25 Years Later, Austin's Yogurt Shop Murders in the News Again

Beverly Lowry will read from WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders at a book signing event on October 27 at Brazos Bookstore.EXPAND
Beverly Lowry will read from WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders at a book signing event on October 27 at Brazos Bookstore.
(L) Book cover courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf, (R) author photo by Kenny Braun

WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? Cold Case: The Yogurt shop Murders
By Beverly Lowry
373 pp.
$27.95
Alfred A. Knopf

Even those who didn't live in Austin in 1991 still hear the words “yogurt shop” and automatically finish the phrase with “murders.”

The early '90s was a more innocent time – long before the Columbine High School massacre – and Austin was still a sleepy city with a population of about 509,000. On the night that four high school girls were murdered in the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! store at 2949 West Anderson Lane, only one homicide officer was on the street.

In the new book by Austin-based writer Beverly Lowry (she also wrote about Karla Faye Tucker, the murderer who received sexual gratification with each blow of the pickax), the author digs deep into the still unresolved murders of Eliza Thomas, Amy Ayers (sometimes spelled Ayres) and sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison.

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WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders doesn't include crime scene photographs or even images of the victims – aged 17, 13, 17 and 15 at the time of their deaths – but instead chronicles the initial eight-year investigation that resulted in the arrest of four men in their early twenties.

It was a difficult case for the police, with thousands of tips and more than 50 individuals confessing to the crime, tainted further by a heavy-handed cop who coerced a confession by aiming his gun at one of the accused. Detective Robert Merrill's rogue policing style resulted in a Texas Monthly feature, Under the Gun, by Michael Hall.

Two men were eventually tried for the crime but, after DNA evidence was discovered in 2008, charges were eventually dismissed. Vaginal swabs collected from the youngest victim revealed DNA from one unknown perpetrator – the DNA did not match the four original suspects – and DNA from a possible sixth man was found on the clothing used to bind the nude victims.

Conspiracy theories abounded, including allegations of bikers, witches and insurance fraud, but 25 years later, we're still in the dark about many events from that evening.

Lowry's book is divided into four parts: The Crime, The Paul Johnson Show (four years after the murder, the “meticulous and persistent” homicide detective was called on for a fresh take) and The Courts: Law, Science, Blunders and Luck (which includes a mention of the Houston Police Department's Irma Rios, the crime lab director tasked with clearing a backlog of four thousand untested rape kits).

The final section, Unanswered Questions, includes theories put forth by the prosecution, APD, the crime reconstructionist, the defense and journalists. Lowry provides a 2016 update and an epilogue, letting us know where the accused and the family members of the victims are today.

Not for the faint of heart, some of the most horrific details of this book are found in the appendices, which contain the written statement by Michael Scott as well as his later redaction.

Although Scott's first statement was made under duress, it tells the story of a robbery taking a horribly wrong turn, with Maurice Pierce and Rob Springsteen calling the shots as the girls were forced to strip before being tied up. In the statement Scott recounts that one girl was shot and killed early on, with some of the others subjected to rape before receiving the same fate. The violent crime spree was over in about 20 to 25 minutes, ending with the bodies being covered with trash, doused with lighter fluid and burned.

In 2010 Pierce ran a stop sign, was pulled over by the police, exited his vehicle and started running. After being caught by the officer, they tussled and Pierce grabbed the officer's knife, slashed it against the cop's neck and fled again. The officer fired one round and ambulance drivers were unable to stop the bleeding; he was zipped up in a body bag and taken to the morgue. A later investigation yielded a toxicology report showing that his blood-alcohol level was .14. Recognized everywhere, he had long been living in a state of paranoia and perhaps had a death wish.

After the December 6, 1991, murders, billboards went up around Austin with the phrase “Who Killed These Girls?” Twenty-five years later, we're still asking the question.

Lowry will be reading from and signing copies of her book at 7 p.m. on October 27 at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, 713-523-0701, brazosbookstore.com.

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