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Case of "innocence lost in Austin'

 
Published Sept. 29, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

The call went out around midnight on Dec. 6, 1991: a fire at a yogurt shop in a strip mall on the Texas capital's well-to-do north side.

Austin firefighter Rene Garza recalled for a Texas jury last month what he saw: a CLOSED sign in the window. The fire burning within.

After breaking in, the firefighters turned their hoses on and quickly extinguished the fire. Then Garza's partner grabbed his arm and pointed through the smoke and debris.

"Is that a foot?"

Garza saw bodies. Three teenage girls. Someone had stripped them of clothing, stacked them in a pile and set them on fire, like trash. Another girl, also naked and charred, was sprawled on the floor nearby, stomach down.

At least one of them had been raped, it would turn out. All had been shot, execution style, in the back of the head. Investigators would find their blood mingled with chocolate sauce that had apparently been spilled in the melee.

The dead included Eliza Thomas and Jennifer Harbison, both 17, who worked at the shop after school. Harbison's 15-year-old sister, Sarah, and Sarah's best friend, 13-year-old Amy Ayers, also perished.

Such carnage had not been seen in Austin since Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas tower in 1966 and fatally shot 14 pedestrians below.

"We think of it as innocence lost for Austin," then-Mayor Bruce Todd said in a recent interview. "Not that we haven't had violent crimes before. But this took out four young girls in their prime. It was a great shock to the city."

It would take police a decade to explain the frenzy of violence that killed the four girls.

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As Austin awoke on Dec. 7, 1991, to news of the yogurt shop murders, the reaction was stunned disbelief. There was a feeling, former Mayor Todd said, of security shattered. That the murders happened in a place associated with youth and innocence only added to the trauma.

The girls, the city would learn, were good students with varied interests. Amy Ayers loved country music, particularly the work of George Strait. Sarah Harbison was a cheerleader; her sister Jennifer ran track. Eliza Thomas wanted to be a veterinarian.

Their Funeral Mass drew 1,500 people. Mourners left notes and tributes outside the blackened yogurt shop, people traveled the city with ribbons on their car antennas, and local musicians recorded a song in the girls' memory, We Will Not Forget.

Eight days after the murders, Austin police seemed to get a break. A 16-year-old named Maurice Pierce had been picked up at Northcross Mall, near the yogurt shop, carrying a .22 caliber pistol.

Pierce told officers, in a bragging sort of way, that the gun was the one used to kill the yogurt shop girls, but he insisted he had loaned it to a friend that night.

The police put a wire on Pierce. They asked him to meet the friend, 15-year-old Forrest Welborn, and get him to talk about the crime. But, as a homicide investigator later wrote in a police report, "It was obvious to everyone that Pierce was trying to force the issue on Welborn, who had no idea what Pierce was talking about."

In later questioning, Welborn told police about two other friends, Michael Scott and Rob Springsteen, both 17, who he said had made a trip with him and Pierce to San Antonio in a stolen Nissan Pathfinder a day after the murders. The police questioned Scott and Springsteen, two mediocre high school students who roomed together.

But Welborn passed a polygraph test in which he denied participating in the murders, and the slugs recovered from the girls were too damaged to be matched with the pistol. Police concluded that Pierce had a "mental problem" that caused him to lie. They ruled out the teenagers as suspects and moved on to other leads.

And there were many. As the weeks passed, the overwhelmed Austin police homicide unit struggled with a flood of false and even ludicrous tips.

One woman claimed the actor Warren Beatty did it. A teenage girl and her boyfriend falsely confessed. In Mexico, police arrested a gang of violent bikers and triumphantly announced that one of them had admitted to the yogurt shop murders.

But the biker later recanted, claiming his confession had been obtained through torture.

Then, a few weeks after the murders, a young woman was abducted from a downtown car wash and killed. The suspect, a serial killer named Kenneth McDuff, was also investigated for the yogurt shop murders, to no avail.

Next, the cops spent weeks chasing a group of occult worshipers and black-clad kids who liked to dress in a style called Gothic. They rounded up dozens of the so-called People in Black, as the kids had dubbed their group.

"Because it was a bizarre murder, they started looking for the most bizarre people they could find," one of the People in Black, Cole Ricketson, told the Austin American-Statesman at the time.

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In 1996, frustrated with the lack of progress, Austin's police chief assigned a new detective to the case. Paul Johnson went back over the voluminous files, looking for clues that had been missed among more than 5,000 tips.

He found a detective's notebook with the name Maurice Pierce in it.

By now it was almost five years since the murders, and Pierce's story of a pistol used to kill the girls had been forgotten. Johnson took a second look.

The police found Pierce settled in Lewisville, Texas, a town north of Dallas. His friend who had passed the polygraph test in 1991, Forrest Welborn, was now 20 and living in Lubbock.

The two friends with whom Welborn and Pierce said they had gone on a joyride to San Antonio in a stolen SUV the day after the murders were also found and questioned.

Mike Scott was in nearby Buda, Texas, living quietly with his wife and stepdaughter. Robert Burns Springsteen IV had moved to West Virginia.

Both Scott and Springsteen had seemed to pull their lives out of a nosedive.

In his freshman year at Austin's McCallum High School, Scott had joined the football team, the drama club and the school orchestra. But the tall young man with long blond hair suffered from extreme shyness and learning disabilities.

Scott dropped out of school in December 1991 as he was repeating his sophomore year. At the time Austin police came looking for him in Buda, he had been working toward a GED, was employed as a mechanic and married.

Springsteen's personal abyss had been much deeper.

Not long after the murders, Springsteen left Austin to move back to Charleston, W. Va., where his mother and stepfather lived. He was 17 and had long, stringy brown hair.

He had stayed in Austin only a few months. Springsteen's mother had sent him to live with his birth father in Texas because the boy's alcohol use had gotten out of control, according to psychological records later introduced in court.

His time with his birth father was not very happy, Springsteen told a psychologist in West Virginia after he had left Austin. His father "floats from job to job" and often did not buy food or do laundry, Springsteen said.

Springsteen struggled with anger and hostility. He told the psychologist he longed to feel more secure. "Alcohol starting to take precedence over everything else," the psychologist wrote in notes about Springsteen.

Springsteen had a history of possessing methamphetamines, marijuana and LSD. In 1992, he scrapped with a police officer in West Virginia, screaming, "(expletive) it, take me to jail!"

But like Scott, he had seemed to stabilize. Springsteen had steady work selling newspaper subscriptions and dishing up fast food. He got married.

All denied any involvement in the murder of the four girls.

But an FBI profiler had pegged the killers as white underachieving teenagers who hung out somewhere near the yogurt shop. One of them had a dominant personality, the analysis said, and the others were likely reluctant participants in the violence.

Not a profile of Mexican bikers, a serial killer or kids who dabble in the occult. But it did somewhat fit Pierce _ whom police were beginning to suspect had been the ringleader _ and his friends.

In September 1999, Austin detectives again contacted Mike Scott. They had sensed something soft in him. The "weak link" of the four, is how one detective would later describe Scott in testimony.

This time, the cops played hardball.

In a series of intense interrogations that lasted a week, Austin police pulled a confession from Scott that Scott now says was coerced.

A police videotape of the confession shows Detective Robert Merrill whipping an unloaded revolver out of his waistband and pressing it into Scott's hand, just after Scott says that Pierce killed two of the girls and then ordered him to finish off another.

"Take the gun, Mike. . . . It's your turn," the detective says into Scott's ear, pretending to be Pierce urging Scott to murder.

With a stunned expression, Scott blurts out: "I pointed and shot!"

Then Merrill walks behind Scott with the gun and appears to press the barrel into the young man's head. The detective would later testify he only pressed a finger into Scott's head and that the gun in his same hand had been pointing down.

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It was supposed to be a simple robbery, Scott said in the confession. He and his friends Pierce, Springsteen and Welborn were sitting around a table at a food court in Northcross Mall when Pierce announced he needed some money. So they drove around, looking for an easy haul, Scott said.

They spotted an "I Can't Believe It's Yogurt!" shop in a nearby strip mall.

They went in and used the restrooms, Scott said. Pierce bought a chocolate and vanilla swirl. One of the boys used a pack of cigarettes to prop open a back door to the shop. Then they went back to the food court at Northcross Mall to kill time.

"We were just talking, not about what was fixing to happen," Scott said in his confession. They also ate some LSD, a then-13-year-old girl who had been hanging out with them that evening would later testify.

When it was dark, the teenagers got in Pierce's car and drove to the yogurt shop, parking out back, Scott said. They told Welborn to stay in the car as a lookout.

Pierce pulled a gun out from between the seats. Springsteen had a gun, too, and checked to see if it was loaded. Pierce told Scott to bring in a can of Zippo lighter fluid.

When they walked in the back through the door they had earlier propped open, one of the girls said, "What are you doing? You don't belong in here," Scott recalled.

He said he heard Pierce screaming for money. He saw one of the girls flee, then saw Springsteen slug her and rape her. He said the girls cried and begged to live.

"This isn't right!" Scott said he told his friend. "This isn't what we came here for!"

But Pierce, he said, just told him to finish off one of the girls. Scott remembers taking the gun from Pierce's hand.

Scott pointed the gun at the girl's head, but then let it drop. Pierce screamed that if Scott didn't kill her now, Scott would be next. Scott lifted the gun again. This time, he fired.

They ran to the car, the shop ablaze behind them. Forrest Welborn was gone, apparently having fled. The three friends drove off. They stopped at a bridge, where Scott and Springsteen vomited.

"I've been not wanting to remember this," Scott told police.

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Last year, a jury in Austin convicted Springsteen, 27, of murder and sentenced him to death by lethal injection. Under Texas law, he was granted an automatic appeal.

In a confession, Springsteen admitted shooting one of the girls. But no DNA, fingerprints or other physical evidence linked him or the others to the crime. The prosecution successfully argued that any such evidence would have been destroyed by the intense fire and water used to extinguish it.

Maurice Pierce, 27, has been in jail since October 1999 and is still awaiting trial. Because Pierce was a juvenile at the time of the murders, prosecutors are barred from seeking the death penalty.

Forrest Welborn, 26, described by Scott as the lookout, is free after two grand juries did not indict him.

After a seven-week trial, an Austin jury convicted Scott last Sunday of murder.

During the trial, prosecutors had displayed photographs of the girls' bodies, charred beyond recognition. The girls' parents sat in the courtroom weeping softly.

Scott, 28, watched with the attentive expression of a student in the front row of a lecture. The only sign the images might have roiled him emotionally were his eyes.

They were blinking rapidly.

Scott told the cops "he smoked a lot of marijuana over the years to try to forget this," Austin police Detective Manuel Fuentes testified in August.

But the girls' parents cannot forget. Blinking back tears, the father of 13-year-old Amy Ayers told Scott's jury that his daughter's death has devastated his life.

"Other than taking care of her headstone at the cemetery, there's not a whole lot left to do for her," Bob Ayers said.

Still, the jury on Wednesday spared Scott's life.

Under Texas law, a jury cannot impose a death sentence if it finds a defendant does not pose a continuing threat to the community. And that was the picture jurors got of the quiet, learning-disabled man with a wife and stepdaughter.

One night nearly 11 years ago, Mike Scott was apparently swept up by an evil he could not resist. And for that, his sentence is life in prison.

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.