Unidentified DNA found 30 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? “48 Hours”‘ Erin Moriarty has the latest in the search for answers in “The Yogurt Shop Murders. “
On December 6, 1991, a fire was reported inside an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! Austin, Texas. After the fire had been extinguished investigators discovered the shop that still haunts Austin to this day.
Young lives cut short
Inside the yogurt shop were the charred bodies of four teenage girls ranging from 13 to 17 years old. From top to bottom, Amy Ayers (left), Eliza Thomas (right), Sarah Harbison (right), and Jennifer Harbison.
Jennifer and Eliza were working in the yogurt shop. Jennifer’s older sister Sarah, and Sarah’s best friend Amy Ayers visited the yogurt shop just before the closing time on the night that the murders took place. The four young girls were all gagged and tied up, then shot.
The Harbison sisters
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
At 13 years old, Amy Ayers was the youngest of the victims of the yogurt shop murders. In an older, undated photograph of Amy Ayers and her family.
Sonora Thomas with her sister Eliza
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”
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
The fire inside the yogurt shop was so intense that it made collecting evidence very difficult. This is the view from the back, showing a collapsed and charred shelving unit.
Charred debris inside yogurt shop
A melted phone clings to the wall inside the yogurt shop.
John Jones at the scene
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. Although he has retired long ago, the case remains in his thoughts. “I can still see the inside of that place … That stuff’s … indelibly burned in my mind,” he told “48 Hours” in 2021.
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
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?
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. The men initially refused to answer questions by Austin detectives. However, when Mexican authorities interrogated them they admitted their involvement in the murders at the yogurt shop. The details that they provided didn’t correspond with the evidence at the crime scene, so Austin detectives asked them again.
In October 1999, nearly eight years after the yogurt shop murders, Austin police announced the arrest of four suspects in the case. From top left, Maurice Pierce (forrest welborn), Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott are shown. Although all four of these men were questioned immediately after the killings, there was no hard evidence to link them with the crime.
Eight years later, police obtained confessions from both Springsteen and Scott. Although Welborn, Pierce and Scott were originally charged with the offense, they were dropped because of lack evidence. Springsteen and Scott were both later to face trial.
Confessions and convictions
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. Robert Springsteen confessed to the same crime under interrogation days later. Both men would be found guilty, despite later claims that they were forced to confess.
Convictions and the Constitution
Robert Springsteen, speaks to Austin police in 1999. Springsteen and Scott confessed to each other during their trial, but were not allowed to speak with 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
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. The District Attorney of Austin dismissed the criminal charges against Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott and others after receiving these results.
A promising lead?
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. McCaul said that there was only one DNA sample remaining, but the congressman is optimistic. “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
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 .