Hello, my loyal true crime readers! I’m excited to present a guest book review by Barney Doyle. Barney was an award-winning newspaper reporter who left journalism to become a cop. He has spent more than 14 years in law enforcement (and counting).
As always, thanks for reading! ~ Christine
Beverly Lowry’s Who Killed These Girls? is masterfully written, meticulously researched, and comprehensive in almost every facet except, unfortunately, the details that probably matter the most to amateur true crime sleuths.
Lowry’s account of the 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders in Austin, Texas was first published in 2016. Her skill as a writer makes it one of the easiest 500-page reads you will find. She is precise with her language, succinct when it matters, and the kind of gifted storyteller who can make even the most complicated and convoluted of narratives easy to follow. She is a bona fide professional in a genre where too many writers tend to be amateurish and hacky (for example, Reckless Speculation about Murder by Barney Doyle, available now at all of your favorite retailers).
As much as I enjoyed Who Killed These Girls?, I came away with a very clear understanding of Lowry’s position but felt unprepared to form an opinion of my own. The book is ultimately about what the author believes are wrongful convictions, which relegates the murders themselves to just one aspect of a story about police interrogations and the Texas courts. Lowry’s arguments are strong, but they are never met with any resistance. Readers who are looking to formulate an independent opinion on the Yogurt Shop Murders are forced to look outside the covers of the book to feel sufficiently informed.
For those unfamiliar, the Yogurt Shop Murders (covered in-depth here at The True Crime Files) took place in a strip mall in Austin shortly before midnight on December 6, 1991. According to court records, 17-year-olds Eliza Thomas and Jennifer Harbison were working the closing shift at “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt.” Jennifer’s 15-year-old sister Sarah Harbison and Sarah’s 13-year-old friend Amy Ayers were in the shop waiting for a ride home from Jennifer.
At 11:47 p.m. firefighters were sent to the yogurt shop for a fire first observed by a passing Austin police officer. Firefighters worked their way through the blaze and found the bodies of the four girls. Eliza, Sarah, and Jennifer had all died of single gunshot wounds to the backs of their heads. The bullets were recovered and later determined to be .22 caliber. Eliza’s body was on top of Sarah’s, and Jennifer’s body seemed to have been on top of Eliza’s before it either rolled off in the fire or during the attempts to extinguish it.
Amy’s body was separate from the other three girls. She suffered one nonfatal gunshot wound to the top of her head and a second fatal shot to the back of her head. Both bullets were recovered, and it was determined that the nonfatal shot was from a .22 caliber while the fatal shot was from a .380. A fired .380 cartridge case was recovered as well. Amy also had a bruise on the inside of her lip that the medical examiner described as if from a blow or a fall.
All four girls were nude and partially burned. Amy had a ligature around her neck, Jennifer also had a ligature around her neck and her hands were arranged behind her back as if she had been bound, although no binding material was found. Eliza and Sarah had both been gagged, Eliza’s hands were tied behind her back with a bra and Sarah’s hands were tied behind her back with a pair of underwear. There was a metal ice cream scoop between Sarah’s legs and evidence that at least Sarah, and probably all of the girls, had been sexually assaulted.
The front door was locked and the key was still in the interior side of the lock. The back door was cracked open when the fire department arrived. Approximately $540 was missing from the cash register.
Police determined from talking with the manager and the condition of the lobby area that the girls were in the process of closing the business when they were interrupted. Police identified almost all of the customers who had been in the business the final hour before closing time, except two. At 10:42 p.m. a couple by the names of Tim Stryker and Margaret Sheehan made the last order of the night. Stryker and Sheehan told police that when they left the yogurt shop there were two people in hooded jackets sitting at a table closest to the cash register. Stryker and Sheehan did not see the people’s faces but assumed that they were men because of their size and clothing.
The fire and the water used to extinguish it destroyed a lot of the trace evidence at the scene. The Austin Police Department did what by 2021 standards wouldn’t be an ideal job of processing the evidence, but in 1991 was about as good as could be expected on such a complicated scene. Lowry does a good job of explaining the machinations that left the Austin Police Department somewhat unprepared for a scene like that, but also acknowledges that most departments of that size during that era would have had similar challenges. A lot can change in 30 years. The best doctor in the world in 1991 would look a lot like Dr. Nick from the Simpsons if you put him in a modern oncology center.
The Austin Police Department dumped every available resource into the investigation and went through thousands of tips and hundreds of suspects. Two violent Mexican bikers were blamed for a while and even charged with the crimes in Mexico, but they were never extradited to the United States and the investigators never got any real evidence linking them to the crime. Kenneth McDuff, a despicable serial killer, abducted a victim from an Austin car wash later that month, but police were unable to connect him to the Yogurt Shop Murders.
The focus of Lowry’s book was a group of four teenage boys, two of which were eventually convicted of the crimes. Eight days after the murders, an off-duty Austin police officer was working security at the mall when he was notified of a 16-year-old carrying a loaded handgun. The kid’s name was Maurice Pierce and when the officer tracked him down he found a .22 caliber revolver in Pierce’s pocket. He was charged with unlawfully carrying the weapon and booked into a juvenile facility. A homicide detective spoke to him the following day about the Yogurt Shop Murders. After questioning, Pierce claimed that on the night of the murders he was with his friends Forrest Welborn, Mike Scott, and Robert Springsteen. Forrest had borrowed a .22 and disappeared at the approximate time of the murders. Pierce suggested that Forrest had probably committed the crimes, but Pierce insisted that he was not there.
Police wired Pierce up with a recording device and had him try to get Forrest to say something incriminating, but Forrest made it sound as though he didn’t know anything about the murders. When ballistic tests excluded Pierce’s .22 caliber as the murder weapon and no other evidence surfaced, police moved on to other leads.
By late 1998, the investigation was stalled out and the detectives were circling back through old leads. They decided to take another run at Pierce and his friends, but this time they started with Mike Scott. Scott submitted to several long days of interrogation and ultimately gave the detectives a written statement claiming that he, Pierce, and Springsteen had committed the Yogurt Shop Murders while Welborn stood by as a lookout.
Police then moved on to Springsteen, who after a lengthy interrogation, also admitted to participating in the crime and gave a statement that was similar to Scott’s in many respects but also differed in others. Pierce denied any involvement and Welborn refused to talk. All four were eventually charged with the murders, but the charges against Pierce and Welborn were dismissed prior to trial. Scott and Springsteen were convicted, but their convictions were overturned by appellate courts and they were not retried.
A lot of the people involved in the investigation still believe that Pierce, Springsteen, Scott, and Welborn committed the crimes. Multiple witnesses had seen the group at a nearby mall on the night of the murders. Both confessions got details right that the police did not, at least deliberately, release to the public. Pierce was a troubled delinquent who went on to a lifetime of troubles with the law, culminating in his death in a police shooting after fleeing a traffic stop. The same weekend of the murders the boys stole a vehicle from a car lot and took a joyride to San Antonio. It’s not hard to see why they were suspects.
Lowry insists that the confessions were false confessions and the details that Springsteen and Scott got right were either heard from rumors on the street or gleaned from the police during the interrogation. She makes some pretty good points. During one exchange captured in court records from Scott’s appeal, the detectives and Scott play an extended game of “guess again” until Scott is finally able to describe what the girls were tied up with. Maybe Scott was feigning ignorance and the detective in the room could tell, but if that was the case, it doesn’t translate well to the court record. And each man equivocated so much during their statements with “I’m not sure I was actually there” and “I don’t think I actually did that” kind of qualifiers that it feels disingenuous to call them actual “confessions.” But each man undeniably identified the caliber of the second firearm and gave the same explanation for how they got into the store (came in as customers earlier in the night and propped open the back door for later).
In 2008, further testing identified a male DNA profile on the vaginal swab taken from Amy. Additional testing in 2009 identified DNA from another unknown male on some clothing that was used to restrain Eliza. Neither DNA sample was matched to anybody, but Pierce, Springsteen, Scott, and Welborn were all excluded as the source of either. Although prosecutors floated an idea of additional accomplices, the DNA results seem to exonerate the four boys who were originally charged. Unless, of course, that DNA sample gets traced back to a lab technician, in which case everything falls back on what you think of Scott and Springsteen’s confessions.
The general consensus now seems to be that the murderers were probably the two guys that Stryker and Sheehan had seen in the yogurt shop before they left. In October of 1992, two Mexican citizens were arrested in Mexico on suspicion of the Yogurt Shop Murders. The men were thought to be part of a violent outlaw motorcycle gang and suspected of another Austin rape in 1991. One of the men also resembled a composite sketch of a man witnesses claimed to have seen in a vehicle near the yogurt shop on the night of the murders. Both men confessed to Mexican authorities, but when Austin police interviewed them they were unable to provide any details that matched the actual crime. Austin detectives believed that the confessions were beaten out of them and crossed them off as suspects.
An aspect of this case that I personally find fascinating is how similar it is to the bowling alley massacre that took place in Las Cruces, New Mexico in February of 1990. In that crime, two armed men entered through an unlocked bowling alley door before the business was open and found the bowling alley’s manager, her 12-year-old daughter, and the daughter’s 13-year-old friend inside. The men ordered all three of them to lay on the floor of the manager’s office while they stole approximately $5,000 from the safe. They were interrupted by the arrival of another bowling alley employee with his two daughters, two and six years old. The men shot all seven victims with a .22 caliber pistol then set the bowling alley on fire. Three of the victims survived and identified the killers as two dark-complected Hispanic males who spoke fluent English.
The two unsolved crimes were within 22 months of each other and so geographically close that I can’t help but think they are related, even though as of yet there has been no definite link established between the two.
Lowry barely mentions the Las Cruces massacre and gives a very abbreviated account of the bikers from Mexico. Even McDuff gets less attention than the third chair prosecutor, and McDuff deserves to be blamed for every wicked thing that happens near him whether he was involved or not. Truth be told, given the DNA evidence available before she went to press, I think any of those angles would have been at least as interesting as the saga with Scott and Springsteen.
The titular question of Who Killed These Girls? feels more interesting than a passionate explanation of who didn’t. But Lowry is a great writer and the story is fascinating enough that it works either way.