Key moments in the investigation of Austin’s yogurt shop murders

Key moments in the investigation of Austin’s yogurt shop murders
Austin, Texas, yogurt shop

CBS News affiliate


Unidentified DNA found 31 years ago at the scene of a quadruple murder recently raised hopes that this unsolved mystery might finally be solved – but will it crack the case? 


On December 6, 1991, a fire was reported inside an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop in Austin, Texas. Once the fire was extinguished, investigators made a discovery inside the store that haunts the city to this day.  

Young lives cut short

Yogurt shop victims

AP


Inside the yogurt shop were the charred bodies of four teenage girls ranging from 13 to 17 years old. The victims clockwise from top left, Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, Sarah Harbison and Jennifer Harbison.

Jennifer and Eliza were working in the yogurt shop. Jennifer’s younger sister Sarah and Sarah’s friend Amy Ayers were visiting the  shop shortly before closing on the night of the murders. All four girls had been gagged, tied up and shot.

The Harbison sisters

Sarah and Jennifer Harbison

Austin Police Department


Sarah Harbison, left, and Jennifer Harbison are pictured in an undated photo with their mother. Jennifer was 17 when she was killed in the yogurt shop murders; her sister Sarah was 15.

Amy Ayers and family

Amy Ayers an her family

Austin Police Department


At 13 years old, Amy Ayers was the youngest of the victims of the yogurt shop murders. She is pictured with her family in an earlier, undated photo.

Sonora Thomas with her sister Eliza

Sonora and Eliza Thomas

Sonora Thomas


Eliza Thomas, right, was 17 when she was murdered inside the yogurt shop. In this photo taken a few months before her death, Eliza is seen with her younger sister Sonora, who was 13 when her sister died.

“I remember fantasizing for days that my sister had somehow escaped and ran away and was hiding … I was constantly fantasizing that she was going to come back,” Sonora told “48 Hours” in 2021.

“She was always taking care of me”

Sonora and Eliza Thomas

Sonora Thomas


Three-year-old Sonora Thomas, left, shares a hug with her sister Eliza in this 1981 family photo. In talking about her big sister, Sonora told “48 Hours,” “She was always taking care of me … Every moment, every memory that you have, she was in the background or in the foreground.”

Charred debris inside yogurt shop

Yogurt shop murders evidence

Austin Police Department


The fire inside the yogurt shop was so intense that it made collecting evidence very difficult. Seen here is a charred and collapsed shelving unit from the back of the shop.

Charred debris inside yogurt shop

Yogurt shop murders evidence

Austin Police Department


A melted phone clings to the wall inside the yogurt shop.

John Jones at the scene

Austin Detective John Jones

CBS News affiliate


Detective John Jones, left, seen speaking with fellow investigators at the scene of the crime, led the investigation for the Austin Police Department for nearly four years. He has long since retired, but the case is never far from his mind.  “I can still see the inside of that place … That stuff’s … indelibly burned in my mind,” he told “48 Hours” in 2021.

Constant reminders

Yogurt shop victims

CBS News


To this day, retired Detective Jones keeps a mug that reads “We Will Not Forget,” along with this medallion on his desk, as a reminder of this unsolved case.

Public appeals for help

Yogurt shop murders

CBS News affiliate


In the wake of the murders, an unprecedented call for information from the public was launched. Photos of the girls and requests for tips appeared on billboards throughout the city, and even on the back of Austin taxi cabs like this one photographed in February 1992.

A Mexico connection?

Yogurt shop murder investigation

Austin Police Department


In the fall of 1992, two men wanted for an unrelated kidnapping and sexual assault in Austin were arrested in Mexico. One of the men seen here bore a striking resemblance to someone witnesses reported seeing outside the yogurt shop on the night of the murders. When questioned by Austin investigators the men initially denied any involvement in the yogurt shop murders, but when interrogated by Mexican authorities they confessed. However, details they gave didn’t match the evidence found at the crime scene and when Austin detectives re-questioned the men they recanted.

Suspects arrested

Yogurt shop suspects

AP Photos


In October 1999, nearly eight years after the yogurt shop murders, Austin police announced the arrest of four suspects in the case. Pictured clockwise from top left are Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn, Robert Springsteen, and Michael Scott. All four men had been questioned within days of the murders, but the lack of any hard evidence connecting them to the crime meant that none of them were charged at the time. 

Eight years later, police obtained confessions from both Springsteen and Scott. While Welborn and Pierce were initially charged, those charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence, though Springsteen and Scott would both face trial.

Confessions and convictions

Michael Scott interrogation

Austin Police Department


Michael Scott, seated right, is pictured in 1999 being questioned by Austin Police. His 20-hour interrogation took place over the course of four days, during which Scott confessed to taking part in the yogurt shop murders. Days later, Robert Springsteen also confessed under questioning. Despite both men later claiming their confessions were coerced, they would eventually be convicted. 

Convictions and the Constitution

Robert Springsteen interrogation

Austin Police Department


Robert Springsteen, speaks to Austin police in 1999. Springsteen’s and Scott’s confessions were used against each other at their trials, but they weren’t allowed to question each other in court. As a result, 5 years after each man was found guilty, their convictions were overturned on the grounds that their Constitutional right to confront their accusers had been violated

Surprising DNA results

DNA

Pond5


In 2008, a new type of DNA testing called Y-STR revealed that none of the four men originally arrested for this crime were a match for DNA found at the crime scene. After receiving those results, the District Attorney in Austin dropped the charges against Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott.

A promising lead?

FBI letter to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul

FBI letter to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul


Seen here is a portion of a letter the FBI sent to U.S. Congressman Michael McCaul from Texas in April 2020. It references what was initially thought to be the most promising lead in decades- the discovery of what appeared to be a ‘match’ between a DNA sample taken from the crime scene to a DNA sample that the FBI had contributed to a specialized Y-STR (male only) database in 2014. 

The letter indicates that the DNA sample provided by the Austin Police Department was unfortunately determined not to be a match after further testing was conducted in early 2020. Despite what McCaul described as only a “very limited” DNA sample left, the Congressman remains hopeful. “We’re waiting for … DNA science to improve to then resubmit what we have left in the crime lab for further testing,” he told “48 Hours.”

30th anniversary vigil

Yogurt shop memorial

KEYE


In December 2021, on the 30th anniversary of the unsolved murders of Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, and Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, Austinites placed flowers around the memorial plaque that sits across from the site of the former yogurt shop.

 If you have information about the yogurt shop murders, call 512-472-TIPS [8477].

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