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A Community Gropes for Answers After Four Girls Are Slain : Teen-agers’ parents ask why ‘Yogurt Murders’ happened. Police, townspeople seek clues.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Do you know who killed the girls?”

The question haunts this city. For more than three months now, highway billboards, taxicab signs and flyers at restaurants and gas stations have carried on something of a nonstop public interrogation.

And still no one has an answer to what people here call the “Yogurt Murders.”

The city has been filled with white ribbons and “We will not forget” mugs and buttons since four teen-age girls were shot in the head at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop shortly after closing time, 11 p.m., last Dec. 6. The store was then set afire, destroying most of the evidence police might have used to track the killers of Jennifer Harbison, 17; her 15-year-old sister, Sarah; Eliza Thomas, 17; and Amy Ayers, 13.

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The murders stunned this usually relaxed city of 466,000 people. Though the city’s murder rate is low, residents now have the uneasy sense that the caprice of big-city crime has arrived. That feeling has been reinforced in the weeks since the murders with the unexplained abduction of a young woman from a car wash and the shooting of two children in their home, allegedly by a neighborhood teen-ager. And, people were unsettled two months before the “Yogurt Murders” when a gunman carried out a massacre at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Tex., about an hour’s drive north of Austin.

A TV station set up a hot line staffed by psychologists to talk to people about their fears of crime and to offer suggestions on how to handle the subject with children. More than 800 people called, so the station repeated the service the next night.

“The thing that really got to me was that if people got a busy signal, they kept trying and trying and trying,” said Alyce Dorsey, assistant news director at KXAN.

“Do you know the man and his accomplices who killed our daughters?”

The heartbreaking newspaper advertisements from the parents of the murdered girls ask the question.

Following the question is the FBI’s description of the traits the killers are likely to have. (An underachiever. A poor employee. An explosive personality. Someone who angers easily.)

There is a surreal quality to the ad, pairing the portrayal of murderers with pictures of four girls with bright eyes and long hair. The photographs are the kind that were meant to appear in school yearbooks. And the kind of messages that should have been written on a yearbook’s inside cover appear instead on the yogurt store’s brick entry. “You’ll always be my cheery bud,” one says. “Sarah, we will miss you, but we’ll always think of all the good times we had!” reads another.

Robert and Pam Ayers, whose daughter, Amy, was the youngest victim, say they and their 19-year-old son, Shawn, are simply getting by since their daughter’s death. Robert Ayers said he was in a hurry to leave home to do some Christmas shopping that evening. Their daughter was planning to spend the night with Sarah Harbison, her best friend. His last recollection of his daughter is seeing her brown hair shining and bouncing as he headed out the door. Pam Ayers said she remembers kissing Amy goodby, saying: “We’ll see you in the morning.”

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Days later, they buried her in the country-western clothes, belt buckle and boots they had bought as her Christmas presents.

Amy was a cowgirl who had begun winning awards for riding horses before she started kindergarten. In a tooled leather album, her parents keep pictures of her wearing pink and yellow cowboy hats as she works a horse. A wall in the living room has become a shrine to Amy, with her picture, a figure of Jesus on a metal cross and a poem about daughters grouped together. Even now, the family says, the sympathy cards keep coming.

Her room remains the way she left it that night, the bed covered with stuffed animals and the walls papered with pictures of country music singer George Strait.

“In the last year, she had gone from being a little girl to a young lady,” her mother recalled.

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“She was country,” said her father, a man who wears cowboy hats and still refers to his daughter by the nickname he used: “Sis.” “She was a cowgirl. Beans and ‘taters and corn bread and onions. Chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup. She was real simple.”

Each Friday night marks the murder again for the couple. “I like to be with people,” Robert Ayers said. “We can go out dancing and eating. But you got to come home at night.”

Even as they ask questions about the crime, they are not sure they want to know the answers.

“The hardest part is ahead of us because we’re going to learn the truth about what happened,” sighed Robert Ayers. “My main question is why. They may just say because they were there.”

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Why would anyone hurt four little girls?

Lt. Andrew Waters, the supervisor of the Austin police division that includes homicide, has lain awake wondering about that question.

Over the course of 17 years on the police force, he has steeled himself to dealing with society’s underworld. Still, this was a crime that hit a bit close to home. He has a 19-year-old daughter.

He said he has not seen a crime rock Austin this way in recent memory. He said the only one that would come close was in 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 31 others in a shooting spree from atop the tower on the University of Texas campus.

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A song has been written about the girls. The reward offered for help in tracking the killers is up to $37,000. When officials released the sketch of a man who may have been in a car outside the store the night of the murders, the police department received more than 1,000 calls from people trying to help.

In the last decade, the Austin police department has a record of clearing 88% of its murder cases, Waters said. But on this case, even with a separate office for the investigation and five people on the case full time, he conceded: “We’re not on the verge of arresting anyone.”

All he will say about what the fire left behind is that evidence indicates more than one person was involved.

“We have to be optimistic,” he added. “This is just one of those cases where you feel it has to be solved.”

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But even he wonders whether solving the case will give the community any real answers. “Nobody could ever make sense of this,” he said.


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