THE YOGURT SHOP MURDERS
by Mack White
Austin Homicide Detective Robert Merrill holds a gun "in the proximity"
(Merrill's own words) of suspect Michael Scott's head during his
"confession" to the Yogurt Shop Murders.
The following article is based largely on a series of interviews the author conducted in the summer of 2000 with Erik Moebius, former Assistant Attorney General of the State of Texas; in addition, the author's research was supplemented with Internet-published writings of Moebius. The opinions expressed are Moebius', and not necessarily those of the author, the hosts of this website, or its sponsors ...
On December 6, 1991, firefighters responded to a fire at the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt shop in North Austin. Inside, they found the burned bodies of four young women--Sarah Harbison, 15; Jennifer Harbison, 17; Eliza Thomas, 17; and Amy Ayers, 13.
The four girls had each been shot in the back of the head, and their bodies burned.
Firemen were sworn to secrecy regarding the details of the crime scene. However, in an Austin American-Statesman story, firemen reported that when they entered the shop they found the bodies of three of the girls piled atop one another. The fourth victim, Amy Ayers, was found in another part of the shop a half hour later. The significance of this will become apparent later.
The murders shocked Austin to the core and drew national attention. The Austin Police Department set up a special unit to investigate the murders. Yet, over the years, this investigation would cause considerable controversy.
Early in the investigation, Homicide Detective Hector Polanco was accused of beatg a suspect in the case in an attempt to get a confession. Then it emerged that detectives were using the yogurt shop case as an excuse to harass the Austin counter-culture, primarily the "Goths," known for their dark clothes and occult interests. This, of course, was an investigative dead end.
Then, in the summer of 1992, the yogurt shop investigation began to focus on three men: Carlos Saavedra, Alberto Cortez and Ricardo Hernandez. Authorities located and arrested Saavedra and Cortez in Mexico in October 1992. According to the Mexican police, Saavedra confessed to the November 1991 rape of an Austin woman, as well as to the yogurt shop murders.
According to the confession, Saavedra said he attempted to rob the yogurt shop, but when one of the women recognized him, he raped and shot them. He also said he did the crime alone while his friends waited outside in a car.
However, Saavedra soon recanted the confession, telling reporters it had been coerced. The interrogation, it seems, had involved a Coke bottle filled with water and cayenne pepper, poured down Saavedra's nose until he "confessed."
Over time, the investigation shifted away from the Latino men to Michael Pierce, Forest Welborn, Robert Burns Springsteen, Jr. and Michael James Scott. On September 14, 1999, police took a written confession from Scott in which he stated that he, Pierce, Springsteen, and Welborn had murdered the girls.
Welborn was eventually eliminated as a suspect, but Pierce, Springsteen, and Scott were indicted.
In April 2000, a .22 gun belonging to Pierce was tested by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and found not to be the gun used in the yogurt shop murders. Charges against Pierce were dropped. The prosecution of Scott and Springsteen proceeded.
During the trial, a photo of Scott's "confession" was made public. In the photo, Homicide Detective Robert Merrill can be seen holding a gun to Scott's head. Nevertheless, on the witness stand, Merrill denied threatening Scott’s life and claimed the confession was not coerced. He admitted that he had held the gun "in the proximity" of Scott's head, but stated it was part of a role-playing game. He did concede, however, that holding a gun to someone’s head in an interrogation room might be construed as coercion by most reasonable persons.
In August 2000, the Austin American-Statesman reported that DNA tests conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety excluded the four suspects.
It has also been reported in the American-Statesman that a member of the Grand Jury which indicted the three men has written a letter to Judge Michael Lynch asking to have the prosecution investigated. Recent news reports, she said, have caused her to question whether or not the indictments were "obtained by deception or withholding of evidence."
Also, Robert Springsteen, Sr., father of one of the suspects, reported on his website that three more Grand Jury members have expressed similar doubts about the indictment process to Judge Lynch. To date, the judge has not seen fit to initiate an investigation.
The Autopsy Reports
Shortly after the murders occurred, the autopsy reports of the women were sealed. According to Erik Moebius, a former Assistant Attorney General of the State of Texas who has conducted an independent investigation of the yogurt shop case for the past several years, these reports should not have been sealed in the first place.
In an interview with this writer, Moebius stated: "Autopsies are public documents. By law, they must be made public. I have since talked to the coroner who conducted the autopsies. He was shocked to discover that his autopsies had never been released to the public. As he told me, 'Those are public documents! They can't order them sealed!'"
Moebius believes the autopsy reports were sealed to cover up involvement of a police officer in the murders. He has also alleged in numerous interviews and articles available on the Internet that the murders were part of a criminal scheme called "insurance reserve fraud."
Recently, the Austin American-Statesman successfully sued to have the autopsy reports unsealed. However, the details of these reports have not been made public--until now.
Moebius supplied this writer with copies of the autopsy reports. Following is a summary:
Sarah Harbison's nude body was found gagged and with her hands bound behind her back with a pair of panties. Her body was severely charred, and there was an abrasion in the upper portion of the vulva and the vagina. She had been shot through the back of the head. A .22 lead bullet was recovered from her brain.
Jennifer Harbison's nude body was not bound, but her body was found with her hands behind her back. Her body was severely charred, and she had been shot through the back of the head. A .22 lead bullet was recovered from her brain.
Eliza Thomas' nude body was gagged and her hands bound behind her back with a brassiere. Her body was severely charred, and she had been shot through the back of the head. A .22 lead bullet was recovered from her brain.
Amy Ayers's nude body was found with "a sock-like cloth material wrapped around her neck with a half hitch in the back." Her body was not severely charred, but covered in second and "very early" third degree burns over 25 to 30 percent of its surface. She had been shot through the back of the head with the same .22 caliber gun used on the other girls, but the bullet did not enter the brain. However, a second gunshot of a caliber not specified in the report caused severe damage to the brain. This bullet exited the right lateral cheek and jaw area. No mention is made in the report whether or not this second bullet was recovered from the crime scene. Moebius contends that the damage caused by this bullet is consistent with that of a police-issue .38 caliber pistol.
Whereas the cause of death for each of the other girls was determined by the coroner to be a .22 gunshot wound to the back of the head, the cause of death for Ayers was listed as "a result of gunshot wounds of the head (2) and asphyxia due to ligature strangulation."
Also, unlike the other girls, Ayers' fingernails were cut for examination purposes, and fingerprints taken.
What is the significance of all these morbid details? Erik Moebius interprets them as follows:
All four girls were shot one after the other in the back of the head by a .22 gun. This low caliber weapon was evidently chosen for its relatively low sound.
Three of the girls--the Harbison sisters and Thomas—died upon being shot. However, when the .22 bullet struck Ayers' brain, it did not penetrate deeply enough to kill her, thus necessitating the attempt to strangle her.
Believing Ayers to be dead, the killers placed her body in a pile with the other bodies. The autopsy reports reveal an enormously high BTU output from the accelerant, indicating the probable use of gasoline to burn the bodies. With the fire about to consume the shop, the killers then departed the scene.
Ayers, however, was still not dead. Pulling her 110-pound frame out of the pile of bodies, she managed to crawl away to another area of the blazing shop, where it was discovered by firemen a full half hour after their arrival at the shop.
Moebius contends that the discovery of her body, still alive when firemen arrived, necessitated a clean-up operation—one that only a police officer could have accomplished.
"Only a cop could have gotten in there," says Moebius. He theorizes that the firemen may have been ordered away from the scene to allow a police officer to shoot Ayers in the head with a .38 revolver. The gun's report could have been explained away as a small explosion inside the still burning shop.
But why on earth would a cop cover up the murder of these four girls?
Moebius believes these murders are part of a much larger picture involving insurance fraud, money laundering, official corruption, and a great many other murders in the State of Texas, perhaps across the nation and as far away as Indonesia.
The prosecution of Springsteen and Scott, Moebius contends, is part of the coverup. The prosecution of these young men was intended to be an easy one, he says, but it began to unravel due to his and others' efforts to persuade the suspects to get rid of their court-appointed lawyers—lawyers he alleges were under the control of a prominent Austin lawyer, hereafter referred to as "Lawyer M"—the man Moebius believes orchestrated not only the coverup, but the crime itself.
Insurance Reserve Fraud
Erik Moebius has practiced law for over 20 years. He was an Assistant District Attorney of Bexar County in San Antonio from 1979 to 1980, and an Assistant Attorney General of Texas from 1983 to 1988.
These are good credentials. And yet, in 1994 Moebius was disbarred--an action he says was initiated by [Lawyer M] in retaliation for Moebius' refusal to stop representing clients who had been victimized by "insurance reserve fraud." Moebius alleges that [Lawyer M] is a practitioner of this type of fraud, of which the yogurt shop murders are only one example.
Moebius explains that insurance companies keep a certain amount of money in reserve for catastrophic death claims. Normally, if there is no such claim, this money is rebated at the end of year to the policy holders. But, in a reserve fraud scheme, the insurance company, in collusion with other parties, intentionally creates a catastrophic death claim. The rightful recipient of the claim, however, never sees the money; without their knowledge, the person is "separated" from the claim, with the money instead going elsewhere to be laundered. In this way, a few million dollars can be turned into many more millions of dollars—hence the high profit motive for those participating in reserve fraud.
An example of how a person can be separated from a claim, cited by Moebius, is the case of Herman Garcia, who was injured in a head-on collision in a highway construction zone in the 1980s. Herman was removed from the construction zone by air ambulance and flown to Brackenridge Hospital, where he lay in a coma. Garcia's mother says that, within days of his arrival at Brackenridge, a hospital administrator recommended Austin attorney Michael A. Wash to her.
Mrs. Garcia: "At first, no one knew if Herman was going to live. Within days, Herman stabilized, although he remained in a coma. It was then that this administrator called me into her office. She gave me her business card with Michael Wash's name written on it. I still have the card in my wallet. She told me, 'The other side already has two attorneys, you need one now. Here is a good one.' She handed me her business card with the attorney's name written on the back. Then she demanded that I call the attorney right away. She even told me where a pay phone was down the hall. I did as she told me. What did I know?"
In January 1991, Mrs. Garcia says, Wash fraudulently told her that her son no longer had a viable claim relating to his severe brain injury. At the same meeting, he instructed her to sign additional contracts on her grandchildren's derivative claims related to her son's permanent injury.
Moebius: "At the moment her attorney instructed Mrs. Garcia that her son no longer had a claim, she believed him. A more experienced individual would have immediately recognized the contradiction. If the attorney was telling Mrs. Garcia the truth about her son's claims, if her son's claims were in fact extinguished, then the grandchildren's derivative claims would likewise be extinguished. Yet at the same moment her attorney took contracts from Mrs. Garcia on the grandchildren's derivative claims, he told her that her son's claims were extinguished."
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