Yogurt Shop: Old Murder Case Not Easily Forgotten

This summer has challenged my ability to produce a blog each week. But even though I missed last week, I have not abandoned my readers. My previous blog explored the case of Lindsay Buziak, a young real estate agent murdered in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2008. Her killer has never been identified. Neither have police solved this week’s case, the murder of four teenage girls in an Austin, Texas, yogurt shop in 1991.

The Yogurt Shop Girls

It was December 6, 1991, not quite three weeks before Christmas. Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas, both 17, worked their shifts at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! store located at 2945 West Anderson Lane in Austin, Texas. As the 11:00 p.m. closing time approached, Jennifer’s sister, Sarah, 15, and her friend Amy Ayers, 13, joined Jennifer and Eliza. The two younger girls planned to get a ride home with Jennifer after the store closed.

The murdered girls, clockwise from top left: Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, Sarah Harbison, and Jennifer Harbison (AP)
The murdered girls, clockwise from top left: Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, Sarah Harbison, and Jennifer Harbison (AP)

Minutes before midnight, a police officer on patrol reported a fire in the shop. Responding firefighters put out the fire but found a grisly scene inside. The nude bodies of all four girls lay on the floor, each shot in the back of the head by a .22-caliber firearm. A pair of panties bound Sarah’s hands behind her. She had also been gagged and sexually assaulted. Eliza had also been gagged and had her hands tied behind her back. Amy’s body, found in a different part of the store, had a “sock-like cloth” around her neck. She had suffered two gunshot wounds.

The Yogurt Shop Investigation

From the start, the effects of the fire hampered investigators. Jennifer’s, Eliza’s, and Sarah’s bodies suffered severe burns. Amy’s body, found in another part of the yogurt shop, suffered less severe burns, but damage to the shop itself from the fire and efforts to extinguish it compromised the crime scene.

The scene outside the yogurt shop after the discovery of the fire and bodies (CBS News)
The chaotic scene outside the yogurt shop after the discovery of the fire and bodies (CBS News)

One early person of interest was a 15-year-old caught with a .22 weapon inside an area mall just days after the killings. He seemed like a promising suspect. But his gun could not be identified as the weapon used in the killings, and detectives decided he was trying to wrangle his way out of a gun charge. They eliminated him and three friends he implicated. All four boys were younger than eighteen at the time.

Damage caused by the intense heat of the fire in the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! store (Austin Police Department)
Damage caused by the intense heat of the fire in the yogurt shop (Austin Police Department)

Eight years later, in 1999, a new detective assigned to the case decided that the four were, in fact, viable suspects. Now in their twenties, several detectives sat the four down for relentless interrogations. Two of the four, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, confessed to participating in the yogurt shop murders. Both later recanted, saying detectives coerced the confessions.

The Yogurt Shop Murder Trials

In 2001, Robert Springsteen went on trial for capital murder. Although the trial lasted three weeks, Scott’s confession was the only substantial evidence against him. Scott refused to testify in court, so the prosecutor read parts of his (Scott’s) confession to the jury. After thirteen hours of deliberation, they returned a guilty verdict, and Springsteen went to death row.

The initial suspects in the yogurt shop murders, clockwise from top left: Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn, Robert Springsteen, and Michael Scott. Scott and Springsteen were both convicted of murder but had their convictions overturned on appeal (AP Photos)
The initial suspects in the yogurt shop murders, clockwise from top left: Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn, Robert Springsteen, and Michael Scott. Scott and Springsteen were both convicted of murder but had their convictions overturned on appeal (AP Photos)

Prosecutors used the same playbook when it came time for Scott’s trial a year later in 2002. They used Springsteen’s confession as evidence against Scott. Springsteen himself did not testify. This jury also returned a guilty verdict, although Scott was spared the death sentence because he was a minor at the time of the crime.

In 2006, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Springsteen’s conviction, ruling that the prosecution had improperly used Scott’s confession against him, violating his Sixth Amendment rights. A year later, in 2007, the same court overturned Scott’s conviction on identical grounds.

DNA Testing Provides No Answers

Texas prosecutors vowed to retry the cases. As they prepared for the new trials, defense lawyers requested that the state resubmit evidence for DNA testing. Prosecutors agreed since the capabilities of DNA testing had grown significantly in the seventeen years since the murders.

A sign on an Austin taxicab keeps the yogurt shop murders in the public mind (CBS News)
A sign on an Austin taxicab asks for tips in the yogurt shop murders in February 1992 (CBS News)

The tests revealed the DNA profile of a man on biological evidence taken from two of the victims, Amy Ayers and Jennifer Harbison. The DNA of another man was found on clothing used to bind the wrists of a third victim, Eliza Thomas. A partial DNA profile of a third person was also found on Jennifer Harbison. None of these profiles matched Scott or Springsteen. Nor did they match the other two original suspects, Maurice Pierce and Forrest Welborn.

Authorities released Scott and Springsteen on bond on June 24, 2009, finally dismissing the charges against them on October 28.

Epilogue

Almost thirty-two years have passed since Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, Eliza Thomas, and Amy Ayers died that horrible December evening. No credible suspects have emerged after the appeals court overturned Scott’s and Springsteen’s convictions.

In February 2022, it was announced that advanced DNA technology was bringing investigators closer than ever to solving the case. However, the announcement provided no details. No suspect has been identified or arrested since.

On December 23, 2010, Austin police officers Frank Wilson and Bradley Smith made a routine traffic stop on a car driven by former suspect Maurice Pierce. Pierce fled, and a foot chase ensued. When Pierce pulled a knife and stabbed Wilson in the neck, Wilson shot Pierce dead (Officer Wilson survived).

You can read more about the yogurt shop murders in Beverly Lowery’s Who Killed These Girls? and Corey Mitchell’s Murdered Innocents.

Today, the site of the former yogurt shop is home to an oriental rug gallery. A memorial plaque to the four slain girls is across the street.

More than three decades later, the yogurt shop murders still resonate with Austin residents (KEYE-TV)
More than three decades later, the yogurt shop murders still resonate with Austin residents (KEYE-TV)

The case is still open. If you have any information about the yogurt shop murders, call 512-472-TIPS [8477].

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James Richardson: Big Fail in Old Murder Case

Last week’s case was an unsolved murder over a century old, the 1911 death of Dr. Helene Knabe. This week we look at a case “solved” by sending the wrong man to prison. James Richardson served 21 years in a Florida prison for murdering his children, but he didn’t do it.

James Richardson and the Deaths of His Children

Annie Mae and James Richardson were African American migrant farm workers. In October 1967, the Richardsons and their seven children, all under ten, lived in Arcadia, Florida. Two of the children were from Annie Mae’s previous marriage. James was the father of the other five.

James Joseph Richardson (Palm Beach Post)
James Joseph Richardson (Palm Beach Post)

On October 24, Annie Mae prepared a meal of beans, rice, and grits for the children’s lunch the next day. The following morning, James and Annie Mae left to pick oranges in groves sixteen miles away. They entrusted the care of their younger children (the oldest four were in school) to a neighbor, Bessie Reece.

At lunchtime, the four oldest Richardson children returned home for lunch. They and their younger siblings ate the meal Annie Mae had prepared. Back at school, their teachers noticed all four exhibiting strange symptoms. The school’s principal immediately took them to a hospital. One of the teachers checked on the remaining three children, discovered they were sick, too, and rushed them to a hospital. It was no use. Six of the children died before authorities could summon the Richardsons from the orange groves. Three-year-old Dianne succumbed the next day.

Annie Mae and James Richarson view the bodies of their seven children in October 1967 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Annie Mae and James Richarson view the bodies of their seven children in October 1967 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

James Richardson, Murderer?

Investigators soon discovered the pesticide parathion in the food Annie Mae prepared for the children’s lunch. Sure enough, they found a two-pound sack of parathion in a shed behind the apartment building where the Richardsons lived. It surprised no one when a grand jury indicted James Richardson for murder on November 2.

During Richardson’s trial, the state contended that Richardson killed his children for insurance money. Prosecutor John Treadwell introduced evidence that Richardson met with insurance salesman George Purvis to discuss life insurance for the children before the murders. That much was true. What Treadwell didn’t say, though, was that Purvis initiated the meeting. Nor did he say that Richardson hadn’t bought any insurance because he couldn’t afford the premiums.

Judge Gordon Hayes listens as Bessie Reece testifies during a coroner's inquest into the deaths of the seven Richardson children (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Judge Gordon Hayes listens as Bessie Reece testifies during a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of the seven Richardson children (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Other testimony from former cellmates claimed Richardson had confessed the murders to them. DeSoto County Sheriff Frank Cline provided additional sensational testimony when he claimed Richardson had poisoned six other children in another county. Although unsubstantiated, the defense apparently let this accusation pass unchallenged.

The outcome of the trial was never in doubt. On May 31, 1968, jurors took only thirty minutes to return with a guilty verdict and a recommended sentence of death in Florida’s electric chair.

An early prison photo of James Richardson (Florida State Prison)
An early prison photo of James Richardson (Florida State Prison)

James Richardson Exonerated

For nearly five years, James Richardson sat on Florida’s Death Row. Then, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, as it was then implemented, was unconstitutional. Like other death row inmates, the State of Florida resentenced him to life in prison. In Richardson’s case, he had an opportunity for parole starting in 1993.

Over time, the case against James Richardson began to unravel. Investigators overlooked possible clues in their zeal to convict him. For example, at the time of the murders, Bessie Reece was on parole for the poisoning death of her ex-husband. Prosecutors went to great lengths to keep this fact away from the jury.

Another hole in the case against Richardson appeared when the last surviving jailhouse snitch who testified at the trial recanted. He revealed he’d been offered a lighter sentence for his testimony.

Lawyers for Richardson continued to uncover additional evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. On April 25, 1989, their efforts paid off when DeSoto County Circuit Court Judge Clifton Kelly dismissed Richardson’s conviction and released him to the custody of his attorneys.

Who Killed the Richardson Children?

Authorities never charged anyone else with the deaths of Betty, Alice, Susie, Dorreen, Vanessa, James Jr., and Dianne Richardson. The question remains, who killed them?

The most likely suspect is the woman who fed the children the poisoned lunch, Bessie Reece. As noted above, Reece was convicted of murdering her second ex-husband with poison. She was also a suspect in the death of her first ex-husband. Furthermore, In 1988 and living in a nursing home, Reece allegedly confessed to the murders multiple times. At the time, though, she suffered from the effects of Alzheimer’s, and no one took her confessions seriously.

The graves of the seven Richardson children (Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
The graves of the seven Richardson children (Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Epilogue

Richardson’s life after prison held many challenges. He suffered from numerous heart ailments, for which he blamed poor-quality prison food and stress. He and Annie Mae had remained married all the while he was incarcerated but eventually divorced.

In 2014, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that bypassed the roadblock that had denied Richardson compensation up to then. In 2016, he began receiving payments totaling $50,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned.

Bessie Reece died from Alzheimer’s in a Florida nursing home in 1992. She never faced charges in the deaths of the Richardson children.

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Howard Unruh: Astonishing and Evil Walk of Death

In my last blog post, we met Tony Baekeland, a troubled young man who murdered his mother and eventually took his own life. This week’s case concerns Howard Unruh. In 1949, Unruh walked through his neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey, shooting people as he went.

Howard Unruh

Howard was a shy but unremarkable kid born and raised in East Camden, New Jersey. He attended school in Camden, graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in January 1939. With World War II raging, Unruh enlisted in the Army on October 27, 1942. During the war, he saw action as an armor crewman in various parts of the European Theater. His crew chief later recalled that Unruh was an unusual soldier. He never drank, swore, or chased girls. Instead, he spent his spare time reading the Bible. When in combat, he kept a detailed record of every German soldier he killed.

Howard Unruh in the Army (US Army)
Howard Unruh in the Army (US Army)

After the war, Unruh returned to New Jersey and lived with his mother. Before enrolling in classes at Temple University in Philadelphia, he worked in a sheet metal shop for a brief time. College didn’t suit him, and he soon withdrew, citing his “poor physical condition.” Now, instead of working, he hung around his mother’s apartment. Part of the time he spent practicing shooting in the basement, where he’d built a target range. Another pastime was tracking every perceived slight and grievance against him.

Howard Unruh and the “Walk of Death”

On September 6, 1949, a Tuesday, Howard Unruh ate breakfast with his mother, who then left to visit a friend. Howard left the apartment at about 9:30, dressed in a brown suit with a bow tie and armed with a Luger P08. He walked out onto River Road.

Camden police make thearrest
Camden police make thearrest

Unruh’s first target was a bread delivery truck driver; the shot missed by inches. Next, he began targeting the people on his list of supposed “enemies.” He started with shoemaker John Pilarchik, shooting and killing him instantly. From the cobbler’s shop, he went to Clark Hoover’s barber shop. His shots killed the barber and the six-year-old boy having his hair cut. The next target was pharmacist Maurice Cohen. On his way to the pharmacy, he shot and killed insurance agent James Hutton when Hutton wouldn’t get out of his way.

Cohen and his wife, Rose, saw Unruh approach the pharmacy’s back entrance. They ran to their apartment above the drugstore. Cohen climbed onto the porch roof while Rose and their 12-year-old son hid in separate closets. Unruh shot Rose several times, killing her, before following Cohen onto the roof and fatally shooting him. Cohen’s 63-year-old mother, Minnie, was shot and killed while trying to phone the police. Young Charles, the Cohens’ son, survived.

Howard Unruh handcuffed after his interrogation by police (allthatisinteresting.com)
Howard Unruh handcuffed after his interrogation by police (allthatisinteresting.com)

The next person on Unruh’s enemies list was tailor Thomas Zegrino. On his way to Zegrino’s shop, he fired at a car driving on River Road, killing the driver, Alvin Day. Zegrino wasn’t at his tailor’s shop that morning, but his wife, Helga, was, and Unruh killed her.

The Capture of Howard Unruh

By now, police had been alerted and were converging on the scene. Unruh retreated to his mother’s apartment, which police soon surrounded. A brief gunbattle ensued. The gunfight ended when police threw two tear gas containers into the apartment. When ordered to surrender, Unruh replied, “I give up. Don’t shoot.” Officers then arrested him without further fanfare.

Camden police arrest Howard Unruh. Note the bowtie.
Camden police arrest Howard Unruh. Note the bowtie.

Howard Unruh immediately confessed to the shooting spree and took full responsibility. However, he didn’t stand trial. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he landed at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital instead.

Epilogue

Howard Unruh killed 13 people ranging in age from 2 to 68 and wounded 3. He remained in the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital until his death on October 19, 2009, at age 88. His “Walk of Death” was America’s first recorded mas murder incident but, sadly, not the last.

One of the last photos of Howard Unruh before his death in 2009
One of the last photos of Howard Unruh before his death in 2009

Charles Cohen, who survived Unruh’s attack by hiding in a closet, was the maternal grandfather of Carly Novell. By also hiding in a closet, Carly survived the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Carly Novell
Carly Novell

You can read more about Howard Unruh in Ellen J. Green’s book, Murder in the Neighborhood.

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UpStairs Lounge: Big Arson Fire Kills 32 People

My last blog dealt with the case of Timothy McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City Bomber. This week’s case is also horrifying but has had much less publicity. It’s the case of the arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

UpStairs Lounge

It was 1974. Only four years earlier, in June 1969, the so-called “Stonewall Riots” first brought public attention to the issue of gay rights. Not a great deal of progress had been made in those four years. Yet many in the LGBTQIA+ community no longer hid their sexual orientation.

It was this community that the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) served. Founded in 1968 in Los Angeles, MCC was a pro-LGBTQIA+ protestant denomination. For a while in New Orleans, the MCC met in the theater of the UpStairs Lounge. The UpStairs Lounge itself was a gay bar. It occupied the second floor of an historic three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iverville Streets.

Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire
Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire

UpStairs Lounge in Flames

Sunday, June 24, 1973, marked the end of nationwide Pride celebrations that were glaringly lacking in the Big Easy. That evening, the UpStairs Lounge held its usual “beer bust” between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Many MCC members were in attendance. After 7:00, the crowed thinned a bit but there were still between sixty and ninety customers in the lounge. They talked and listened to pianist George Steven “Bud” Matyi perform.

At 7:56, the downstairs door buzzer sounded. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to answer the door. When Boggs opened the door, he found the front staircase in flames. He also noticed the strong smell of lighter fluid.

The UpStairs Lounge burns
The UpStairs Lounge burns

A backdraft caused the fire to spread quickly. Bartender Rasmussen immediately led about twenty people to the roof, where they could access an adjacent building and climb down. Boggs tried to escape thorough one of the floor-to-ceiling windows but was severely burned in the process. He died on July 10, sixteen days later.

Aftermath of the fire
Aftermath of the fire

Firefighters from a nearby fire station found it difficult to reach the club as cars and pedestrians blocked their way. One engine tried to use the sidewalk but ended up colliding with a taxicab. When the fire department did manage to arrive on the scene, they quickly brought the blaze under control. It had been only sixteen minutes since Boggs first spotted the flames.

Epilogue

Thirty-two people died the UpStairs Lounge fire and eighteen suffered injuries. Police questioned a suspect, Roger Dale Nunez, but never developed enough evidence to charge him. Nunez, a gay man with a history of mental health issues, had been ejected from the club for fighting earlier in the evening. Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.

Firefighters attend to the injured
Firefighters attend to the injured

Local news outlets gave the fire prominent coverage but soft-pedaled the fact that LGBTQIA+ patrons comprised most of the victims. Editorials and right-wing talk show hosts made light of the tragedy.

The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)
The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)

You can read more about the UpStairs Lounge tragedy in Tinderbox by Robert W. Fieseler or The Up Stairs Lounge Arson by Clayton Delery-Edwards.

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