Who Killed the Yogurt Shop 4? Pt. 3 W/ Nic from True Crime Garage
Hello and welcome… to WHO KILLED the Yogurt Shop 4?
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I am your host Bill Huffman and on this week’s show, I will begin the arduous task of covering an infamous case out of Austin, Texas, the yogurt shop murders.
This case has been covered by the likes of 48 hours, ID Channel, Inside Edition and a plethora of podcasts.
The reason I wanted to take a look at this case is I just finished Beverly Lowry’s book, Who Killed these girls? and it reinvigorated my interest in the case. I will do my best to do it justice and next week I may even have a special guest to discuss the case.
Let’s get this week’s episode rolling, Who Killed the Yogurt Shop 4?
December 6, 1991, started off like most days in Austin, Texas for Sarah and Jennifer Harbison.
They got ready for school, packed their book bags and headed off for the day.
It was an overcast day for the city, with temperatures maxing out around 72; a cool Texas Friday.
Austin, Texas in 1991 was just coming into its own as a nationally known place where creativity can thrive.
Not only is Austin, the capital of Texas, but it also holds the title of Live Music Capital of the World.
In 1994, the city created the Austin Film Festival and filmmakers and actors such as Mike Judge, Richard Linklater, and Matthew McConaughey call Austin home.
In 2002, Austin City Limits was founded and became one of the premier live events in the U-S drawing groups from all over the world to perform.
Sarah would be working that’s night shift so her plans were already set.
She would be working with Eliza Thomas, another classmate at Lanier high school.
For Sarah and Eliza their shift was going to be just like any other Friday night they worked together at the I Can’t Believe it’s Not Yogurt shop.
And the shift started exactly that way.
This was 1992 and the frozen yogurt fad was still in full swing; with lines at most times. The chain the girls worked for had hundreds of stores in multiple states.
Amy Ayers, a friend of the girls, and Jennifer Harbison, Sarah’s little sister came up to the shop to hang out. A normal routine for any teenager who has friends working by themselves. Their place of employment can become an ideal new hangout spot… We’ve all been there.
The Statesman put together a timeline of this case and how it unfolded: Reading verbatim from the timeline:
- Dec. 6, 1991: Austin firefighters respond to a blaze at I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! at 2949 W. Anderson Lane just before midnight. After the fire is extinguished, a search reveals the bodies of Jennifer Harbison, 17; her 15-year-old sister, Sarah; Eliza Thomas, 17; and Amy Ayers, 13.
- Dec. 8, 1991: Travis County Medical Examiner Robert Bayardo releases autopsy reports stating each of the four girls had been shot in the head. Police say they have no suspects.
- Dec. 9, 1991: Police discover evidence that they say leads them to believe more than one person was involved in the killings.
- Dec. 10, 1991: About 1,500 people attend the victims’ funeral Mass at St. Louis Catholic Church.
- Dec. 12, 1991: Travis County District Judge Jon Wisser seals autopsy reports on the victims at the request of the Travis County district attorney’s office.
- Dec. 17, 1991: Police release possible psychological profiles of the killers.
- Dec. 31, 1991: The victims’ parents plead for additional help from the community during a news conference. Gov. Ann Richards releases a written statement asking for community assistance.
- Jan. 3, 1992: The Austin Police Department, along with local, county and federal authorities, form a task force to solve the case.
- Jan. 6, 1992 Police release additional information about the possible murderers. Twelve billboards display images of the slain teenagers.
- Feb. 26, 1992: Police arrest Laura Green on suspicion of stealing four tombstones. She is charged with theft by appropriation and questioned in the yogurt slayings. Her arrest came after intensive interrogation of a group of Austinites labeled by police as PIBs People in Black. Police later say Green is not a suspect in the slayings.
- Feb. 27, 1992: Local celebrities make a recording of We Will Not Forget, a song written by two local musicians and dedicated to the four slain girls. Proceeds from the song are donated to a fund established to help solve the yogurt case and reduce crime through education and counseling.
- March 16, 1992: Austin police release a sketch of a man seen parked outside the yogurt shop the night of the slayings. Police say the sketch resembles the sketch of a suspect In a November assault and abduction.
- March 25, 1992: The CBS news program 48 Hours focuses on the yogurt shop murders.
- June 3, 1992: The Austin business community adds $75,000 to the existing $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the people involved in the murders.
- June 5, 1992: About 1,200 people march from the Congress Avenue Bridge to the steps of the Capitol carrying white candles in memory of the slain girls.
- June 6, 1992: Six months after the murders, classmates of the slain girls graduate at Lanier High School, leaving seats for Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas. Aug. 5, 1992: Police begin searching for three men indicted in a November abduction and sexual assault. The three men are Alberto Cortez, Carlos Saabedra and Ricardo Sanchez. The men are wanted for questioning in the yogurt shop murders.
- Aug. 7, 1992: The television program America’s Most Wanted airs a segment on the yogurt shop murders and shows photos of the three men listed in the kidnapping indictment, prompting about 60 tips.
- Oct 12, 1992: Austin sex crimes investigator Joy Mooney goes to Mexico City to give the Mexican attorney general a deposition about three men charged with abducting an Austin woman. One of the men in the abduction case fits the description of a man seen in a car outside the yogurt shop the night of the murders. Mooney is joined by two Austin homicide investigators, Sgt. Mike Huckabay and Lt. David Parkinson.
- Oct 16, 1992: The Austin investigators return from Mexico City. An officer says Mexican authorities were cooperative in the search for the three men wanted for questioning Alberto Cortez, 22; Ricardo Hernandez, 26; and Carlos Saavedra, 23.
- Oct. 22: Mexican federal authorities say that they have arrested two men wanted by Austin police and that one confessed to the murders of the four girls in the yogurt shop. Officials said Porfirio Villa Saavedra, 28, and Alberto Jimenez Cortez, 26, are being held. A third suspect is at large, officials said.
On October 23, 1992 the American-Statesman published an article titled “City breathes heavy sigh with arrests in slayings” by Tim Lott and Starita Smith.
For some students, the confession by one of the suspects, who said he shot all four girls, made their struggle to understand even more difficult. Samantha Tomaszewski, an 18-year-old who knew Sarah Harbison, burst into tears when she heard about it. “They’ve hurt hundreds of people,” she said. “They don’t know how many people they hurt doing this. Either they should be put in jail for 190 years or given the death penalty.” Paul Turner, the Lanier principal, said he hopes this is a turning point in the recovery of his school from the tragedy.
But Turner, like others, will not let his guard down unless there is a conviction. “I personally would rather there be some kind of closure to it than for us to be left hanging,” Turner said.
“I don’t know whether this will bring closure or not.” The family of Colleen Reed, the victim of another unsolved Austin crime, knows what it’s like to wait for a resolution. Reed was abducted from a West Fifth Street carwash by two men just three weeks after the yogurt shop murders.
Last April, Belton resident Alva Hank Worley said he and a paroled killer, Kenneth Allen McDuff, kidnapped and sexually assaulted Reed.
Authorities arrested McDuff in Kansas City, Mo., in early May. McDuff hasn’t been charged in the Reed case. Reed has never been found.
“I’m ready for some closure,” said Reed’s sister, Lori Bible. “How much can you accept it when you don’t have a body to bury or a grave to go to? That’s the part that gets me.”
In a big blow to everyone involved, relief was short-lived when the Mexican who was said to have confessed recanted his statement and said his confession came as he was tortured.
The investigation never quite went cold but there was a lull in the investigation until August 1999 when police assign six investigators and one sergeant and enlist the help of other agencies to pursue a new lead.
Just a few months later on Oct. 6, 1999, Austin police arrest Forrest Welborn, Maurice Pierce, Robert Burns Springsteen IV and Michael Scott on capital murder charges.
As quick as things move in Texas, it was only 2 months later on Dec. 9, 1999, when a judge rules that Pierce and Welborn, 16 and 15 at the time of the killings, may be tried as adults.
As the train steamrolled towards a conclusion on Dec. 14, 1999, a Travis County grand jury indicted Springsteen on four counts of capital murder. District Attorney Ronnie Earle announces he will seek the death penalty.
Four days later on Dec. 18, a grand jury indicts Pierce and Scott on four counts of capital murder. Prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty against Scott but cannot against Pierce because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime.
As the twists and turns continued it was in June of 2000 when a judge dismisses capital murder charges against Welborn after a second grand jury declines to indict him.
The train didn’t stop for Springsteen though because in April 2001 Jury selection begins in the capital murder trial of Springsteen. Prosecutors arrived in court armed with Springsteen’s confession but no physical evidence tying him to the crime scene.
Despite not having any physical evidence the jury reached a conclusion in June 2001 and sentenced Springsteen to death in the murder of Ayers.
About a year and a half later in September 2002, a jury convicts Scott of capital murder in the death of Ayers. He is sentenced to life in prison.
As quickly as he was charged on January 2003 charges against Pierce were dismissed, and he was released from jail.
As Springsteen sat on death row for nearly 5 years, in May 2006 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out Springsteen’s conviction, saying that Scott’s written confession was improperly used against Springsteen. The case is sent back to Travis County.
Then in June 2007, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out Scott’s conviction, ruling that Springsteen’s confession was improperly used against Scott. Prosecutors said at the time they were prepared to re-try both defendants.
Then it all fell apart in April 2008 when a defense lawyer disclosed in a court document that previously undiscovered DNA that did not come from either Scott or Springsteen was taken from one of the victims.
A few months passed and on June 25th Springsteen and Scott were released from jail on their own recognizance after prosecutors tell state District Judge Mike Lynch that they’re not prepared to go to trial in July.
Prosecutors dismissed all charges against Scott and Springsteen.
Oct. 29, 2009, A judge dismissed murder charges against two men awaiting retrial in the 1991 killings of four teenagers at an Austin yogurt shop after prosecutors admitted they were not ready to take the case to a jury.
One of the men, Robert Springsteen, was sent to death row in 2001 after he was convicted of capital murder in the killing of one of the girls.
The other man, Michael Scott, was convicted in the girl’s death and sentenced to life in prison.
Their convictions were overturned when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said the men were unfairly denied the chance to cross-examine each other.
The men were released on bond in June after new DNA tests could not match them to the crime scene and revealed the presence of an unknown male.