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The Unsolved Austin Yogurt Shop Murders

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Case File Overview

On December 6, 1991 fifteen-year-old Sarah Harbison and her thirteen-year-old friend Amy Ayers were hanging out at Northcross Mall in Austin, Texas

They were killing time on the chilly Friday night until Sarah’s sister Jennifer and her school friend and co-worker Eliza Thomas, both seventeen, were done their late shift at the “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt!” shop located in the Hillside strip mall in the 2900 block of West Anderson Lane. 

L-R: Jennifer Harbison; Sara Harbison; Amy Ayers; and Eliza Thomas

Photo of Austin yogurt shop murder victims
Source: CBS News

Sometime after 10:00PM, Sarah and Amy made their way the few blocks to the yogurt shop from the mall to help close up. After the store closed at 11:00PM all four girls had plans to go to a slumber party. 

Just before midnight, Austin Police Department officer Troy Gay noticed smoke rising from the strip mall while out on patrol. The officer reported the fire and firefighters soon arrived on scene. As they were extinguishing the blaze, they came across a horrific sight. 

Jennifer, Sara, Amy, and Eliza were dead. All of the girls were naked and bound and gagged with their own clothing. Amy’s body was discovered in the middle of the back room, while Jennifer, Sara, and Eliza were found in the rear of the back room clustered into one corner. Eliza and Sarah were stacked on top of each other while Jennifer lay close by. 

Crime scene diagram

Diagram of the Austin yogurt shop crime scene
Source: The Austin Chronicle

The girls’ legs were spread wide open and an ice cream scoop was placed between one of their legs. Their bodies were burned almost beyond recognition, as the killer or killers had collected napkins and other flammable items from around the shop and had doused them and the bodies with lighter fluid before lighting the shop ablaze and fleeing. 

Autopsies done on the girls uncovered they were all shot in the back of the head execution-style. And at least two of the girls had been raped. Authorities also informed the media that two guns had been used to commit the murders, suggesting there may have been at least two perpetrators. 

The yogurt shop management and police investigators determined there was approximately $540 missing from the store. 

Despite a lengthy police investigation by lead detective John Jones and his partner Mike Huckabay, numerous suspects, and an outraged community, these appalling murders remain unsolved. 

Case File Theories

From the start, there were a number of issues with the investigation. First off, the firemen who responded to the call did their job…and in the process potentially washed away precious forensic evidence. Even more, in the early 1990s Austin lacked forensic expertise, having only one fingerprint unit. Plus with the small size of the city’s homicide squad there was only one homicide investigator on shift the night of the murders. 

Crime scene

Photo of the Austin yogurt shop unsolved murders crime scene
Source: New York Post

Regardless of the department’s shortfalls, Jones and Huckabay had more than their fair share of suspects. The phones at the police station rang off the hook as tips flooded in. The investigators were understandably overwhelmed when confronted with 342 suspects and dozens of false confessions. 

Considering the horrific nature of the crime as well as the staging of the bodies, the investigators first looked into serial killers who may have been at work in the area….which led them to Kenneth Allen McDuff. 

Kenneth Allen McDuff

McDuff was a Texas serial killer suspected of at least fourteen murders. He was convicted of murdering three teens on August 6, 1966: Robert Brand, Mark Dunman, and Edna Louis Sullivan. These killings were dubbed the Broomstick Murders because Edna’s neck was broken with a broomstick after she was repeatedly raped. 

Kenneth McDuff

Serial Killer Kenneth McDuff
Source: Wikipedia

McDuff was sentenced to death, but his sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole in 1972 after the US Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in a 5-4 decision. Due to prison overcrowding, McDuff was paroled in 1989. It is now believed that after his release McDuff committed many other murders, including the killing of Melissa Ann Northrup, a 22-year-old Texan, in 1992. After evading capture for years, McDuff was finally taken into custody and sent to death row. 

On November 17, 1998, the day of his execution, McDuff confessed to the yogurt shop murders. If he thought this last-minute confession was going to spare his life he was mistaken. His execution was carried out that day as scheduled. After McDuff’s death, the authorities investigated his confession but ruled him out when fingerprints and hair collected from the yogurt shop could not be linked back to him. 

Maurice Pierce 

Eight days after the murders, the investigators got a tip to look into a teenager named Maurice Pierce. The sixteen-year-old was seen at the Northcross Mall with a gun on the very same night Sarah and Amy were hanging out there before they headed the yogurt shop. The gun was a .22-caliber handgun – the same caliber as one of the guns used to execute the girls.

But when Jones and Huckabay questioned Pierce along with the three friends he was with at the mall – Michael Scott, Robert Springsteen, and Forrest Welborn – nothing came of the lead. 

When Pierce’s gun was tested, the ballistics showed it did not match the murder weapon. Also, just like with McDuff, the fingerprints and hair collected from the crime scene did not match any of the four teens. Eventually, the investigators moved on. 

1999 Arrests

Years went by with no arrests, so the case was passed on to new detectives. Then in 1999 four suspects in their twenties were taken into custody for the murders – Forrest Welborn, Michael Scott, Robert Springsteen, and Maurice Pierce – the same suspects who were questioned eight days after the girls were killed and released due to a lack of evidence. 

L-R: Robert Burns Springsteen, Jr.; Maurice Earl Pierce; Forrest Brook Wellborn; and Michael James Scott

Austin yogurt shop murders suspect
Source: New York Post

One of the suspects, Michael Scott, confessed to the killings. And he was not alone; Robert Springsteen also confessed to killing the girls and raping one of them. After the confessions, the police were convinced they had their killers. 

The theory was that the four had planned to rob the yogurt shop. Scott, Springsteen, and Pierce entered the shop while Welborn waited outside and served as a lookout. But then something went very wrong during the robbery and all of the girls were killed. 

The authorities tried twice to indict Welborn for the murders, but they lacked the evidence to link him to the crime, so all charges against him were dropped. Charges against Pierce were also dropped due to a lack of evidence, which was particularly hard for the police and the victims’ families to take as he was considered the mastermind behind the crime and the subsequent killings. 

Springsteen and Scott were tried separately for the yogurt shop killings and both were found guilty of capital murder. Springsteen received the death penalty, which was possible even after the Supreme Court ruling in 1972 because the State of Texas had passed a new death penalty statute, whereas Michael Scott was sentenced to 99 years in prison. 

However, not long after their trials serious concerns were raised that suggested Springsteen and Scott may have been innocent. To start, there was no physical evidence linking either of them to the crime. Additionally, both men said their confessions had been coerced. And there was some evidence to back up their claims. One of the detectives on the case was transferred after he allegedly extorted confessions in an unrelated case. And a photo came to light of another member of the Austin Police Department pointing a gun at Scott’s head during his interrogation. 

Roughly fifteen years after the yogurt shop killings were committed, both convictions were overturned when the courts found they violated Springsteen and Scott’s Sixth Amendment right to confront their accuser. Scott and Springsteen’s confessions were used against one another at trial, but their lawyers were never given the opportunity to cross examine the accuser. As a result, it was determined their constitutional rights had been violated.

Later, in 2008, DNA testing was done on the evidence collected from the crime scene and the male DNA found did not match Scott and Springsteen, or any of the other men suspected of the crime for that matter. 

Then-Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said even though she was sure Scott and Springsteen were responsible for the yogurt shop murder, the men would not be re-prosecuted until the unknown male connected to the DNA evidence was found. 

Most of the authorities still believe they had the right four guys all along, and that a fifth man must have helped perpetrate the crime, explaining away the unknown DNA evidence. But the defense attorneys for Scott and Springsteen call the fifth man theory ridiculous and stress that no one ever mentioned a fifth participant until the “inconvenient” DNA results came in. 

Unidentified Customers 

Some of the lawyers, investigators, family members, and armchair detectives who have studied this case think the killers are actually two yet unidentified customers who were in the yogurt shop at closing time. The police apparently interviewed 52 customers who visited the store on the day of the murders, but two men who witnesses placed there at closing time have never been found. 

Three customers who left the store just before closing said on their way out they noticed two men sitting in a booth not looking like they were leaving any time soon. The men may have ordered a soft drink. At least one of the customers then saw Jennifer lock the front door and put up the closed sign so no more customers would enter while her and her co-worker closed up the store. The two men in the booth remained behind after all of the other customers left. 

Witnesses described the persons of interest as follows: “One has lighter hair, maybe like a dirty blond, and is about 5 foot 6 … in his late 20s, early 30s. The other is described as a bigger man. Both were wearing bigger coats…one had a green coat…army-fatigue kind of looking jacket, the other had a black jacket.” To this day, neither of these men have been identified. 

In the end, it is questionable if robbery was ever really the motive in this case. Given the small amount of money taken and the extreme level of violence, it is hard to imagine that these murders were merely the result of a robbery gone bad. 

It is much more likely the crime was sexually motivated and the killers grabbed the money as an afterthought. One of the girls may have known the killers or maybe Sarah and Amy were followed from the mall to the yogurt shop. Regardless, it is doubtful Springsteen, Pierce, Wellborn, and Scott had anything to do with the murders. The key to solving this case potentially rests with linking the DNA evidence found at the scene to the two male customers seen by witnesses lingering in the yogurt shop after closing. 

Who do you think is responsible for the Austin yogurt shop murders?

The 1991 yogurt shop murders changed Austin forever. The then-mayor called the murders “the crime where Austin lost its innocence.” The violent and sudden loss of four young girls with their entire lives ahead of them caused residents to question the safety of their city. 

Memorial plaque

Memorial plaque in the Austin yogurt shop murders
Source: AETV.com

The “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt!” shop became a nail salon, but a plaque remains in the parking lot under an old oak tree memorializing Jennifer Harbison, Sara Harbison, Amy Ayers, and Eliza Thomas…and reminding all those who pass by that justice has yet to be served. 

If you have any information that can help solve this case, please call 512-472-TIPS. 

Sources:

“‘Pure, Unadulterated Evil’: Exploring the 1991 Austin Yogurt Shop Murders.” KVUE ABC, May 3, 2019. 

“The Austin Yogurt Shop Murders Cold Case: Revisiting the Scene of the Crime More Than 25 Years Later.” A&E, April 10, 2018. 

“Cruelly Slain: The Brutal Austin Yogurt Shop Murders of 1991 Remain Unsolved Decades Later.” The Lineup, March 28, 2018. 

“5 Unsolved Mass Murders.” Morbidology, November 2, 2017. 

Who Killed These Girls?  Beverly Lowry, July 25, 2017.

“Innocence Lost.” 48 Hours, January 21, 2017. 

“25 Years Later, Still No Clear Answers in the Yogurt Shop Murders Case.” KUT 90.5, December 6, 2016. 

“Inside the Nightmarish ‘Yogurt Shop Murders’.” New York Post, October 7, 2016. 

“The 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders.” True Crime Diva, May 11, 2015. 

“Scene of the Crime.” The Austin Chronicle, December 16, 2011. 

“Kenneth Allen McDuff.” Murderpedia, n.d. 

Interested in cold cases? Check out the Audio File of the unexplained disappearance of the Sodder children and the slaying of Patricia Denise Palmer.

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7 Comments

  1. Sean Leckie Sean Leckie

    Man, what a convoluted and unfortunate tale. Thank you for sharing, as always.

    • Christine Christine

      Hi Sean – A very happy New Year to you and your family. Thanks for reading. Yes, this is a heartbreaking and convoluted case. The poor families thinking they finally had justice…but then maybe not. I can’t even imagine. Take care. ~ Christine

  2. celine carter celine carter

    wow just came across this website and became interested in this case anyway in my opinion i think the 4 boys who got interviewed must be hiding something because it sound strange. Why would they confess to a crime that they haven’t committed so to me i think they must know what really happened that night and might also know the real 2 suspects that committed the brutal attack on these poor kids.

    • Christine Christine

      Hi Celine. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Yes this sure is a baffling case. And it always shocks me when people confess to a crime they didn’t commit. But it happens way more often than seems possible. Either way, I hope one day their loved ones can get some answers. Thanks again!

  3. Nic Nic

    It seems like it would make sense for it to be Kenneth McDuff given his history of murdering and raping teens; he even confessed to it! I understand his DNA didn’t match the evidence the police had, but I’m curious what their evidence is. If 52 people were in the shop that day alone, I’m sure there would be lots of people’s hair.

    I’m just curious why that hair stood out, was it on the rape victims body? These cops don’t seem the most competent if they’re pointing guns at suspects heads…

    • Christine Christine

      Hi Nic. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. I agree – it would be nice to know more about the DNA comparisons. So many unanswered questions!

    • Prajwal Prajwal

      I think they were pubic hair as two them were raped. Well I don’t know for sure it’s just my instinct.

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