2016 is not only the year that true crime enters the mainstream with several documentary series and podcasts devoted to the subject, it is also an anniversary year for more than one of Austin’s own community-shattering hometown murders. August 1st represented the 50th anniversary of the Charles Whitman UT sniper spree, and on August 28th we hosted Monte Akers, Nathan Akers, and Roger Friedman, authors of The Tower Sniper: The Terror of America’s First Active Shooter on Campus.
December 6th represents the 25th anniversary of the Yogurt Shop murders and on Tuesday, October 18th, we will welcome Beverly Lowry to talk about her new book Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders.
Examining this unsolved murder, Lowry goes into detail about what we know versus what we thought we knew. The book’s title and cover design reflect the famous billboards featuring black and white school photos of the victims Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, Eliza Thomas, and Amy Ayers. A red stripe slashes across the photos with that all important, haunting question “Who Killed These Girls?” that to this day remains unanswered.
Lowry’s book is well-researched though heavily weighted on the police narrative, with the victims’ families performing brief cameo appearances at court. As a relative newcomer to Austin and to true crime, I was unfamiliar with this crime, the details of which Lowry alludes to, but frustratingly keeps to herself until the end, when it becomes clear that no one really knows exactly what happened in the 40-something minutes between the 11 o’clock closing time to the first report of fire at 11:48.
Simply speculating based on hints that Lowry drops throughout about what happened to those four girls in the 40-something minutes between when the shop closed and the first report was made is chilling. In a masterful stroke, Lowry’s storytelling lets the mind do what it naturally wants to: fill in the narrative gaps. Investigations can stall due to police departmental conflict. This book could use an “index of characters” at the beginning, especially considering how many characters–particularly the investigators, police chiefs, and prosecutors who are repeatedly dismissed or resign–that move in and out of frame.
The interrogation tactics used on suspects Robert Burns Springsteen IV and Michael James Scott are placed into a larger historical context of interrogation as a psychological assault that can sometimes lead to false confessions. Lowry also highlights important Supreme Court decisions and discovery of new DNA evidence affecting the ultimate fate of Scott and Springsteen. At the heart of this narrative is the suspicion that professional pride hindered the investigation and is potentially keeping a dangerous killer at large to this day. Defense lawyer James Sawyer said, “What does it take to make people say, ‘I was wrong’?” The Austin-American Statesman noted that victims included “everybody for whom the system has not worked…from the slain young girls to the defendants and suspects…and everybody who counts on a functional criminal justice system.”
I have a great admiration for people who write about unsolved cases. “Who killed these girls?” is only the first of the unanswered questions about this case. But until we can definitively answer the “who,” there is no possible way there will ever be an answer to ultimately more challenging “why.”
Don’t miss seeing Beverly Lowry speak about the book at BookPeople on Tuesday, October 18th, at 7pm.
— review by Jan Day, 2nd Floor Inventory Manager