In 1991, “48 Hours Mystery” correspondent Erin Moriarty began reporting on the brutal murder of four Austin, Texas teenagers. The case has come to be known over the years as the “yogurt shop murders.” It’s a story that she continues to cover today. She says, “it’s the case I can’t forget.”
Almost 18 years ago, I started reporting on what turned out to be the most horrific crime story I’ve ever encountered… it was one of the most brutal, senseless murders in Austin’s history.
On the night of Dec. 6, 1991, four teenage girls were found murdered in an Austin, Texas I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop. The crime scene was described by the lead detective as “wholesale carnage.”
The four victims - Jennifer Harbison, her sister, Sarah, Eliza Thomas, and Amy Ayers - were so young and their deaths, so senseless.
“At 3:00 that morning, some people were at my door and they said there was a fire and that’s when they told us that the girls were dead. That both of my girls were dead,” said Barbara Ayers-Wilson, mother of Jennifer and Sarah Harbison.
It wasn’t just the fact that there were four young kids who were killed. It was how they were killed.
“I’d seen homicides, but not four,” lead detective John Jones said. “And not four all tied up, and not four stripped down, and not four burned.”
“They were stacked. Their bodies were stacked. They were burned and they were stacked,” said Ayers-Wilson.
“One of toughest parts about this was having to tell the parents in the morning,” Jones explained. “Having to look them in eye and tell them we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure we get the people that did it.”
It took years to come up with any answers. But in 1999, there were suspects and arrests and finally, a sense we knew what had happened.
Austin police charged four individuals with capital murder; one of those was Robert Springsteen.
“Are you one of the killers of those four little girls in that yogurt shop?” I asked Springsteen.
“No. No way. Not at all. Never,” he replied. “…I’m just a normal guy.”
“Americans wanna believe that everyone is good and pure as they are. And that’s just not the case,” said Jones.
I never thought that today, 18 years after these girls were murdered, that I’d still be reporting on this story or that this case that we thought was closed would be blown wide open.
“It’s the first time we have physical proof about who was there,” said Jim Sawyer addressing reporters.
“Everybody who loved those girls has to suffer and bleed a little more every time the case comes up,” Ayers-Wilson said. “I know without a doubt we have the right people. These young men are guilty.”
“What does it take to make people say, “I was wrong?” asked Sawyer.
All we knew when we first started on this story was that four young girls were murdered - one was only 13. These kids were executed and burned. Can you imagine anything more horrific than that?
These were the facts: Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas, both 17, had been working the late shift at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop in Austin. Jennifer’s 15-year-old sister, Sarah, and 13-year-old Amy Ayers had dropped by to help close the shop for the night.
“I feel the loss everyday, I miss her everyday. I really do,” said Amy’s dad, Bob Ayers.
“They were so sweet. They were good,” said the Harbison girls’ mom, Barbara Ayers-Wilson. “All four of those girls were wonderful kids.”
“Unless you’ve been through it, you just cannot imagine how bad it is to have lost a child and to have lost one to violence, too,” said Eliza’s mother, Maria Thomas.
Austin, Texas was a big city with a small-town attitude. I think there were a lot of people who lived there that thought something like this just doesn’t happen here. And so in many ways, these four murders changed Austin forever.
The cops told me that three of the girls had been shot once in the head; little Amy was shot twice. As police and firemen worked the scene, lead detective John Jones had to face the press:
Jones: What we found in the back, we found four victims.
Reporter: Were they bound in any way?
Jones: I can’t give you that
Reporter: Were the victims together or were they in different parts of the building?
Jones: I can’t give you that, either. I’ll give you as much as we can, but we are going to have to hold a lot of things back because we are handling it as a murder.
Jones worked the case with his partner, Mike Huckabay.
“It was dark inside, smoky, burned insulation everywhere. Just the cold feeling of death,” Huckabay recalled following the crime.
“I saw things in Vietnam, and I thought nothin’ will ever match that. Well, this matches that,” he said years later. “Because it’s in Austin, Texas. It’s right down the street from where we live.”
The problem with this case - what really hampered the investigation - was the fact that firemen were called first. So not only did you have all of these people walking though this crime scene - but you had the water that washed away the evidence and washed away the detective’s chance to identify the killers, according to Huckabay.
“Had it happened today, there’d probably a better way to process the crime scene,” he said. “But back then, we processed the scene the best as we could with what we had.”
Of course, you’d assume that these four murders were so awful that they could only have been committed by a monster. So the investigation went that route.
“We’ve come across all lifestyles, every type of criminal person that you can think of. Every kind of looney and crazy,” according to Huckabay.
One of the monsters they went after was an infamous serial killer named Kenneth McDuff.
“He flat out said, ‘Had I done it, I would tell you ‘cause I’d be proud of it,’” said Huckabay.
It was just one dead end after another.
“The phone never quit ringin’. There would be stacks and stacks and stacks of tip sheets on the desk.” Huckabay said.
I had never seen a case where there were so many leads coming in and you had these detectives, John Jones and Mike Huckabee, completely overwhelmed by leads and not knowing where to look first.
At one point, they had 342 suspects. When asked how this compared to a normal murder case, Jones said, “It’s off the scale. Way off the scale.”
Back then, this is what the cops knew: there was about $540 missing from the register, there were two guns used in the crime and investigators were focusing on young people, like a 16-year-old picked up at the mall.
“We had the very first one, a guy named Maurice Pierce. He got arrested at the Northcross Mall with a gun,” Jones explained after the murders. But Pierce didn’t pan out. “He sounded good. We had to move on him.”
Today, Jones said, “We couldn’t prove that the gun was used because the ballistics wouldn’t match up.”
He remembers interrogating Pierce - along with Michael Scott, Robert Springsteen, and Forrest Welborn - the friends Pierce was hanging out with that day.
“So we got to a point to where we couldn’t go any further with any of the four,” he said.
As a reporter, I know that false confessions happen in high-profile cases, but even I was surprised at the dozens in this case.
“People brag about killing-”
“Yeah, they did,” Jones said. “And, you know, at first… they puff out their chest. But after a few minutes, you know, they give it up. ‘Oh, well, I - I was just kidding.’ We had six written confessions. Some of them were pretty good.”
Jones said the confessions from two guys in a Mexican prison sounded really convincing.
“It sounded good, it read good. I mean, it was ready for a Hollywood script. It really was. But small problem - they didn’t do it.”
Huckabay and Jones agreed that any “confession” would have to be backed up by solid evidence.
“We weren’t gonna sign on the line until we had met the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Jones said. He also needed evidence. “We felt like we owed it to the families to get it right.”
At first, I thought, they’re going find out who did this. There were so many tips coming in. And then days went by, and weeks and months and even years. And as hard as it was to believe, I started to think maybe they’ll never find who killed these girls.
“What happened? Did they know they were going to die? Were they afraid?” Ayers-Wilson asked.
“I don’t think they’ll ever solve it,” said Pam Ayers.
“I want to know who did it and why,” Bob Ayers said. “I need to know that somebody’s paying for this.”
That was just the question that everyone was asking: Who killed these girls?
Bob and Pam Ayers describe their daughter, Amy, as “a cowgirl, she’s country… Clint Black. Garth Brooks.”
“Beans and cornbread, onion. Bowl of cereal every morning with chocolate milk,” Bob recalled fondly.
“I can see her riding, and just taking off across a pasture on a horse and enjoying it because she loved it so much,” said Pam.
“Every day I go down there and throw a leg over her horse, I think about her. I wish she was there with me,” said Bob.
When “48 Hours” caught up with Bob and Pam Ayers, nearly eight years after their daughter, Amy, was murdered in the yogurt shop, there were still no arrests
“It’s hard to think that your child had to go through that and you couldn’t do anything, you were not there for them,” said Pam.
“Your life changes when you have kids, and boy, does it ever change when you lose one,” added Bob.
Eliza Thomas’ mom, Maria, knew that all too well. “We keep her with us everywhere we go. To live it on a daily basis is very difficult.”
Time seemed to stand still for Jennifer and Sarah Harbison’s mom, Barbara Ayers-Wilson. “These little girls are still my little girls,” she said while holding up photos of her daughters.
People in Austin gathered year after year to show that they remembered the girls.
My assignment was to follow the investigation. So from the very beginning, I was with lead detectives John Jones and Mike Huckabay. It took over their lives. They were determined to try to find who killed these four little girls. For years they got nowhere.
“It seemed like every time that you opened a door and you thought an answer was going to be on the other side, there would be a brick wall,” said Huckabay.
Huckabay and Jones were taken off the case and replaced by new investigators.
“We did the best we could do,” Jones said at the time. “Some people will argue that it wasn’t enough.”
Then, in 1999, almost eight years after the murders, came four arrests.
It’s like finally… a sense that this mystery’s been solved. And we would know what had happened to these four girls.
In custody were Forrest Welborn, Michael Scott, Robert Springsteen and Maurice Pierce - now in their 20s.
“We both looked at each other and I think we both felt like we were going to fall on the floor. I mean that was the last thing we expected here,” said Pam.
What was shocking about these arrests was that these were the same four guys that had been picked up eight days after the murder, investigated and then dismissed. There was a feeling that these two lead detectives screwed up.
Maurice Pierce was the gun-toting 16-year-old caught at the mall. But this time, when the new detectives spoke with Pierce and his three friends, they got a big break: Michael Scott confessed.
Scott:”I remember looking at this girl. I hear the gun go off… I only pulled the trigger once. I hear another gun go off. I think I hear a total of five shots.”
Scott said it started as a simple robbery. The four guys had cased the place that afternoon and jammed the back door open.
Detective: Come on Michael, you’re doing good. Tell us! Let’s do this today! Let’s do it!
Scott: I remember one girl screaming, terrified.
It wasn’t just Michael Scott telling the story. The new detectives got a second confession from Robert Springsteen, who said he not only killed one of the girls, he said he raped her.
Detective: You f-----g know you f-----g raped her. Alright, just say it.
Springsteen: I stuck my d--- in her p---- and I raped her.
The police theory was that these four guys planned to rob the yogurt shop. Three of them would go in; Forrest Welborn would stay on the outside and be the lookout. But then something went awry and we ended up with four murders.
Seeing the suspects actually admit to the killings made it all too real for the families.
“We had accepted the fact that Amy had died quick, but she didn’t,” said Bob.
“They suffered that night and we’ve tried to make it less than it was. And we’re finding out that it was as bad as we ever thought it was for them,” said Ayers-Wilson.
You might expect these four guys to be tough, cold-blooded characters. So I was taken aback when I met the youngest of them, a clearly emotional Forrest Welborn.
I spoke with Welborn shortly after his arrest. He was 15 years old at the time of the murders. He was a young, not particularly bright young man. There was absolutely no physical evidence to tie him to these murders - just the word of Michael Scott.
Detective: How many people were in the LTD, just f-----g tell me.
Detective: Three people. You, Maurice Pierce and Robert Springsteen…
Even Scott needed some prodding to place Welborn at the scene.
Detective: Who else was in the car?
Scott: Me, Robert, Maurice and Forrest?
I asked Welborn if he was there as a lookout. “No,” he replied.
“Were you in the car? Could you have been in the car?”
“No. Not at all.”
Detective: Forrest waited in the car, didn’t he? Forrest was in the car, wasn’t he?
Scott: Forrest was in the car, but -
Detective: Yeah, Forrest was in the car. Forrest waited outside.
When Welborn was interrogated by police, he denied knowing anything about the crime.
Detective: You could have done something. You could have suggested something. Maybe you did suggest something.
Welborn told me, “They tried to tell me what to say.”
Detective: Did you try to suggest something, maybe, “We shouldn’t do this? This ain’t right? This ain’t the right thing to do?”
Detective: Did you try to convince anybody? This wasn’t the right thing to do? Don’t say you weren’t there because you were there.
“They get right in my face and tell me everything I said was a lie,” he continued.
At the time, I found Welborn credible. In fact, no matter how hard the cops tried, they couldn’t get him to crack.
Detective: You ain’t gonna forget hearing them g…damn screams. You ain’t going to forget hearing those g…damn gunshots.
Welborn told me he was never tempted to back down. “I wasn’t going to lie about something like that,” he said.
They tried twice to indict Forrest Welborn; they can’t do it. So the case is dropped against him. Later on, charges were also dropped against Maurice Pierce. Police were convinced he was the mastermind, but they didn’t have evidence to prove it.
Everything falls apart except for the cases against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen - and there are even problems in those cases. All they have are the confessions and they’re saying those confessions were coerced.
Detective: You’re the coldest guy I’ve ever talked to in my life. Are you a cold-blooded murderer?
Springsteen: No, sir, I’m not.
Detective: I think you are.
“I was berated and berated and berated by the police officers,” Springsteen said. “Until they obtained what it was they wanted to hear, they were not going to allow me to leave. And basically, they broke me down.”
Ten years after the yogurt shop killings, Springsteen was the first to be tried for murder.
“These young men have been implicated and they have confessed,” Ayers-Wilson said before the trial. “They can withdraw it, but the truth is they actually were there and they actually did the murders.
In May 2001, Robert Springsteen went on trial for the yogurt shop murders.
When Springsteen was arrested, he was married and working in a stockroom. But at the time of the murders, he was a 17-year-old dropout who hung out at the mall.
When you work on a case like this, the first thing you want to do is meet the defendants. You want to look at them in the eye. You want to talk to them. You want to see for yourself these guys who have been accused of such a horrific murder.
Springsteen wouldn’t talk with me back during his trial, but he did talk with me now.
“There’s been a lot of hoopla and madness going on here the last several years and I would like to get some of the record set straight on this. And have the people know the truth,” he said.
“Let me just ask you again, did you have anything to do…”
“No. I did not.”
“…with the murders at the yogurt shop?”
He pointed out that there has never been any physical evidence linking him to the crime - no fingerprints, blood, DNA or hair.
But he did have trouble explaining why, after denying for hours he was involved, that he finally confessed to the police.
Detective: What did you do?
Springsteen: I shot -
Detective: Which one?
Springsteen: I don’t know.
Detective: What was she doing when you shot her?
How does that happen?
“I don’t know,” Springsteen replied. “There’s psychological aspects to it that I don’t understand.”
What really helped Springsteen was that he had an amazing litigator. Jim Sawyer - a bigger-than-life Texas lawyer - was on a mission to prove his client’s innocence.
“I want to presume for a moment that Springsteen made the statements the State claims. I am not impressed. ‘Well, why not, Mr. Sawyer?’ Well, what about all the other confessions that extracted? What differentiates him? Their belief he’s the guilty guy?” Sawyer said in 1999.
Robert Springsteen does not go through the details that Michael Scott did, but he did say that he participated in a rape of one of the girls. And he did get some of the details right. For example, he demonstrated the position of Amy’s body and he knew she was killed with a .380 handgun.
“They were going to get a confession out of Robert Springsteen. Period. Period,” Sawyer told me in 2009. “They weren’t leaving without it. They got him isolated and went to work. ‘You’re going to confess. And g--damn it, you will confess.’ And he by God did confess.”
Detective: What did he tell you to do?
Springsteen: Shoot her. Shoot her in the back of her head.
There are details in Springsteen’s admissions that are pretty credible. I asked how would he have those kind of details unless he was there?
“Because he had known the details for years,” Sawyer replied. “Because they were on the street. They were known to virtually every young kid who had interest in this case who had been there the night of and the nights following those murders.”
The families of the victims are absolutely convinced that the police were right. They had the right guys - that Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott killed those girls.
“The first trial was extremely hard… It was so hard and it was long,” Barbara Ayers-Wilson, the mother of two girls killed at the yogurt shop. “We were all there. And we were sitting through it day after day.”
For three weeks, the families of the victims sat in court and heard the horrible details of how their children suffered and died.
“Knowing what the girls went through that night. Listening to them talk about them pleading for their lives,” said Pam Ayers.
Springsteen said he and his family thought the trial would bring an acquittal.
But to win that acquittal, he would have to convince jurors that his confession was coerced. To the shock of just about everyone in the courtroom, including the victims’ parents, he took the stand.
“He should never have done that,” Ayers-Wilson said with a laugh. “He should not. He was not received well. He was so slimy on the stand.”
“Cocky. Arrogant,” added Maria Thomas.
“He was the evil person in front of us,” Ayers-Wilson said. “He was evil.”
Springsteen’s confession was corroborated by parts of Michael Scott’s written confession, which was read to jurors. Scott himself refused to take the stand and Sawyer never got the chance to cross-examine him.
The jurors deliberated for 13 hours. Robert Springsteen was convicted and condemned to death row.
“We all just wept when he was found guilty. Even though we got what we wanted - he got death, and we were happy for that - it was still horrible that we were hoping to take someone else’s life,” said Ayers-Wilson.
A year-and-a-half later, Springsteen’s friend, Michael Scott - who also claimed to be innocent - was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Finally, there’s a sense that maybe the police didn’t get them all, but two were convicted. Case solved.
In reality, the case was far from over.
Springsteen’s death sentence was commuted to life. Then, 15 years after the girls were killed, a shocking turn of events: in a 5-4 decision, the court said Scott’s constitutional rights were violated during his trial and therefore he should get a new one.
Ultimately, both Scott’s and Springsteen’s convictions were overturned.
“Those juries relied on the admission of two confessions at trial,” Sawyer said. “’It must be true. It’s a confession. Not just one, but two.’ Of course it was unconstitutional as hell.”
Everyone is entitled by the Sixth Amendment to confront an accuser. In the case of Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, their confessions were used against each other, but they weren’t allowed to confront each other in court.
While waiting retrial, Springsteen and Scott remained behind bars. The victims’ families had to face going through everything in court all over again.
“I felt like my head was gonna spin out of my body,” Maria Thomas said. “And it was because their rights were violated. Every time I hear those words, that their rights were violated, I just feel like I’m gonna go insane. I mean, I just - I don’t - pretty angry, you know? Their rights are violated. Our girls were murdered.”
“If you get to know these families and watch their strength, you want to find justice for them,” said District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.
Lehmberg was faced with a huge challenge.
“It is different from any other crime that I have dealt with - the facts, the brutality, the way it effected the community.”
The only justice for her would be convicting Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen… again.
Robert Springsteen, now 35, never expected to spend the past 10 years in prison.
“It’s 23-hour lockdown. There’s no human contact,” he said. “Everywhere you go, you’re handcuffed and escorted by two officers. When you’re forced into an environment like that, it’s very, very difficult. It’s so restricted and regimented.”
While Springsteen was no choir boy as a teenager, “I had kind of like a minor in possession or disorderly conduct or whatever it was back when I was 17,” he also had no history of violence.
“I’m very humble. Very family oriented. I’m just a normal guy,” he said.
Although his murder conviction was overturned in 2006, Springsteen once again faced a life sentence for the murder of the four young girls. Ironically, neither he nor his high school friend, Michael Scott, would be in this situation if they had not actually confessed to the crime.
It’s still so hard to believe - even when you look at someone in the eye - even when he says that there was so much pressure to confess - it’s still hard to understand why a normal guy who’s in his mid-20s could be coerced into admitting something that horrific.
“48 Hours” collected sections of defendant Michael Scott’s confessions and showed them to Saul Kassin, distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Kassin was familiar with the case because he was once contacted by the defense.
Scott: I remember looking at this girl. I hear the gun go off. I only pulled the trigger once… I hear somebody get slapped.
“A good valid confession will look something just like this. But there are many false confessions that are known, proven false confessions, that also look just like this,” Kassin explained.
According to Kassin, the problem is what you see on tape is just a fraction of the actual interview.
“You can’t tell just by looking,” he said.
I asked him, “But why would somebody confess to something they didn’t do? What goes on in a person’s mind to say, ‘Yeah, I was there. I was thinking this?’”
“One is, the person feels absolutely trapped,” Kassin explained.
Detective: At some point, Maurice hands you that revolver. What does he say to you?
“The goal of interrogation, very explicitly, is to increase the anxiety associated with denial,” Kassin said.
Detective: Let’s do it now. You went inside with those boys, didn’t you Michael?
“We know you did it. And we don’t want to hear any lies,” said Kassin.
Detective:Didn’t you, Michael?
Scott: I don’t remember.
Detective: Yes, you do remember.
Scott: No I don’t.
And when police apply pressure for long periods of time, Kassin said even innocent people may crack.
Take a look at what happened during Scott’s interrogation:
Detective: Is that the gun you shot somebody with Mike? Is this the gun you walked up behind somebody with and shot in the head?
“People will make very, very myopic short-term decisions,” Kassin told me. “They are very concerned about, ‘I’ve got to stop the pain now.’”
“Come on, though. I mean, I think most people think when they look at this, ‘You could not make me confess.’”
“The only answer I can give to the question is that when you look at DNA exonerations, roughly a quarter of them had false confessions as a factor in those cases,” said Kassin.
Confessions are so powerful; Kassin says they may even influence experts evaluating other evidence.
“In this case, the confession doesn’t match the original arson investigator’s report about how the fire was started. Well, guess what? A new report was filed, and the new report was molded around that confession. And then the original arson investigator changed his conclusion, molding it around the confession,” he explained.
It’s not just Kassin who has concerns; so does John Jones- the detective who was there the night of the crime. Even though Jones was taken off the case later, he knows as much about it as anyone.
“It’s a nice confession,” Jones said, “but it’s still gotta match up to the facts.”
For instance, Jones said the killers did not go into the yogurt shop office as Michael Scott claimed they did.
“The door was locked when we got there. We had to use a key on it to open,” he said.
Jones also wondered about Scott’s language in his written confession.
“’I had a Zippo lighter with me and lit the fire. I heard a whoosh sound of the accelerant when it caught fire.’ Accelerant was a multi-syllable word,” Jones said. “And I think that was his first multi-syllable word.”
“You think it was fed by one of the investigators?”
Jones replied, “I think he heard it earlier, yeah. ‘Cause who refers to lighter fluid as an accelerant? I mean, that’s cop talk.”
Surprisingly, 10 years after the confessions were recorded, this is the first time Jones - one of the initial investigators - has ever seen the confession video.
“Odd, isn’t it?” he said.
John Jones started off as someone I was covering and became a friend. I’ve known him for over 17 years. I’ve watched what he went through. How could you not like a guy who took this case not just as a job, but he took it on as a mission?
I could tell Jones is still troubled that he and his partner weren’t consulted by the new investigators when they got those confessions, especially since Jones spoke to the suspects so soon after the crime.
“We had ‘em in and we didn’t get anything close to that out of them,” he explained. “And they were still juveniles then. I didn’t think and I still don’t that - that persons of that age could hold that information in.”
“What does this confession give us? At best, it is ambiguous,” Kassin said. “It doesn’t prove innocence, but nor does it prove guilt.”
Before taking Springsteen and Scott to court again, the Travis County District Attorney wanted something more. So Rosemary Lehmberg ordered new DNA tests on the old evidence, including swabs that contained fluids from the girl Springsteen said he raped.
“This technology searches for male DNA only and is a really accurate test for mixtures of male and female DNA,” she explained.
The gamble paid off… but not in the way Lehmberg expected. The DNA did not match any of the four young men who were originally accused or the two that were convicted.
Suddenly, more than 17 years after these murders, there’s DNA and it doesn’t match any of the four suspects. I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall when those test results came back. Can you imagine? Here they think they’re going to have more evidence against Scott and Springsteen. Instead, it points to an unknown person.
“I feel that due to the new DNA evidence that we have, that this case should just not proceed any further,” said Springsteen.
“The beauty of DNA is that it damns and it saves,” said Springsteen’s lawyer, Joe Jim Sawyer.
In this case, he said it saves Robert Springsteen.
“After they began wringing admissions out of Robert, the cops get him to the penultimate question: ‘You killed her, didn’t you?’ ‘Yes, yes, all right. I killed her.’ And then, of course, they tell him, ‘No. No, that’s not enough. You were man enough to admit you murdered her, own up to it! You raped that girl.’ ‘No, I did not.’ ‘Come on, Robert! Be a man, Robert! You’ve got the guts for it. Tell us.’ Except that, that can’t be true. We know to a scientific certainty that is not true.”
The prosecution said this DNA doesn’t exonerate the four - it just meant there was another person with them. The problem is there were never five guys; it was always four. So who is this fifth man?
So far, more than 100 men - lab workers, crime scene investigators and old friends of the suspects - have been tested, all to no avail.
“It could be contamination. It could be transferred DNA. It could be a number of things,” Lehmberg explained.
“The fact that there is this DNA from an unknown person, does that make you wonder if the right guys were arrested in this case?”
“I remain really confident that both Springsteen and Scott were responsible for killing those four girls,” she replied.
But proving that may be harder than ever.
I thought I had seen it all when it came to this case: a stalled investigation, and then nearly a decade later, shocking arrests and two convictions that were then overturned. Still, I was not prepared for the latest developments
In June 2009, nearly 18 years after the yogurt shop murders, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen - who spent 10 years of their lives in prison - walked out.
When the district attorney admitted that she was not yet prepared to take the men to trial, the judge ordered that the two men be released while they waited; no bail necessary.
Springsteen was allowed to sign his name and walk out of prison. I’ve never seen anything like that. Here was a man who was once on death row - who was convicted of four murders - walking out pending trial; allowed out on his own recognizance.
“I didn’t really quite exactly believe it,” Springsteen told me.
The families of the victims couldn’t believe it, either.
“I cried for days about it,” Maria Thomas said. “When I was told they were let out, I was just angry. I wanted to hit something.”
“You just take a breath, and you go, “OK, this is one more thing to deal with,” said Barbara Ayers-Wilson.
Until District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg knows whose DNA was found on one of the murdered girls, she said she won’t risk taking either Springsteen or Scott to trial.
“My concern right now is that we identify this unknown male donor,” she said. “We’re prepared to try the cases again once that’s done.”
When asked how long that could take, Lehmberg replied, “I can’t answer that. It takes as long as it takes.”
Springsteen realizes he remains in a sort of limbo - the case could go on for years.
“I really wish we could start trial tomorrow instead of just waiting and waiting and waiting,” he said. “I want my name cleared.”
Then, on Oct. 28, 2009, when pressured to set a trial date, Lehmberg did the unthinkable. She asked the judge to drop all criminal charges against Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott.
This time, they were really free men.
“Make no mistake,” Lehmberg paused while addressing reporters, “this was a difficult decision and one I’d rather not have to make.”
This is the last thing any D.A. would want to do - set free two men she is absolutely convinced are killers. But she doesn’t have any choice. She either has to identify that male DNA or find new evidence against Springsteen and Scott.
“There is no statute of limitations for murder,” Lehmberg continued. “We will continue until the persons responsible for these horrible murders are brought to justice.”
“They can come arrest me tomorrow or next year or 15, 20 years down the road and start this process all over again,” acknowledged Springsteen.
“I didn’t have anything to do with this crime,” Michael Scott said outside of court following his release. “I am innocent and I am glad to be at this point where we are at. I’m just ready to move forward.”
Original investigator John Jones, now retired, believes he was right all those years ago when he released Springsteen, Scott and the other two teen suspects in 1991 for lack of evidence.
“I guess this day was inevitable,” he said. “Until you got the proof, you have no case. Sometimes you just have to accept that and move on.”
Eighteen years have now passed since the girls were killed in the yogurt shop.
“This thing’s not near over,” Bob Ayers said. “Believe me, it’s just started. And if it takes a little more time to find the information that we need to find, then so be it.”
Said Barbara Ayers-Wilson, “We’re gonna get through this. We’re gonna figure it out and the girls will be happy. They’ll smile down on us when it happens.”
As tough as this has been to cover, I hope I will be around to report the final chapter of this case. I think about the girls all the time: Sarah, Jennifer, Eliza and Amy. They’d be in their 30s now… maybe with children of their own.
“The missing - the missing is the hardest part,” Maria Thomas said. “I just wish I could have more memories. I’d like to have more memories.”
Produced by Gail Abbott Zimmerman and Peter Henderson
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