Nov 01, 2021

30 Years Later: Yogurt Shop Murders Still Haunt Austin

Reporting Texas

In the 1990s, a highway billboard was among the efforts to find investigative tips into the slayings of four teenage girls in a North Austin yogurt shop. Photo courtesy Austin American-Statesman

Amy Ayers. Jennifer Harbison. Sarah Harbison. Eliza Thomas.

The four teenage girls were brutally murdered on a Friday night at a yogurt shop in North Austin in December 1991.

The girls’ families and those who worked decades trying to find and prosecute their killers say the 30th anniversary of their murders approaches with no sense of closure. The murders remain unsolved, and experts say that crimes lacking resolution can leave a psychological impact on an entire community.

“There is a sort of collective empathy, if you will, for the extended victims, family members, the people whose lives were affected by this that can endure for a long, long time,” said John Vincent, director of the Center for Forensic Psychology at the University of Houston.

But new state and federal efforts, as well a promising DNA lead, have brought renewed hope for answers and justice.

“We’re not sitting by and doing nothing,” said Angie Ayers, sister-in-law of Amy Ayers and an advocate for the families of the victims. “We are still working on it almost every single day.”

“People think this is a story. This is our life,” Ayers said. “There is no one on this earth that can understand the pain and the brutality and the torture of that except for these particular families. And I don’t wish it on anyone. It has been nothing but hell.”

A murder scene, trials and appeals

The details of the crime, including the subsequent investigation and criminal trials that followed, have been well-documented.

Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas, both 17, worked at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt on West Anderson Lane. Jennifer’s sister Sarah Harbison, 15, and Amy Ayers, 13, arrived at the yogurt shop around closing time on Dec. 6, 1991, with plans to attend a sleepover together. Amy was an eighth-grader at Burnet Middle School; the other girls attended Lanier High School.

They were shot in the head and gagged with their own clothes. Their bodies were stacked on top of one another before being set on fire.

Authorities arrested four suspects in October 1999, eight years after the crime. Only two, Robert Burns Springsteen IV and Michael James Scott, stood trial, and both were convicted. Springsteen received the death penalty, and Scott got life in prison.

But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned their convictions, ruling that their confessions were improperly used against each other in their respective trials. Springsteen and Scott were released from prison, and prosecutors dismissed all charges against them.

In 2017, another potential breakthrough emerged. An Austin detective submitted DNA evidence found in one of the victims into a database that searches Y-STR DNA samples, a type of DNA profile that forensic investigators use to identify male relatives of suspects. A match was found.

The Austin Police Department requested more information about the identity of the matching donor. But the FBI has refused to release any information, saying a federal statute prohibits it from disclosing identities of anonymous donors.

“It is an uphill battle to try to find answers and justice,” Ayers said.

New efforts to solve old cases

Despite these hurdles, the families have continued to work to keep the case in the forefront. Their efforts have led to new crime-fighting initiatives at the state and federal levels.

“When I heard there were over 19,000 unsolved homicides in Texas, I was really taken aback by that, and I think most people are when they hear that number when you think about each of those cases there’s a family associated with that,” said Mindy Montford, who was the first assistant district attorney for Travis County and one of the prosecutors assigned to the yogurt shop murder case for four years.

In 2018, Montford met with a prosecutorial team from California that helped solve a 42-year-old cold case, leading to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., also known as the Golden State Killer.

“The California folks at that meeting started bringing our attention to a lot of things that we didn’t even know were out there in different labs, different genealogists and just from around the country,” Montford said. “I was just thinking about why there wouldn’t be some sort of statewide unit that would kind of be a resource to all these local agencies and stay on top of technology and be able to fund DNA and just to connect these agencies to resources that they may not know exist.”

The yogurt shop murders led Montford to work with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to form the state Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit on Oct. 19. The  unit “will aid and support law enforcement agencies across the state in the investigation and prosecution of unsolved cases, including homicides, missing persons and other matters centered around human identification and forensic genealogy,” the attorney general’s office said in announcing the unit.

Montford serves as senior counsel for the unit. Angie and Shawn Ayers, the brother of the youngest victim, sit on its advisory committee.

“I think success of this unit is really defined more by the fact that we’re not forgetting these cases, that we’re actually going to give it the attention it needs,” Montford said. “We’re going to review it as thoroughly as we can.”

Ayers and the families have also been pushing to effect change on a national level.

In May 2021, U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, and Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, reintroduced the bipartisan Homicide Victims’ Families Rights Act.

“If a case has been cold for three years, it gives the victims the right to petition the local district attorney to reexamine the cold case and take another look at it,” McCaul said last week in an interview. “It’s very much empowering to the families of the victims and particularly the case like the yogurt shop killings.”

McCaul consulted with the Ayers’ on the legislation.

“Angie is the biggest advocate for this bill,” McCaul said. “I applaud her for getting involved.”

‘Evil walking the streets’

Many remember the yogurt shop murders as a defining moment in Austin, which was about half its current size and not yet a tech and tourist hub.

“I remember how shocking and how horrible and horrific that was. We really were a small town, and that kind of thing just doesn’t belong in a small town like Austin,” said Mayor Steve Adler, who was practicing law in Austin at the time. “I think that it was the beginning of a kind of coming of age, recognizing that we were not insulated from the kinds of things that happened to other cities around the world.”

“That was the most random act of violence,” said Louis Black, co-founder of the Austin Chronicle and the South by Southwest festival. “When they couldn’t solve it, it became uglier and more hideous.”

Suddenly, people didn’t feel safe anymore, and it really changed the nature of the city, Black said.

“There literally is evil walking the streets,” he added.

The unsolved nature of a case like this can take a psychological toll on the city’s residents, said Randall Osborne, a social psychology professor at Texas State University.

“One of the ways that we make ourselves feel safer is by defensively attributing bad things to bad people,” he said, referring to the social psychological theory of defensive attribution.

When a culprit is caught or killed, as in the case of Charles Whitman, the lone shooter who killed 16 people from atop the tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, it is easier for people to compartmentalize the tragedy as an isolated event because they can say Whitman was a bad person, Osborne said.

“When you don’t have a culprit that you can point to and say, ‘That person did it. That was the danger,’ it’s hard to defend yourself against that future fear,” Osborne added. “So you’re constantly sort of walking around in this state of alert and danger, and that’s exhausting. It’s not very healthy, and that can really hurt your physical and mental health.”

The 30th anniversary of the yogurt shop murders brings up painful memories for those who tried to solve the crime.

“There was a long time to where I would purposely hide and kind of rolled up into a shell just about every Dec. 6,” said Sgt. John Jones, who was the lead Austin Police Department investigator assigned to the case at the time of the murder. “If there’s no statute of limitations on murder, then there shouldn’t be any limitation on doing what one can to try to get it solved and that sometimes means having to relive that pain and answer questions.”

“My theory is if me talking about it to you, or anybody else, can jog somebody’s memory out there to perhaps get this thing solved, then it’s worth reliving that night. So as much as I want to put it behind me, I kind of can’t,” Jones said.

The girls’ families believe the case will be solved. It’s only a matter of time, Ayers said.

“It is very important that the story is not forgotten because if the story is forgotten, then you forgot the four girls,” Ayers said. “They were four little girls minding their own business, who had a tragic end to their life. And Austin should never forget.”