On this day in 1991, four teenage girls were brutally murdered in a North Austin yogurt shop. Police were first drawn to the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt store on Anderson Lane after they spotted a fire, which led to the discovery of the victims, who had been bound in their own clothing, gagged and shot to death, before being left to burn. Evidence showed there was a sexual assault at the shop, investigators said.
Two 17-year-olds worked at the store: Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas. Jennifer’s sister, Sarah Harbison, 15, and friend Amy Ayers, 13, had stayed late on Dec. 6, 1991, waiting for a ride home.
A 1991 American-Statesman article said “Austin buried a part of its innocence” the day of the funeral mass for Thomas, Ayers and the Harbison sisters. Feelings of loss and shock extended beyond the Austin community, as the murders gained national attention. While locals mourned, police launched a massive investigation, which included the questioning of Robert Springsteen and three teenage friends.
Although the four were eventually ruled out as suspects, a confession eight years later led to the imprisonment of Springsteen and Michael Scott. All four suspects were indicted for capital murder, though only Springsteen and Scott went to trial. With no physical evidence linking Springsteen and Scott to the crime, both confessions were essential to their convictions in separate trials as prosecutors argued that the men knew information about the crimes that only the perpetrators would know, including the type of gun used and the position of Ayers’ body.
In 2006, Springsteen’s conviction was overturned after defense lawyers argued he was coerced into confessing by abusive police interrogations. Scott’s conviction was overturned a year later for the same reason. Springsteen’s defense also pointed to a DNA test on a vaginal swab taken from one of the victims, which “refuted Springsteen’s claim in his confession to police that he sexually assaulted the teenager.”
An American-Statesman report earlier this year broke down what became of the four suspects:
• Robert Springsteen: Convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in June 2001. After four years on death row, his sentence was commuted to life in prison because the U.S. Supreme Court barred death sentences for crimes committed by those under age 18. A state appeals court threw out his sentence in 2006, but he remained jailed for two more years awaiting a new trial. Travis County prosecutors dropped all charges on Oct. 28, 2009.
• Michael Scott: Convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison in September 2002. A state appeals court threw out his conviction in June 2007, and he remained in jail for another year awaiting a new trial. Prosecutors dropped all charges on Oct. 28, 2009.
• Maurice Pierce: A judge ruled that Pierce, 16 at the time of the killings, could be tried as an adult. Citing a lack of evidence, prosecutors dismissed all charges in January 2003, and he was released from jail. Pierce was shot to death by an Austin police officer in December 2010 after taking the officer’s knife and slashing him in the neck during a traffic stop, police said.
• Forrest Welborn: A judge ruled that Welborn, 15 at the time of the killings, could be tried as an adult, but capital murder charges were dropped in June 2000 after a second grand jury declined to indict him.
Springsteen recently demanded a court order declaring him innocent of the murders, and therefore eligible to receive almost $720,000. Despite this, “Prosecutors say Springsteen is still considered a suspect in the case.”
Twenty-five years later, one of the city’s most infamous and tragic cases remains unsolved. An investigation remains open.
American-Statesman communities editor Tom Labinski also contributed to this post.