Austin yogurt shop case moving slowly

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUSTIN – The news spread as quickly as it did the day the four teen-age girls died. Finally, police had arrested suspects in a killing spree that had stunned the city.

An investigation eight years in the making, which spun off thousands of leads, had paid off. Four men, leading the low-key lives of warehouse workers, fast-food managers and auto mechanics, were arrested Oct. 6 and charged with committing capital murder during the robbery of an Austin yogurt shop.

Texas' capital city breathed a collective sigh of relief.

In the year since the four suspects were arrested, one has been released, a gun considered a key piece of evidence has been questioned and doubts have been raised over the investigation and whether the prosecution has any physical evidence.

"I've had more patience with this than I would have imagined," said Barbara Ayres-Wilson, whose daughters, Jennifer Harbison, 17, and Sarah Harbison, 15, were killed. "[But] I'm confident they have the right people."

On the night of Dec. 6, 1991, the Harbison sisters, Eliza Hope Thomas, 17, and Amy Ayers, 13, were at an I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! store where Miss Thomas and Jennifer Harbison worked. Sometime around closing, police say, the suspects entered the store through the back door, bound and gagged the girls and shot them in the head. Miss Ayers was shot twice.

The store was then set on fire. The bodies were found when firefighters were battling the blaze.

The autopsy report offers glimpses of the lives of teen-age sisters and friends: Miss Ayers wore small white earrings. Sarah Harbison, a gold necklace and a Mickey Mouse watch. Jennifer Harbison wore a Lanier High School ring and a Timex.

It also suggested the horror: Hands tied with underwear. Mouths gagged with cloth.

"This particular murder really brought us from a small-town mentality to the point where we realized that horrible things can happen in our community," said Buddy Meyer, assistant district attorney for Travis County.

The investigation escalated quickly. Police chased more than 1,000 leads. Dozens of suspects were interviewed, and several confessions proved false. Eventually, the tips dried up.

Another look

It wasn't until 1997 that police took another hard look at a man who was interviewed within days of the shootings. Maurice Pierce, now 25, was 16 when he was arrested carrying a .22-caliber pistol in a mall a week after the slayings. It was the same caliber pistol used to kill the girls.

Mr. Pierce told police that the gun was used in the killings, but that he had lent it the night of the slayings to friend Forrest Welborn. Police questioned Mr. Welborn, 24, but arrested neither when they decided that he had not killed the girls and that Mr. Pierce was lying.

But retracing that interview led them to two more suspects. Robert Springsteen Jr., 25, who was now living in West Virginia, and Michael Scott, 26. Police say both confessed to taking part in the killings and implicated Mr. Welborn and Mr. Pierce, who was living in Lewisville when he was arrested last year.

Since then, the case has dragged through the courts.

Mr. Springsteen first fought extradition from West Virginia to Texas. Hearings to determine whether Mr. Pierce and Mr. Welborn would be tried as adults took weeks.

Defense attorneys have spent months challenging the prosecution's evidence and trying to suppress the statements Mr. Springsteen and Mr. Scott gave to police. The defense says they were coerced. Prosecutors say the suspects gave details that only the killers would know.

It wasn't until August that a district judge ruled Mr. Springsteen's statement admissible. His January trial will be the first, more than a year after the arrests. A motion to suppress Mr. Scott's statement is pending.

Mr. Springsteen's lawyers say they think their client's taped statement will serve his defense well.

"We're there now. We're going to have a trial," said attorney Joe James Sawyer. "It is my intention that that tape come in, because it is one of the strongest arguments against his guilt."

Shocking revelations

Meanwhile, the victims' families have endured the shocking revelations of what transpired behind the yogurt shop's closed doors.

For instance, police said Mr. Scott knew that the girls were tied up with their own clothing and where the bodies were placed. According to court records, they told investigators that one girl tried to escape, only to be caught at the front door, which still had the key in the lock.

"It was as bad as we had ever thought it was for those girls," Mrs. Ayres-Wilson said. "We hoped they had died quickly, but they did have terror and they were tortured."

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Mr. Scott and Mr. Springsteen. Mr. Pierce, who was a juvenile at the time of the killings, faces up to life in prison if convicted.

Two grand juries declined to indict Mr. Welborn, the alleged lookout during the crime, and the charges were dropped in June. Mr. Meyer said he "remains a suspect under investigation."

Mr. Welborn's attorney, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, said his client admitted to being with the suspects on a stolen-car joyride and remembered seeing the yogurt shop, but he said it was actually on the night after the killings.

"Forrest made the worst mistake you can make, which is trusting the police to do a good investigation," Mr. Icenhauer-Ramirez said. "Each individual the police accuses has an enormous risk and their lives at stake."

Prosecutors have encountered other problems.

Federal ballistics tests have concluded that the gun Mr. Pierce said was used in the killings was probably not the murder weapon.

And according to news reports, DNA tests of samples taken from the scene don't match the suspects' samples.

With the gun and DNA evidence in question, physical evidence against the suspects appears lacking.

"Those things, I don't consider stumbles," prosecutor Meyer said. "Can we get past those? I think we can. I think the evidence will prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Defense attorneys also have questioned whether investigators held a gun to Mr. Scott's head during questioning. A still photo of the interrogation shows a man holding a black object in his left fist as his fingers touch the back of Mr. Scott's head.

The district attorney's office has said Mr. Scott's description of the interrogation was "inaccurate."

The victims' families say they remain confident in the investigation.

"The district attorney's office is doing the best they can," said Pam Ayers, Amy's mother. "It will all come out in the end whether it was these boys or someone else. We want who is guilty. If they are not, we don't want them."

Said Mrs. Ayres-Wilson: "I could have more forgiveness for them if they would just say, 'We did it, we didn't mean to do it, and we're sorry.' ... More than time, they owe us remorse."