Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Yogurt Murders, Confessions of the Innocent


I did a book review on a cold case unit in New York recently. Then on 1/9/2010 I watched a “48 Hours” episode on a real old case and my pique was raised.

The so-called “yogurt murders”, so-named because of the four young girls murdered in an “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Yogurt” store, was the case covered on the “48 Hours” episode. Erin Moriarity was the host and I watched the story of the yogurt murders with unbelieving and shocked eyes. For the murderers of these beautiful young girls now walk the streets. This is a case where DNA evidence did the prosecution dirty.

While we’re on the subject, we have two more old cases with very believable and ostensible perps identified. One involves a young girl whose brother finally admitted to murdering her and remember the Tylenol poisonings?

The Yogurt Murders

So on Saturday evening, 1/9/10, I sit down to watch one of my favorite shows, CBS’ “48 Hours”. Erin Moriarty hosts. She covered the Texas “yogurt” shop murders in 1991, from the date of the murders on 12/6/91, through the current date. Moriarty said she was “troubled” by how that case ended.

Four young girls, all in their teens, were found dead in an Austin “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Yogurt” store. Due to a series of circumstances with this murder, a perfect storm of getting away with murder congealed without flaw.

First, the store had been set on fire. In fact, the dead bodies were first discovered by the firefighters on the case. The burned bodies of Eliza Thomas and Jennifer Harbison, Sarah Harbison, sister of Jennifer, and Amy Ayers were found stacked on top of each other by firemen then wading around in a sea of water from fire hoses used to stop the flames. It was a call to a fire, not a murder scene. Step one, crucial evidence was trampled and watered down by the first responders. Fire fighters put out fires. They do not tred softly lest tiny fibers critical for proof be nudged by investigating foot traffic.

Two of the girls were raped but as I gathered from the show, this was only known due to a “confession” of two of the perps. The bodies had been badly burned.

Now let me state that the CBS “48 Hours” episode was more about Moriarty than the actual documentation of the facts. Because it was never clear to me just how the four perps got singled out, or why. It was never clear to me why the first investigating police officer was fired or why the original four perps were brought in a second time when the first guy had to let them go.

Robert Burns Springsteen Jr.,Michael James Scott, Maurice Pierce, Forrest Wellborn were deemed to be the perps. Two of these perps were released; Wellborn because he was determined to have been the driver of the getaway car and in no way responsible for the murders. Maurice Pierce was released because he was underage I believe. Again, CBS was vague on details, this show being about Erin Moriarty and her confusion.

Springsteen and Scott were picked up, by the NEW investigating officers, even though the old investigation team was fired from the case partly for letting those four guys go the first time. The first investigation team picked up these four boys but let them go due to there being no evidence to hold them on anything.

In fact, there was NO evidence to hold on to those four boys a second time EXCEPT for two confessions.

Hey, confessions are quite valid reasons to charge somebody with a crime and here I will assert my firm belief about confessions:

I don’t believe that innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit.

Now for the caveats. Of course there are kooks. Any cop will tell you that given a sensational crime, they come out of the woodwork. I am reminded of that nut living in Thailand who confessed to killing Jonbenet Ramsey. When, on taxpayer dime and courtesty of possibly the dumbest damn Attorney General in America, they brought this guy home, he clammed up and denied.

And there are statistical anomalies. Meaning that nothing is ever EVERYBODY, NEVER, IN ALL CASES.

That all being clarified, I believe it is very rare for someone who did not commit a crime to admit to it. If nothing else, to admit to a crime would require knowing many details that a person who did not commit the crime simply wouldn’t know. In fact, I’ve learned from my many years of a True Crime afficiando that investigators will hold back very telling details about a crime specifically in order to eliminate false confessors.

In fact one of the confessors to the yogurt murders DID provide some very telling details about the murders of those young girls, including who got raped, how the bodies were found (stacked in a pile), and a very telling detail that one of the victims, found with her arms stretched beyond her head had been trying to crawl away which was the reason for the outstretched arms.

Someone NOT there would simply not know this. A good guess? Possible. Not likely I’d assert.

Like so many confessors, the two guys who originally confessed finally got some lawyers and of course they said they only confessed because the police “coerced” them.

Let’s make this another caveat. Twas once a time when cops used to beat a confession out of suspect. This might not have happened as much as criminals would have you believe, but I think it did happen from time to time.

I have included a video snippet of one of the confessions of the alleged yogurt murderer below. Nobody was beating anybody. In fact, confessions are now pretty much videotaped just to avoid such a denial of a genuine confession.

Juries do tend to convict folks for confessing to a crime because, well duh, most times they really did the crime.

In the case of the yogurt shop murders, there was no other physical evidence connecting the confessors to the crime and this, even the very skeptical I, admits is a problem.

There was also some prosecutorial issues with how this case was tried. For our constitution does provide for one charged with a crime with the right to face his or her accusers. Testimony of the Scott fellow was used in the trial of Springsteen and, I think, visa-versa. Neither of these guys had a right to confront and question their accusers who were, in this case, each other. So if Scott’s testimony that Springsteen shot the girls first was used to convict Springsteen, well Springsteen should have had the opportunity to cross examine Scott.

No less then the Supreme Court overturned this confession.

The final blow was dealt when the prosecutor, in the dawn of the DNA testing era which bloomed AFTER this crime was committed, had DNA found on one of the victims tested.

The ideal result would have been for this DNA to match one of those four boys, ideally Springsteen and Scott.

It did not.

In fact, everyone in any way involved with the girl from whom the DNA was taken was tested for a match, including all family, those fire fighters who first were at the crime scene, school chums.

They found no matches.

Well if I’m the defense attorney I’m yelling and screaming that some stranger murdered those girls and there’s strange DNA, NOT matching my clients, to prove it.

The boys were let go.

The “48 Hours” show did show interview vignettes of Erin Moriarty and the parents of the murdered girls. It was heartbreaking.

In a final bit of irony, the original investigators of the case were vindicated. They let those boys go for there being no evidence to keep them. And in the end, the boys were let go for there being no evidence to keep them.

I don’t blame the prosecutor for trying to match up that DNA. And I don’t blame her for dropping the case when a match couldn’t be found. The boys walked but she never would have won that case. Even the very critical pro-prosecutorial ME would have considered that unidentified DNA a very definite “reasonable doubt”.

I do fault the prosecutor of the first case for allowing taped testimony of one perp at the trial of another. Prosecutors and Attorney Generals should know the constitution.

I do NOT, not for one nano-second, believe those boys were innocent; that they confessed to a crime they did not commit. They knew that the bodies of those girls were stacked atop one another, they knew about the outstretched arms, they knew details that they shouldn’t have known. The defense attorney alleged that these details were commonly known in the community.

Perhaps. Then what other excuse could a defense attorney offer to explain how his clients knew all this stuff? I don’t buy it but the defense attorney has a job to do. Finally, my last resort benchmark of the guilty…somebody killed those girls. It’s rare for somebody, or a group of somebodies as is likely in this case, to up and kill four people and boom, not only NEVER commit another crime and/or never tattle on the other, never tell someone about what they did.

There’s never been another multiple murder in Austin in which the bodies of the dead were stacked and the place set on fire since the yogurt murders. And nobody’s ever blabbed about what Joey did or how Johnnie shot some girls in a yogurt shop in the back of the head.

The yogurt murders are an example of the perfect crime of getting away with murder. The water of the firefighters washed away so much evidence. Folks walking all around the crime scene, lack of physical evidence…so much kept this from being a prosecutorial crime.

Those boys will get theirs when they meet Satan after their death.

Video clip of “48 Hours” episode aired on 1/9/10 about the yogurt shop murders below.

News coverage of Yogurt shop murders.
Wikipedia entry of Yogurt shop murders.
CBS’ Info on “48 Hours” episode
Case dismissed for yogurt shop murderers
Timeline for yogurt shop murder case.

Another “False” Confession

Linda Stein is called a “punk rock pioneer” and was, evidently, not very nice to the hired help.

Her assistant, Natavia Lowery, said that one night, after hours of being berated, criticized and cursed at, that she snapped and bludgeoned her boss to death.

On 10/30/07, Linda Stein, who was affiliated with musical artists such as Elton John, Madonna and the Ramones, was found down, brutally beaten to death.

Lowery has since said her confession was false -- a claim at the heart of the 2007 murder case as it heads for trial. Jury selection started Monday.

So Natavia admitted to beating Stein to death then returned to her original assertion that a stranger killed Stein and made her, Lowery, promise not to reveal anything about him.

The defense on this case has recruited a psychologist type that
said he would counter "the myth that nobody would confess falsely to something that has real-life consequences unless they were young or stupid ... or crazy."


Well for the right price we can find any “expert” to testify the way we want it to go.

However, even this trumped up expert, after asserting that notion that nobody would confess falsely, provides the caveat “UNLESS” they are young, stupid of crazy.

Yeah, well I’ll go along with that. Number one, if you’re old enough to do the crime then you’re not too young to confess truthfully. Number two, take IQ tests of all confessors. If they’ve got a normal IQ than assume the confession is truthful. Number three, give the perp a sanity test. If they’re declared sane than it can be assumed their confessions are truthful; not the stuff of kooks.

Her Brother Did It! This Guy Confesses 20 Years Later

His mother doesn’t believe it. Dear Lord, why would this man, now 38 years old, confess to this very old crime? Even if, for the sake of argument, he was offered complete immunity from prosecution, which he got, even so, he already got away with it. And if he didn’t do it, what’s in it for him?

And yet, even in this confession scenario, there’s someone who thinks this guy confessed to a crime he did not commit.

The mind reels.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (Jan. 2) -- Authorities in northeast Florida say they've closed the 24-year-old case of a missing seventh-grader, but the girl's mother says she doesn't believe it.

She went missing in November in 1987. Now, some 20+ years later her brother admits he pushed his sister and she fell on a piece of metal that put a gaping bleeding hole in her skull. In a panic, he buried her in a shallow grave.

Remember the Tylenol Murders?

Every time you wrestle opening up a cap or a plastic-tombed capsule that requires pliars, teeth and blow torches, you can thank whoever opened up Tylenol capsules in Chicago area drugstores and replaced them with cyanide.
Jan. 8) -- Authorities may have a breakthrough in the 28-year-old Tylenol poisoning case, whose perpetrator has successfully evaded authorities for decades.

James W. Lewis, the original suspect in the killings of seven people through cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, appeared under subpoena along with his wife in a Massachusetts courthouse Wednesday, the local Boston-area paper Somerville News/Cambridge News Weekly reports. The hearing was held to determine whether Lewis and his wife must provide fingerprint and DNA samples, a law enforcement official told The Boston Globe.

Now here’s a fellow who didn’t exactly “confess” to putting cyanide in the Tylenol capsules, but he did give investigators detailed instructions on how one “might” replace the capsule’s acetaminophen with cyanide. Lewis also admitted to sending the Tylenol manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, a ransom demand for a million dollars to stop the killings.

This Lewis guy was a load of trouble, finally sent to jail for his extortion of Johnson & Johnson. He was never convicted of the Tylenol murders. After getting out of jail in 1995 he moved to Boston and in 2004 went back to jail for three years for rape and kidnapping of a local woman. The victim refused to testify so Lewis went free. Lewis was charged but never convicted with the dismemberment murder of a client in 1978.

Advances in DNA now make it possible for investigators to MAYBE tie Lewis in with the Tylenol murders.

We’ll be keeping a sharp eye on this one.
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