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?