Austin
12:06 pm
Tue February 7, 2012

Outside Review Coming for Yogurt Shop Murders?

Austin’s infamous Yogurt Shop Murders may be getting a fresh set of eyes.

The 1991 crime – the assault and murder of four young Austin women at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop in north Austin, which was then set ablaze – has never been solved.

In 1999, Austin Police arrested four suspects in connection with the crime: Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Maurice Pierce, and Forrest Wellborn. Charges were dropped against the latter two suspects. Springsteen and Scott were convicted but ultimately released after a DNA swab from one of the victims – not originally available in 1991– confirmed the existence of an unknown suspect the police have been unable to identify.

However, the District Attorney’s office have continued to treat Springsteen and Scott as prime suspects. When the DNA evidence was released in 2009, D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg told The Austin Chronicle the new evidence “does not exonerate anybody."

The worry that police and prosecutors were focusing on Springsteen and Scott to the detriment of other leads was given voice in a Chronicle cover story last year by investigative reporter Jordan Smith. Smith interviewed original investigator Sgt. John Jones, who questioned the continued focus on the four original suspects – especially when other leads, namely a pair of a suspicious patrons mulling about near closing time, hadn’t received nearly as much scrutiny:

“Perversely, the prosecution's insistence that there is only one possible theory for the crime – and only one set of suspects – may be preventing them from finding the actual murderers. A review of the case material suggests that there are likelier suspects to be considered – and a more likely scenario than an impulse crime by four teenage boys.”

 At yesterday’s meeting of the Public Safety Commission,  Vice Chair Kim Rossmo said he would be offering an agenda item at their next meeting potentially calling for outside help in reviewing the decades-old case. Citing the Chronicle story, he said, “Given the fact that the evidence for [the suspects’] conviction in the first instance was quite weak, and the fact that the D.A. and Travis County has dismissed charges against them – it put a new perspective on the case.”

“My concern is that there might be a problem with lack of independence,” Rossmo continued, “in that we have the same agency investigating the case and coming to the same conclusions they’ve come to in the past, perhaps suffering from a degree of tunnel vision.” He cited practices in the United Kingdom, where “murders unsolved after one year go to an entirely different agency … to avoid this type of group think or tunnel vision that can often happen."

APD Chief of Staff David Carter sounded tentative notes of support, noting that while the yogurt shop case is an ongoing investigation, the phenomenon of group-think in investigations was “something worthy of discussion.”

“The general rule is, the further away, the better,” Rossmo said when asked what sort of outside assistance he might call for, offering “retired homicide investigators from jurisdictions outside of Texas” and “possibly retired APD detectives  … a  mix of people with no ties to the original effort” as examples.

“In science it’s very standard for somebody to externally review your work. Because we all make mistakes – it’s like trying to proofread your own writing," he said. 

The Public Safety Commission’s next scheduled meeting is March 5.