the time of the crime and to target teenagers. Even though his confession was most likely an effort to gain a stay of execution, it still had to be checked. If, however, McDuff was hoping for a stay, he was disappointed. He died as scheduled.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the convictions of Scott and Springsteen were overturned. Because the state appealed against the ruling, the pair weren’t released until 2009–10 years after they were sent to jail. Forrest Wellborn, alleged by the state to have been a lookout while Springsteen, Pierce, and Scott committed the crime, remains scarred by his experience at the hands of the Austin PD.
Fellow suspect Maurice Pierce died in December 2010 when a routine traffic stop turned deadly. Soon after being pulled over by officer Frank Wilson and Wilson's partner, Pierce fled the scene. Caught by Wilson, Pierce drew a knife and stabbed the officer in the neck. Wilson managed to draw his sidearm and fatally shot Pierce. Wilson ultimately survived the stabbing.
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Other evidence still remains unresolved. Two unidentified men were seen entering the shop shortly before the time of the crime. According to two other customers, both credible witnesses who stopped in for yogurt sundaes, these men arrived shortly before the shop closed and remained after the door had been locked and the shop closed. It was common practice to close up around 10 minutes before 11:00 P.M., unlocking the door to allow any late customers to leave.
Cold case detectives currently reviewing the case have yet to identify either of the men. DNA samples discovered at the scene match neither Scott nor Springsteen. Were the two unidentified subjects involved or just casual customers passing through? Unless they are found, the residents of Austin will likely never know just what happened in the yogurt shop that night in 1991.
Featured photo of Amy Ayers, Jennifer Harbison, Sarah Harbison and Eliza Thomas: Verging On / YouTube