AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s been 30 years since the quadruple murder at a north Austin yogurt shop that claimed the lives of four teenage girls and shocked the Central Texas community. Three decades on, questions remain in the unsolved mystery of who killed 13-year-old Amy Ayers, 17-year-old Jennifer Harbison, her 15-year-old sister Sarah and 17-year-old Eliza Thomas.
Structure fire turned homicide case
Austin firefighters responded to a fire at the “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt!” shop off Anderson Lane on Dec. 6, 1991. But what began as a structure call quickly transpired into a quadruple homicide case, as the bodies of the four teenage girls were found in the building.
The nature of the case was gruesome, former Austin firefighter Rene Garza told KXAN in 2016. All four girls were discovered tied up, stacked on top of each other, each shot in the head. Evidence indicated some had been sexually assaulted.
“You can’t help but relive those images and I still see the images,” Garza said.
Nearly 1,000 community members gathered outside St. Louis Catholic Church to pay their respects to the victims. When the church hit maximum capacity, hundreds stood on the front lawn, peering through windows to hear portions of the sermon.
Three of the victims — the Harbison sisters and Ayers — were laid to rest together, while Thomas was buried separately at Austin Memorial Cemetery, according to KXAN archives.
Yogurt shop owners initially offered $25,000 to anyone with information that would lead to the conviction of the person responsible for their murders. That reward was later bumped to more than $100,000, per KXAN archives.
Delayed leads, later arrests
Eight years after the murders, Austin Police arrested four men in connect to the case: Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Maurice Pierce and Forrest Welborn.
Prior to their trials, Springsteen and Scott each confessed to the murders, but have since recanted those testimonies, with defense attorneys accusing APD officials of coercion. Charges against Pierce were dropped, while a Travis County grand jury opted not to indict Welborn.
Both Springsteen and Scott were convicted, with Springsteen sentenced to death and Scott sentenced to life in prison. Springsteen’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison, due to his status as a minor at the time of the murders.
Then, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned both Springsteen and Scott’s convictions in separate rulings in 2006 and 2007, respectively. In each case, the TCCA’s rulings noted constitutional violations found in both Springsteen and Scott’s confessions.
In 2009, advanced DNA testing located a DNA profile belonging to an unknown male as part of sexual assault swabs taken of the victims. The profile did not match any of the four men initially arrested in connection to the murder.
On Oct. 28, 2009, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg filed a motion for dismissal and requested the charges against Springsteen and Scott be dismissed. Court records revealed law enforcement was still investigating the DNA testing and related matters, and Lehmberg wasn’t going to go to trial on the case as these investigations continued.
A DNA stalemate and cold case support efforts
In 2017, an Austin detective submitted a sampling of DNA evidence found in one of the victims into a Y-STR DNA database. Y-STR DNA is a specific form of a DNA profile that helps narrow in on male relatives of suspects, per Reporting Texas.
That evidence led to a match in the database system. As the Austin Police Department sought more information on who the matching donor was, the Federal Bureau of Investigation denied release of the evidence or related information, citing a federal statute that protects anonymous donors and prevents their identities from being disclosed.
In October, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton introduced the Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit within the AG’s office. The newly formed unit is designed to “aid and support law enforcement agencies across the state” while investigating unsolved homicides and missing persons cases, per the release.
“The Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit will bring cases that have been left behind – whether that is due to limited resources or insufficient funding – and bring them back into the light. This unit is a first step in getting closure for many families across our state. I look forward to the unit sharing its expertise with local law enforcement to provide investigative assistance and opportunities for training and science education.”Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton
This followed introduction by Texas’ U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-10) and California’s U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-15) of the bipartisan Homicide Victims’ Families Rights Act in May. The legislation, as proposed, would allow victims’ families to request their case file be reviewed once a case has “gone cold” after three years, per a release.
“Almost 30 years have passed since the unspeakable and brutal murders of four teenage girls at a local yogurt shop in Austin,” McCaul said in the release. “To this day we do not know who is responsible. As a father of five and a former federal prosecutor, it seems unimaginable to go without an answer as to why a loved one was taken so suddenly. That is why this legislation is so important – to give these Austin families – and others like them – the tools to work with law enforcement to pursue justice on behalf of their loved one.”
If you have any information related to the case, please contact the Austin Police Department Homicide tip line at 512-477-3588 or Crime Stoppers at 512-472-TIPS.