Under the Gun

After a lengthy investigation that was at times scattershot, overly aggressive, and just plain incompetent, Austin police say they’ve caught the three young men who killed four teenage girls in an “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt!” shop in 1991.

It’s a gun, all right, and Detective Robert Merrill is holding it to the back of Mike Scott’s head. The detective is standing as if braced for action; the suspect is sitting at a small, round table, his left hand resting on the white surface. From the camera’s angle, up high in the cramped interrogation room, you can see Scott’s receding hairline. His body language says he is sitting perfectly still. This is his second day of interrogation, and Merrill and a series of other Austin policemen have been yelling and cursing at him for hours. Their frustration is, perhaps, understandable. This is no ordinary interrogation. Scott, they believe, has details about the biggest and most horrific case in the Austin Police Department’s history, the slaughter of four teenage girls at an “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt!” store on December 6, 1991. Amy Ayers and her best friend, Sarah Harbison, had gone to visit Eliza Thomas and Jennifer Harbison, who were closing up the store. An intruder or intruders came into the shop, robbed them, and shot them in the head. Three of the girls were then stacked like wood and set on fire. The fourth had died apart from the others at the front of the store after trying to escape. By the time the police showed up, the girls lay in a pool of water from firemen’s hoses. The three were burned so badly they had to be identified by dental records. Detectives stayed all night trying to salvage clues from the horror, and in the light of Saturday morning, they swore they’d catch the killers.

Their zeal went unrewarded. For eight years overwhelmed Austin cops, under immense pressure and hounded by thousands of tips, dozens of false confessions, and rumors of crime-scene blasphemies, stumbled blindly. They chased alleged witches and violent Mexican bikers. They feuded with their own police chief and the Travis County district attorney and tried to get answers from people who had none. A detective, Hector Polanco, was kicked off the yogurt shop task force amid allegations that he had coerced a confession. Task forces came and went, and the crime came no closer to being solved until September 1999, when Mike Scott, after eighteen hours of questioning over four days by Merrill and other detectives, signed a stunningly detailed confession and named three others, all of whom had been questioned by the police back in 1991. A second of the four, Robert Springsteen, also confessed. On October 6 they would once again be in the police’s hands, their arrests announced in banner headlines. That afternoon Mayor Kirk Watson, flanked by chief of police Stan Knee and district attorney Ronnie Earle, proclaimed, “On December 6, 1991, we—as a city—lost our innocence. Today we regain our confidence.”

Neither was accurate. As any Austinite can tell you, Charles Whitman stole whatever innocence the city had when he climbed the Tower at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, and massacred sixteen people. As for confidence, the APD’s solution—four bad boys for four good girls—seemed too perfect to be true. Perhaps it was. By the summer of 2000 one of the defendants would be free, a hapless young man who had been caught in the net of a police force desperate for arrests. The star detective would admit to withholding the truth about key evidence. A grand juror would call for hearings into whether the district attorney was unfairly rushing the defendants through the grand jury process. A report would reveal that none of the suspects’ DNA was found at the scene; indeed, there was not an atom of physical evidence or a single witness that could tie these suspects to the crime. An extraordinary photograph of Detective Merrill holding a gun to Scott’s head would show up on the Internet—an image that had come from the APD’s own camera during the interrogation that eventually produced the case’s most important confession.

And then, just when things couldn’t look any worse for the APD, in September came news that threw a harsh light on the only thing the cops had—the confessions. The news concerned a stunningly detailed but decidedly false confession in another Austin murder case. Two innocent men had spent a decade in prison. One of them had been beaten almost to death by a fellow inmate one year after the APD had helped send him away for the rest of his life. The detective was Hector Polanco, the same man who had been transferred from the yogurt shop task force in 1992 for allegedly coercing testimony.

These days Austin is a confident town, supercharged with high tech, big money, and big plans. It is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. In 1991, though, things were different. The story of the yogurt shop investigation is, in part, about how a police force with a small-town mentality found itself confronted with a big-time urban crime and tried its best to solve it. But it’s also a tale of how intense political and social pressures brought out, or merely confirmed, the worst instincts in some officers on a police force that was determined to get convictions. The result: a tragedy with even more victims and a police department reeling from mistakes. To chronicle that nine-year investigation, I interviewed current and former Austin policemen, employees of the Department of Public Safety and the Travis County coroner’s office, as well as attorneys for the accused and members of the families of the slain girls and the accused men. Certain current police officials, including Chief Knee, Lieutenant Hector Polanco, and Detective Paul Johnson, declined to be interviewed. All the parties in the case have been under a gag order since December 1999.

The Austin police will get their chance to talk soon. With the trial of the first yogurt shop defendant—Robert Springsteen—set to begin next month, Austin police officers will find themselves on trial too, for incompetence, heavy-handedness, and the kind of corrupt behavior associated with police departments in cities like Los

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