The 13th Floor

The Shocking Unsolved Yogurt Shop Murders That Inspired Okkervil River’s “Westfall”

I have a great sense of respect for any artist or musician that is able to tell an entire story within the confines of a 5 minute pop song. The first time I heard the band Okkervil River, it was on an unlabeled mix CD gifted to me with the track “Westfall.” I was immediately blown away and had to know who this was and exactly what all the lyrics were.

Appearing as the 5th track on their first album “Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See,” the band’s debut record was released on January 22nd, 2002. After some mild investigation, I was surprised to find out that the song itself, a story where our narrator is a murderer being brought in by the police, was in fact loosely inspired by a real-life crime; the still yet-to-be-solved Yogurt Shop Murders that took place in Austin, Texas.

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In an interview dating back to 2002, singer/songwriter Will Sheff explained, “Westfall was based on a few different stories, but mostly upon something that happened here in Austin a few years ago when some college-age boys broke into a frozen yogurt shop and then killed and disemboweled the young women working there. The authorities caught one of the guys who did it recently and before long the local news networks started airing courtroom footage of him, the secret reason – to my mind – being so that the folks at home could scan his televised face for the evil hiding behind it. I recall thinking that evil isn’t as easy to detect as that. But when I wanted to write a song about that idea, I fictionalized the narrative because that’s the only way I could write it from the first person perspective and feel OK about singing it.”

While the story in the song is both a fictionalized account and told from the point of view of one of the killers, what really happened that inspired this idea?

On the evening of December 6th, 1991, while surveying the area, local Austin police came upon the scene of a “I Can’t Believe Its Yogurt” shop located on West Anderson Lane in a full blaze. After the fire department came and extinguished the fire, they were shocked to discover the remains of 4 bodies inside, 3 stacked on top of each other, all of them bound & gagged and evidence that they had all been murdered before the fire broke out.

The victims were Sarah Harbison (15), Amy Ayers (13), Sarah’s sister Jennifer (17) who worked at the shop with Eliza Thomas (17). The 4 were planning on closing the store after the late shift and having a sleepover that night. Customers that were questioned attested that all 4 girls were seen alive as late as 10PM on the night in question. Because it took thousands of gallons of water to put out the fire, most usable evidence had been literally washed away, but police were able to determine that some of the victims were raped and shot in the head execution style.

Investigators later admitted to over 50 people confessing to the crime, but after interviewing potential witnesses, they set their sights on 4 teenage boys for the murders: Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen. The suspicions of their involvement began a mere 8 days after the murders when Maurice Pierce was picked up at Northcross Mall for carrying a .22-caliber hand gun. Pierce said he’d lent the gun to his friend, Forrest Welborn. Welborn denied this, but did admit to taking a joyride with Springsteen and Scott in a stolen car not too long after the crime took place. None of the 4 boys realized they were considered suspects, until they were arrested in late 1999, eight years later.

After hours of questioning, both Springsteen and Scott confessed to the crime, and because of this, they were the only 2 cases to go to trial. The confessions in question were obtained by homicide investigator Hector Polanco, who had a notorious history of getting coercing confessions out of innocent suspects. For example, Polanco secured a confession from Christo­pher Ochoa that put Ochoa and Richard Danziger behind bars for a 1988 murder that neither committed. They were both exonerated in 2002 after the real killer came forward. (Have you seen MAKING A MURDERER? It happens more than you’d think.)

In October of 2009, the convictions against Springsteen and Scott were overturned when new DNA evidence found on one of the victims was proven to not match any of the 4 suspects. In a public statement, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said that she still believed these men to be guilty of the crime, but the new DNA evidence added a “fifth man” to their initial theory. Or… have they been wrong all along?

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The entire case had been built on the premise that these 4 boys were the ones responsible. Most involved believe the only proper way to move forward on solving this mystery would be to go back to the very beginning with objective eyes and re-examine all the original evidence and case files. Multiple interviews with customers that were at the yogurt shop on the night in question all claim to have seen two suspicious men sitting at a booth in the corner. One couple that was questioned claimed these men, “made them uncomfortable.” Dearl Croft, a former police officer who at the time ran a security company stopped by the shop at approximately 10pm and recalled a man wearing a military fatigue-style jacket, who was loitering in the customer line, ushering other customers ahead of him, before finally decided to buy a can of soda. Croft was unable to identify any of the 4 official suspects in a police line-up as the man he described from the night in question.

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Each of the lawyers for Springsteen and Scott are convinced these two described men could be the key to unlocking the mysteries of this case. They argue that it’s unlikely that the way these girls were murdered – in a cold, calculated way, execution style, could’ve been perpetrating by 4 teenage boys. A more believable scenario is this act was done by ruthless adult criminals. From the evidence photos, you can see that the one table doesn’t have an overturned chair on it was the one these suspicious two sat in. And yet, the detectives all working on the case now are still convinced that all 4 boys were somehow involved in the crime.

In a strange twist of fate, one of the accused, Maurice Pierce was forever haunted by this crime and had several run-ins with the law after, often claiming police abuse against him. He was shot and killed after slashing at a police officer who pulled him over for rolling through a stop sign in 2010. Meanwhile, Springsteen is suing for a wrongful conviction, and wants $700,000 and to be declared innocent of all charges.

Because the severity of this crime, and the fact that it still to this day remains unsolved, the yogurt shop murders continue to draw speculation, unproven theories and fascination among true crime buffs. Below you can watch the full “Cold Case Files” segment on the case.

And we’ll leave you with the song (and lyrics) that inspired this entire article, Okkervil River‘s “Westfall,” which argues that “evil” don’t look like anything.

“Westfall” Lyrics:

I’m surrounded, each doorway covered
By at least twenty men
And they’re going to take me, throw me in prison
I ain’t coming back again
I ain’t coming back again

When I was younger, handsomer and stronger
I felt like I could do anything
But all of these people making all these faces
Didn’t seem like my kith and kin
Didn’t seem like my kith and kin

Colin Kincaid from the twelfth grade
I guess you could say he was my best friend
Lived in a big tall house out on Westfall
Where we would hide when the rain rolled in
Where we would hide when the rain rolled in

We went out one night and took a flashlight
Out with these two girls Colin knew from Kenwood Christian
One was named Laurie, that’s what the story
Said next week in the Guardian
Said next week in the Guardian

And when I killed her it was so easy
That I wanted to kill her again
I got down on both of my knees and
She ain’t coming back again
She ain’t coming back again

Now, with all these cameras focused on my face
You’d think they could see it through my skin
They’re looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but
Evil don’t look like anything
Evil don’t look like anything

Evil don’t look like anything
Evil don’t look like anything
Evil don’t look like anything
Evil don’t look like anything

Evil don’t look like anything
Evil don’t look like anything

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