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Yogurt Shop Murders

Prosecution doles out crime scene details
By: Christian R. González

The first trial in the infamous yogurt shop murders has begun.

Robert Springsteen IV pled not guilty in court this morning after prosecutor Robert Smith, an assistant district attorney, read Springsteen’s indictment. Springsteen's capital murder trial is for the death of Amy Ayers. If convicted, Springsteen could receive the death penalty.

Springsteen and two other men are charged with the murders of Eliza Thomas and Jennifer Harbison, both 17, who worked at the "I Can't Believe It's Yogurt" store on West Anderson Lane; and Sarah Harbison, 15, sister of Jennifer, and Amy Ayers, 13, a friend. The four girls were killed on Dec. 6, 1991.

Ayers and Sarah Harbison stopped by to help the others close the store. Ayers planned to spend the night at the Harbisons' home.

The families of the girls were seated in the courtroom behind the prosecution team. In the first row were the families of the two Harbison girls who were murdered on that December night. In the second row sat the family of Amy Ayers.

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Prosecution's opening statement

View an excerpt from District Attorney Robert Smith's opening statement.

The trial began shortly after 9 a.m., when Travis County Sheriff’s deputies led Springsteen into the small courtroom by at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center. Just a minute later, Judge Mike Lynch took the bench. After some preliminary questions for both legal teams, the jury was led in and sworn.

The 14-panel jury, with two alternates, consists of seven men and seven women. The jurors appear to range in age from late teens to middle age. A visual examination of the jury showed there are two blacks and a few Hispanics on the panel.

Judge Lynch gave standard instructions to the jury, including the order that they were not allowed to take notes in what is expected to be a three to four week trial.

Smith, the lead prosecutor, began his opening statement with a short recounting of the events on Dec. 6, 1991. He said that Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas were working at the yogurt store and were supposed to close at 11 p.m. Smith said that Springsteen “cased” the store and made his way to the back, where he secured the door to not lock so that he and three others could make their way back into the store for a robbery later.

However, upon entering the store, the men discovered there were four girls inside of the store instead of the two they expected. The prosecution said Springsteen was with Michael Scott, now 25, who was 17 at the time of the murders, and Maurice Pierce, 24, a minor at the time.

A fourth suspect, Forrest Wellborn, 23, 15 at the time, was the “getaway” man who remained outside in the car. Scott faces a capital murder trial, while Pierce faces a murder trial but cannot be given a death sentence because he was a minor at the time. Smith said the girls were found bound, gagged and shot in the head execution style. Charges against Wellborn were dropped due to lack of evidence.

Smith said that Springsteen lived next door to his father in a condominium with his friend, Michael Scott. On Friday, Dec. 6, the same day as the murders, Springsteen’s father called police to report his son and Scott as missing. He said the two had been gone since Wednesday, Dec. 4, 1991.

The prosecutor then went into a lengthy and graphic description of the crime scene. (WARNING: Read with caution.)

Prosecutor Robert Smith said that firefighters had to break down the front door of the store because it was locked with the key still in the lock. He said firefighters could not see into the store because of smoke.

After the fire had been put out, they discovered Ayers’ body and then the bodies of the others. Ayers was found lying in the “middle” section of the store. She was without clothes and on her side face down. Near her was an empty cash drawer. The medical examiner determined her cause of death to be strangulation and gunshot wounds to the head. A .22 caliber bullet was recovered.

Ayer’s mother was seen wiping away tears during Smith's description.

The other three were found in the back portion of the store.

"This crime scene was a total mess ... standing in water by the time the police arrived,” Smith told the jury.

In the back room, Sarah Harbison was found gagged with her hands tied behind her. Investigators determined that she had been sexually assaulted. Smith said her body was extensively burned. Eliza Thomas was found on top of Sarah Harbison in a similar manner. Her body and face were burned beyond recognition, and she was identified by dental records. She was not sexually assaulted.

Smith said investigators believed that Jennifer Harbison’s body was originally on top of the other two girls. However she was found nearby having been moved by the fire. DNA tests revealed the attackers had not sexually assaulted her.

Smith made it clear that all the girls were dead before the fire began.

The prosecution reasoned that since all had been shot in the head, their bodies were moved and stacked, as they were all found face-up.

Because the fire was so intense, the crime scene unit had to sift with shovels and screen to find evidence. Eventually they found some bullet shells and a magazine for a semi-automatic handgun.

In the corner near the rear door of the store investigators found a pile of burned clothes. Included were remnants of denim fabric, and clothing from the all the girls, as well as a heart-shaped belt buckle that had belonged to Amy. However, police teams never recovered the belt that went with it. A ring that belonged to Sarah Harbison’s boyfriend was also found.

“She took the time and made the effort to take that ring off for some reason,” Smith said. Sarah’s wallet was also found there.

Smith then shifted his remarks to Springsteen’s involvement. He said on Sept. 15, 1999, in Charleston, W.V., Springsteen confessed to APD officers, who traveled to interview him, about his involvement. They said he also confessed to shooting Ayers with the .380 caliber gun.

“You will find he voluntarily confessed. He will eventually admit that Forrest was never even in the shop and that it was his .380. He was the one that shot the .380,” Smith said.

The .380 caliber weapon was never found, but it can be indentified by the charcteristics left on the discharged bullet. It's a small silver semi-automatic pistol, Smith said, adding that he will provide witnesses to confirm that Springsteen had a small silver .380 caliber semi-automatic pistol, similar to the one that forensic evidence shows was used in the case.

Smith left the jury with this final thought: On Saturday, Dec. 7, 1991, Maurice Pierce stole a Nissan Pathfinder, and on Sunday all the suspects went joyriding in San Antonio. On the way down, Springsteen stopped to buy a newspaper and read the story about the murders outloud to everyone in the car. "There's going to be no question that he did that," he said. "There's going to to be no question, when you hear all this evidence that you are sitting in the courtroom with the man who killed Amy Ayers."

After the prosecution concluded their opening statement, the judge ordered a 10-minute recess.

Before court resumed, the families of the Harbisons and Ayers switched rows.

The defense then began their presentation.

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Timeline the prosecution presented for events on Friday, Dec. 6, 1991:
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4:30 p.m. Sarah Harbison arrived home and spoke with her mother Barbara.

6:30 p.m. Jennifer Harbison arrived home from visiting her boyfriend and discussed with her mother the plans to have Ayers over.

7:15 p.m. Ayers was preparing to go leave with Sarah Harbison for the sleepover.

9:45 p.m. Maria Thomas, mother of Eliza Thomas, stops at the yogurt shop to visit with her daughter. She notices all four girls in the store.

10 p.m. James Thomas, father of Eliza stops by the store. He also notices all four girls there.

11 p.m. The store is scheduled to close.

11:03 p.m. A “no sale” is rung up on the store cash register.

(11:47 p.m. A police officer tells dispatch that the sees a fire at the restaurant.)

11:48 p.m. This is the time Jennifer Harbison’s Timex watch displayed when it was removed from her body.

11:53 p.m. The first truck from the Austin Fire Department arrives. The response time of six minutes is because the truck went to the wrong location.

11:54 p.m. A fire engine arrives.

11:57 p.m. Another fire engine arrives.

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