The Yogurt Shop Murders

In a way I am much like a police detective in the fact that I like cases that are closed.  I like to know that the police and prosecutors got it right and they were successful in putting a criminal behind bars.  That is not to say that mysteries do not intrigue me and if you are a regular reader here you know that I often blog about cases in which there are many questions as to if the correct person has been convicted of a crime.  I have also often blogged about many cases in which a person has been exonerated of a crime in which they were convicted. In the same respect, for me I am unsure sometimes which is the bigger crime, the initial crime someone is charged with or the crime committed in which evidence is often skewed or outright fabricated in order to secure a conviction.  I am an ardent supporter of civil rights and the law.  They are in place for reasons.  If someone is going to be involved in situations in which a person's freedom is at stake I want to know that everything is followed by "the book."  I want to feel secure that everything was done in the exact legal way in which it should to ensure that the guilty parties are held accountable and that innocent people are not railroaded.  Maybe I am lying to myself when I say that with the discovery of DNA and the ever evolving science surrounding that, it is more difficult to in these modern times but maybe that is what allows me to sleep at night. Then again DNA is often no match to tunnel vision or those who will alter evidence to fit a theory they have come up with.  I guess it should not be surprising to know this happens as we seem to live in a world in which few people want to take responsibility for their actions or admit they were wrong, and I am not just speaking of the criminals here. 

Just before midnight on December 6, 1991, a patrol officer in Austin Texas saw smoke coming from a strip mall, specifically from a "I Can't Believe It's Yogurt" store and called in the fire department.  Soon the smoke became a large fire as the firefighters fought to get it under control and extinguished.  It was not until after the fire was out that the bodies of 4 young girls were found inside.  Two of the girls, Jennifer Harbison (17) and Eliza Thomas (17) worked at the yogurt shop.  The other two, Jennifer's sister, Sarah (15) and Amy Ayers (13) were also inside.  The bodies of Sarah and Eliza were "stacked" on top of each other while Jennifer's body lay nearby.  Amy's body was found a bit further from the other three. Although the bodies were badly charred and had to be identified through dental records it seems they were able to determine that all four girls were naked and had been bound by their own clothing.  My research indicates that the three bodies that were together were closer to where the fire likely started as it seems more evidence was able to be gathered from Amy's body than the other three.  Just exactly where that fire started has been a contention for years.

Once the bodies were discovered homicide detectives were called in but they were already at a huge disadvantage.  Aside from the fact that the fire itself had damaged the bodies and evidence, the process of extinguishing the fire had also damaged the scene.  Understandably the power of the hose had likely moved evidence around, as well as firefighters, by no fault of their own, had not only trampled the scene but moved things in continuing their effort to make sure the fire was out.  No one knew going in that they would find bodies inside.... the store had been closed for nearly an hour and no one seemed to have obviously reported any of the girls missing as of yet. 

It would be determined through the autopsy that all of the girls had been shot in the head at least once except for Amy, the youngest, who had been found separated from the other girls, who was shot twice.  It was also determined that at least Amy had been sexually assaulted.  To be fair here I need to mention that some research indicated that it was possible that all the girls had been assaulted, while some other research indicates that at least two of the girls had been but apparently it could only conclusively be proven that Amy had.  I am uncertain if this is because of the condition of the bodies considering that research is sketchy as to how these theories were obtained.  It seems some of this came from apparent confessions while other times it seems the evidence may or may not have been available. It was also determined that two guns had been used in the crime.  There was evidence of both a .22 and a .380 (not to be confused with a .38) pistols being used.  This would indicate that there were at least two perpetrators involved as it is rare that one assailant would use two different guns at one crime scene.

This crime rocked Austin.  It would be said that although Austin is a big city, it has, or at least in 1991, a small town feel about it.  At least this was the media portrayal. I did see an article written by a native of Austin who indicated this was not exactly true, stating they had known Austin was not immune to things since Charles Whitman climbed the University tower in 1966 and began shooting innocent people and the "small town feel" idea was a media invention.  Even still, no matter which way you looked at it, the violent death of four teenage girls is likely to rock any town, even today, let alone the early 1990's.  

Within weeks the investigators had their hands full.  They had hundreds of tips and suspects to sort through and in fact they had received more than a handful of confessions, some of them even written but all proven to be false.  This alone would seem to be odd that this one department would receive so many false confessions, but you will see later why this was likely the case. The original lead detective, John Jones, had even brought in a 16 yr old boy named, Maurice Pierce into be questioned about a week after the crime.  It seems that Maurice had been at least seen (maybe even arrested, I could not determine) the night of the crime, at a mall within a short distance of the yogurt shop and that he had carried a .22 handgun.  The information is a bit sketchy as to what Jones was able to determine about Pierce during the time he first became a suspect. Pierce would claim that he had loaned his friend, Forrest Welborn (15) the .22 and indicated maybe Welborn had committed the murders.  Pierce also admitted that not long after the crime that he, Welborn and two other teenagers, Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott had stolen an SUV for a joyride.  This led Jones into looking into the other three boys.  Apparently ballistic tests were done on the .22 and they did not match but to be fair (this is something I learned researching this case), apparently according to investigators a .22 is the hardest type of weapon to match in ballistics due to how the gun fires.  Years later Jones would claim that another reason he had dismissed Pierce as a suspect is that a detective by the name of Hector Polance had spoken to Pierce.  I will go into Polance more later but for now it is suffice to say that Polance had a reputation of getting a lot of confessions.  Jones felt that knowing this about Polance and knowing he had not gotten a confession from Pierce, a "scrawny" teenager, it was unlikely the teen was guilty.  All four of the teenagers were dismissed as suspects.  As time went on and the case grew cold Jones was promoted to another department and no longer in charge of the case.

In 1996 a detective by the name of Paul Johnson took over the cold case. Obviously the first place a detective starts with a cold case is looking at the old file.  They look at the evidence and the suspects with new eyes.  Johnson has received much criticism over the years for his handling of the case after receiving it and it seems he has never helped himself in the situation as it seems he either rarely grants interviews about the case or when he does he does not seem to answer important questions.  One question that has been asked often is out of all the suspects (there were hundreds) and the dozens of confessions (some reports say as many as 50) that were given in this case how he came to quickly focus in on Pierce and the other three teenagers.  It is often believed, and sometimes it is true, that when it comes to cold cases the answer was there all along in the files.  It has been argued that Johnson took this belief and rather than truly investigate the case he decided the answer was in the files and there was nothing that was going to change that.  Johnson tracked down Pierce, Welborn, Springsteen and Scott and interrogated them all.  Neither Pierce or Welborn gave him much but both Springsteen and Scott seemed to confess to the crime, and in essence implicating Pierce and Welborn.  On October 6, 1999, all four (now) men were arrested for the murders at the yogurt shop.  

Welborn was released within a few months when two grand juries failed to indict him on the charges.  Pierce proceeded to lavish in jail until 2003 when charges were eventually dropped against him due to lack of evidence.  Strangely it took a bit of digging to find out exactly when Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott actually went to trial.  Generally that is one of the easiest things to find when researching a case but this one was different in so many ways so I guess this should not surprise me.  At any rate, it seems that the time the men started looking at trial they were facing murder charges in the death of Amy Ayers only, although especially considering the publicity of the case as well as how the case was presented that everyone knew the other girls in the case.  I suspect this was done because since her body was separate from the others more evidence was obtained, as well as the fact that she was the youngest victim so more charges and harsher punishments could be given. This is also sometimes done so that if for some reason the state truly messes up their case and loses, they still have other charges they can bring (although attorney's would try fight it). At any rate Springsteen was convicted on May 30, 2001 and initially he was sentenced to death.  This would later be changed to life in prison.  Michael Scott was convicted on September 22, 2002 and also sentenced to life in prison.  

Despite the fact that charges had been dropped against Welborn and then later Pierce prosecutors maintained that all four men were involved in the murders. So, what evidence did they have?  They had the confessions of Scott and Springsteen.  Springsteen had even confessed to raping 13 year old Amy Ayers. 

The long space in between that last sentence and this is not necessarily to be a paragraph break but to leave a pause after telling you what the evidence in this case was.  There were no fingerprints, no hairs, no weapons, no... anything but the confessions.  In fact, both confessions were used in each trial despite the fact that not only had both men recanted their confession but they each refused to testify against the other.  In fact, this is the reason that in 2006 Springsteen's conviction was overturned.  It is an automatic rule that a defendant has the right to face their accuser and in his case, although they also had his confession, Scott was his accuser and had not testified so he was not cross examined by the defense as required by law. At some point, although I could not find an exact year, Scott also had his conviction overturned due to tactics used in his interrogation.  In 2008 they both, through their attorney's, asked for DNA testing to be done. They were both still in jail by the way. The results were not what the prosecutor wanted to see. 

When it comes to the DNA there are a lot of questions.  The one thing that all sides agree on it seems is that the DNA swabs that were collected from Amy Ayers, including vaginal swabs, were tested and available.  It was said that they were tested against more than 100 people, including investigators and lab technicians as well as the four suspects.  There was no match to any of them. There also seems to be speculation by the defense that there may have been at least one, if not two, more samples that belong to an unknown male just as the sample from Amy Ayers had.  Supporters of Springsteen state this is proof that his confession was coerced because he had admitted to raping Amy Ayers and if his DNA did not match and you cannot believe that part, how are we to believe the rest? Prosecutors and their supporters had another theory.  First they attempted to point out that it is possible the sample was contaminated, although there was no real proof of this but it seems that in the end, and lasting to this day they contend that the unknown male DNA (they only concede to the Ayers DNA) is simply proof of a fifth person being involved with the previous four.  

Seeing as Springsteen's conviction had been overturned and the DNA results as they were a judge released Springsteen and Scott pending new trials apparently on June 24, 2009.  On October 28, 2009 the prosecutor dropped all charges against both men but continued to contend that they were involved. As of 2011 it was said that there was a team of five detectives working on this case and despite their statements that they are looking at the whole case over again and searching for the perpetrators all five apparently maintain their belief that not just Scott and Springsteen are guilty but so are Pierce and Welborn.  

The family of Maurice Pierce say that his three years in jail for a crime they, and he, maintain he did not commit changed him and that he became paranoid of police officers.  He was convinced that he was being harassed by them.  On December 24, 2010 Pierce was pulled over by officers after reportedly running a stop sign. The official reports states that  Pierce  initially seemed cooperative but for some unknown reason had taken off, fleeing on foot.  One officer took chase in the patrol car while the other chased him on foot.  When the officer caught up with Pierce a struggled ensued and Pierce apparently got a hold of a knife on the officer, stabbing him in his neck.  While injured the officer shot Pierce but apparently he was still able to get away and reports say his body was found nearby.  The officer was transported to the hospital and recovered from his injuries.  In 2008 he had been arrested on a warrant out of another county that claimed he had previously fled from police and injured an officer.  The family claims that in the 2008 arrest the officers used excessive force and that in the original charge the officer was not harmed.  I cannot confirm or deny this to be true.  The family maintains that Pierce was excessively fearful of the police after his 2003 release saying that if they can put someone in jail for three and a half years for murder without any evidence he could never trust the police again.  Let me be clear in saying that I do not make excuses for those who break the law, even small things like fleeing a seemingly silly traffic violation but I have to be fair in thinking that Pierce may have had ever right to be paranoid. You know the saying "Just because you're paranoid does not mean they are not still after you."  I think Pierce had every right to be paranoid and I have little doubt that he was probably harassed.  Prosecutors and family members of the victims maintain that he was guilty of murder and had gotten away with it without any charges.  This crime was a horrible and tragic crime that rocked the entire city.  It is not unreasonable to believe that despite having to drop charges against him, that officers or even community members made life easy for him.  

I stated early on that it seems that the Austin Police Department has had more than their fair share of false confessions.  Keep in mind that this is Texas and in a recent blog I discussed the fact that after being the leader in carrying out executions, Texas is now the state leading with the most exonerations.  I also stated earlier that the reason Michael Scott had his conviction overturned was due to the interrogation tactics used against him to elicit his confession.  When I sit down to research a case I do so knowing that not everything I read will be factual.  It is not just the opinion pieces that I take with a grain of salt, most often it is any sort of media.  I read several different things on each case and so often I will find conflicting information.  When that happens if it is something of importance I almost always share the fact that the information could possibly be a rumor or that it is unclear.  In this case if I had simply read an opinion piece or even a claim by a defense attorney about the fact that a detective by the name of Robert Merrill held a gun to Michael Scott's head during his 18 hours of interrogation I quite honestly may not have mentioned it.  And, if I did you would know that this was a claim that I could not substantiate.  However, that is not the case here completely.  This was something I saw written about in an opinion piece, and it was something I read in an article that was claimed by the defense, but, the picture is also available online.  To be fair I only saw a picture and if there is a video to go with it I did not see it but it is clear that the officer is standing just to the side of Scott with a gun pointed to his head and a judge at least believed this to be one of many reasons why his interrogation was not fair.  So, that could explain at some level how they get false confessions and possibly even later convictions on cases.  The other reason I believe has to do with a man named Hector Polanco.  

Hector Polanco joined the Austin PD in 1976.  At some point he was transferred to the homicide division and spent about three and a half years there before he was promoted to Sr. Sgt.  If you remember early on I stated that the original detective on this case, John Jones, had said that Polanco was instrumental in getting confessions and he had released Pierce and the others when Polanco had not gotten a confession from them in 1991.  It seems that Polanco was the man to go to for confessions.  In fact it seems he got several on this case alone, although not all were written.  In February of 1992 he was put in charge to head the task force on the murders at the yogurt shop.  It seems that someone somewhere had already begun to question the fact that Polanco got so many confession because in March of 1992 he got a written confession from Alex Briones. It was quickly determined that it was a false confession and not only was Polanco removed from the task force the district attorney''s office launched an investigation.  When the DA was not able to get a grand jury indictment for misconduct apparently they were letting things go but the internal affairs department at the Austin Police Department decided to start their own investigation.  They apparently started looking into some of the cases in which Polanco had elicited confessions and were finding that many of them were false. One man had even confessed to a murder under Polanco's pressure and it was determined that he was in fact in the custody of the county jail at the time of the murder... there's no better alibi than that.  Polanco was often accused of beating suspects as well as overstating facts about suspects and crime scenes to family members.  I suspect the latter was done so that he could have the family support in believing the right person was in custody, even if he, himself knew differently.  My information on Polanco gets a bit sketchy.  It seems that he was fired for his misconduct but apparently through the union he appealed and was reinstated.  But, then it seems that the department all but demoted him and kept him off interrogating and especially homicides, basically making him a patrol officer.  Polanco sued the police department and from my understanding won his case and about $200,000.  What happened beyond that.... I cannot tell you but what I can say is that prior to all of this coming to light about Polanco and his true tactics to get confessions he apparently was a hero and a mentor in the department.  In fact, he won awards for work on cases, even some that years later would find the convicted exonerated and the confessions false.  It is not unreasonable that it was through Polanco that others, including likely Merrill, where training to get confessions was taken to an art form in which we cannot imagine.  

To Polanco and the other officer's defense, it seems they were not the only ones willing to take a case and mold it the way they needed it to be in order to secure a conviction.  To do this it take more than just a detective willing to cross lines that should never be crossed.  In this case, and although I cannot prove it at this moment but I suspect in others, instead of making sure a confession fit the evidence they just made sure the evidence fit the confession.  We have seen time and time again where an officer will feed a suspect information on a case to get a confession until they get the suspect to seemingly tell things that happened, or at least tell things the investigators think happened.  While that was done here, instead of pushing harder and harder until everything fit, or just let things go (that are later pointed out in court usually by the defense), in this case it seems they then went and changed the evidence.  Originally the fire investigator in the case stated that the fire started in a corner of the shop in which supplies were kept.  It was apparently nearer to the three bodies found together since their bodies were affected more but no where did he say it began on the bodies.  He may, or may not have indicated that an accelerate was used. In Michael Scott's confession he stated that lighter fluid was poured on the bodies of the three girls that were together and it was lit.  Investigators called in the ATF to examine obviously pictures or documents from the case considering it was now eight years old and the agent stated supposedly based on this that what Scott said was true.  Investigators then went back to Melvin Stake, the original investigator who suddenly agrees that this was the case and changes his report to match what the ATF agent said.

Now, there are those, including the prosecutors, detectives and the victim's family who firmly still believe that these four men are guilty for this crime but in the same respect there are just as many people it seem who do not believe they are guilty.  Regardless if they were or are guilty or not you first have to look at the evidence and the law.  If you take the confessions out of the game there is nothing.  There is not so much as a fingerprint or any DNA.  Now, could that be because the fire, the water or even the trampling of the scene destroyed evidence?  Maybe, but regardless in a court of law you have to have evidence. We cannot begin convicting people on hunches of police officers.  No weapon has ever been found and the male DNA has never been matched to anyone.  At this point, or at least what has been released, there is nothing that will convict anyone at this point.

But let's look at the four boys, the four girls and the evidence they do have. No one ever placed any of the boys at the scene but two eye witnesses did place other people at the scene at least within an hour or two of the discovery.  First, around 10pm a man by the name of Dearl Croft went into the store.  Croft was a former police officer who now ran his own security firm.  He had gone in to get some yogurt for him and a few of his employees.  He claims that when he went in there was a man there, that he described to police (he did not match any of the suspects) as being in his mid- to late 20's.  Croft said the guy seemed strange to begin with as he seemingly kept allowing people ahead of him but Croft had declined and the guy went before him.  When the man got to the register he simply ordered a pop which seemed odd in a yogurt shop.  Then when he got his drink he went behind the counter and into the back.  As Croft was getting his order he asked Eliza Thomas where the man was going and she said she'd allowed him to use the restroom in the back.  Croft said he waited a few minutes to see if the guy returned but his yogurt was melting and he had all but decided the man must have left by the back door.  Then as it neared 11 pm and closing a couple went in and saw two men in their mid- to late 20's sitting at a booth, both drinking pop while the girls were preparing the store to close by straightening tables, filling napkin holders and putting chairs up. The couple left without buying anything and the woman of the couple said the two men made her feel uneasy.  Crime scene photos show a booth that was not prepared for closing (no chair on it like the others and napkins not filled). It was said that at least Croft, if not the couple also, looked at photo line ups of suspects and identified no one.  It has been assumed, although not proven that the four main suspects were also in those line up photos.  Apparently none of these witnesses testified at the original trials of the men convicted.  

According to the prosecution theory regarding the four suspects, Maurice Pierce was the "mastermind" and Forrest Welborn was the "look out" man and sat in the car.  Keep in mind that at the time of the murders Pierce and Springsteen were 16 years old, Scott was 17 and Welborn was 15.  They were described by people as small and scrawny while the girls have been described and athletic and strong.  Many argue that the boys would not have been able to subdue the girls themselves.  Yes, the girls were all shot execution style in the back of their heads but theoretically if that were to have happened first there would have been no reason to then bound and gag them, let alone with their own clothing, which is how they were found.  This act means that the girls were likely forced to strip down and one by one were bound and gagged before they were ever killed.  Add to this the fact that an accelerate was used to start the fire seems to point to some point of premeditation.  I know there can be tests done to narrow down what type of accelerate was used but to be honest I am unsure if these tests were done here or if the prosecution just went with the "lighter fluid" that Scott stated in his confession.  Lighter fluid would not be something found in the yogurt shop it seems and that would indicate that the killers brought it with them.  Even considering how much evidence the fire and water damaged it just does not seem plausible that these four boys would come up not just with this plan but be efficient enough to do it without leaving any evidence.  If we take the prosecution theory, the four boys they were able to find were smart enough to leave no traces while the one person (or is it two?) they couldn't find apparently left his mark.  

Then we have to look at the fact of why has the killer not been found?  I would be remiss to not mention that it was known that serial killer Kenneth McDuff was in the area at the time of the murders.  He was ruled out by investigators but the day he was executed, November 17, 1998, he supposedly confessed.  That being said realistically it would appear this was likely not the first crime the perpetrator(s) committed and from the severity of the crime unless the perpetrator is already in prison it was not their last.  Murderers build up to crimes of this magnitude.  They do not usually go from stealing cars or petty theft and move straight up to executing and raping four young girls.  But then we have to ask if the State has this unknown DNA and we have CODIS (the DNA database) why are they not being able to find a match.  There can only be a few answers to this question.  One is that the perpetrator(s) are dead and died prior to CODIS being enacted in 1994. Another option, although less likely is that the perpetrator(s) have not committed another crime since and the third option is that the Austin police are not truly looking.  They have all but admitted that they still believe the original four charged in this crime are responsible and have had to add a theory with a fifth person to answer for the unknown DNA.  With this attitude there is little hope this case will ever be solved.

Comments

  1. You are correct on most points. I am also of the belief that the two men drinking sodas were most likely responsible. They were in the store when the front door was locked, fifteen minutes prior to closing time at 11. If the fire was reported before midnight, that means it was probably burning for awhile. There is not a big window there. I think the crime itself started at or around 11. The two guys were in the store at that time. Moreover, if those guys were at that table, drinking cans of soda (related note, there was a can of soda and cup on the counter next to the register when the police investigated, almost as if someone was going to purchase one for the road at 11) there should have been empty cans of soda in the trash, cans with DNA and finger prints. Where are the cans? I think the two guys got up from the booth at 11 and one said he wanted to buy one last soda for the road. The other said he needed to use the restroon before he left. One man controlling the back, one man controlling the front, each armed. This is the case. Those two guys were there to rape and kill. No way this was the only time they ever did this. I am betting there are rape kits in Texas that have yet to be tested, that match these pieces of trash.

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