Who Killed These Girls?: Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders by Beverly Lowry is the perfect book to read on a cross-country flight, especially a flight during the holidays in winter when you’re trying to leave Montana in a snow-storm and get severely delayed (when it’s time for the pity party.)
As the airline attendants related the crushing news in breezy monotones (we are delaying the flight for three hours!) as the kids roamed the airport in search of gum, magazines, bathrooms, and chicken, I was indeed lost. I mean mesmerized by this thick, ruminative book.
True crime. Not a genre I usually seek out, but why? After all, I love television crime (The Fall, The Killing, re-runs of Law & Order), but, I always thought of true crime novels as well…tacky. Perhaps (even as I sit here in my office, I try to cover the book and expose an innocent, never-read Tao of Pooh instead). I do not—and, at this moment—want to defend the book by calling it “literary.” What does that mean anyway? But, what I can say is that the writing is good—very good.
My husband who bought me the book (I guess he knows my taste better than I do) and reminded me that we had met the author at a party in Missoula many moons ago. But, I have to say that one grad school party slipped into the next, and I have no clear recollection of meeting Beverly Lowry. I wondered if she was considered a “Montana writer.” However, I cannot say based on a scant, superficial Google search whether the West claims her as its own. She lived in Montana, yes, but, was she influenced by the state’s most eloquent voices? I did, however, find hints of what I would call a western memoir style in this book.
William Kittredge was our guru, and his command of storytelling, personal narrative, philosophy, and environmental ethics coalesced into pitch-perfect prose. Likewise, Lowry weaves some of the elements in her book, such as the self-reflection that Kittredge includes in his work. But, I don’t want to oversimplify.
I write this in respect to a question I had before I even opened the book, a book framed by black and white photos of four pretty girls surrounded by gruesome (blood) red. Why on earth would someone want to write about this crime? In the book, Lowry explains that she wrote this book because of her son who died in a hit-and-run accident. The case was never solved, and Lowry had to learn to live with the uncertainty; an un-knowingness that was practically un-livable for her. The parents of the girls who died in the yogurt shop also had to learn to live with uncertainty. Their crime is never solved.
An uncommonly grizzly murder. That’s how the newspapers described it. December 6, 1991. Austin, Texas. Four teenagers (two are sisters) get murdered at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt franchise. The case goes on to be known as the “yogurt murders.” I think the fact that the crime took place at a yogurt store is especially baffling and strange. It also just seems absurd. But, the crime itself is horrific, unimaginable even.
Not only are the girls shot, but they are also gagged, forced to take their clothes and tennis shoes off, and eventually they are burned practically beyond recognition. The crime shakes the community to such an extent that the growing city is never the same. Overnight parents become fearful for their children, and teenagers succumb to the reality that sleepy, laid-back Austin isn’t the calm, hippie town it’s supposed to be. The book delves into this change of perspective, as well as looks at multiple issues surrounding the crime.
The first suspects include teenage boys from Mexico. Connected to drug gangs and with a history of crimes, these boys are seen as potentially violent perpetrators, and Lowry discusses the fact that race plays into our perceptions. However, the boys are never convicted.
Who the state does decide to convict is what makes up the bulk of the book. Four teenage boys get accused of killing the teenage girls—Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Forrest Welborn, and Maurice Pierce. The police were under enormous pressure to find the murderers, and, unfortunately, these boys were easy scapegoats.
Two of the boys gave false confessions. In 2017, we are used to the idea of a false confession, but in 1991 this seemed almost inconceivable. But why were these boys singled out? The truth is they were “bad boys,” wild teenagers who liked a good time. They admitted to taking drugs, to drinking, to having guns, living sloppy lives where they skipped school and began to spiral into the realm of not caring. All of them had challenging home lives.
Lowry writes character sketches of all four of the boys. She begins with Springsteen: “Known in West Virginia as “Robby,” the boy had dark, darting eyes, a notable widow’s peak, devilish eyebrows and a habit of crocking his chin to one side, as if to indicate his readiness to take on all comers. Quick-tempered and boastful, he seemed too swaggery for his own good….”
These character sketches are one of my favorite parts of the book because Lowry describes their lives with such quick, deliberate deftness and skill. I feel like I know these losers. Or, are they really losers or just guys struggling hard, who want life to be better, but who can’t seem to get there? Lowry does not convince the reader fully that the boys did not commit the crime. Yes, the confessions seemed forced by a charismatic, overzealous cop, but, at the same time I felt (and Lowry admits) that they could be guilty (after all). This is the chilling and haunting refrain of the book.
Just as Lowry describes the boys, she also goes through the lives of the girls: Amy Ayers, Jennifer Harbison, Sarah Harbison, and Eliza Thomas. The girls were all active in agricultural events, sweet Texas girls with long hair and a western style. They are described as wholesome girls. For those readers who are looking for something sinister beneath the obvious happiness of the girls, they will be hard pressed to find any dirt. The girls appear as squeaky clean, which is fine because who really wants to drag them through the dirt—those girls who died long before their time?
However, for me, I missed cause. Lowry doesn’t want to deal with speculation. In fact, at times she quotes police and prosecutors, saying that motive is not what’s important; it’s action, it’s the narrative of the crime that’s significant. Yes, I buy this, but my mind can’t help recoiling to why? Why these girls? Why that night? At this yogurt shop?
These are not the questions that Lowry wants to ask. Instead, she wants to look at facts and the exhaustive court details. However, this genre is true crime, and perhaps I want to know what I shouldn’t. What sociopathic impulses would compel some people to commit this crime? What similar crimes have occurred? Why did the killers burn the yogurt shop down? I suppose I wanted a few more questions in the space of the minutely detailed book that looks critically at an impossible number of facts.
Or maybe Lowry is touching upon something deeper—facts, after all, cannot tell the full story. The full story will likely always be unknowable.
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