How do you write about the unfathomable yogurt shop murders?

Nov 11, 2017
Beverly Lowry is the author of a the book “Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders.” She lives in East Austin. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

No images. Beverly Lowry insisted.

No photographs whatsoever appear inside Lowry’s 2016 book, “Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders” (Knopf). The four low-resolution partial pictures that appear on the book jacket — along with jagged red, black and white graphics — are wrenching enough.

“The crime-scene photographs were the worst,” says Austin author Lowry, 78, who spent years sifting through the evidence about the 1991 Austin deaths of four teenage girls, which still unnerve anyone who remembers them. “Every now and then, when I’d look up something about the crime scene, I’d open them up. They were horrifying and shocking in every way.”

Lowry’s account of the brutal murders — known to everyone here simply as “yogurt shop” because of the crime’s location — is not the least bit lurid.

As she sets up the action before and after the murders and the masking fire at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop on West Anderson Lane, and then follows each step of the investigation, trials, new evidence and overturned convictions, Lowry is precise, present, open and empathetic, but also somewhat reserved.

Which is how she appears, dressed in loose summer clothes, while sitting at the long dining room table in her East Austin bungalow filled with artful reminders of her life. Among those memories is the unsolved 1984 hit-and-run death of her son, Peter, in San Marcos, which figures into her 1992 book about executed killer Karla Faye Tucker, “Crossed Over: A Murder, a Memoir” (Knopf). It, too, was published without the gallery of photos that one has come to expect in memoirs or true crime literature.

“It was a dark book,” she says. “With that one, I wanted the writing and the story to tell itself without photographs.”

In that story, as Lowry was dealing with her grief over her son’s death, she learned of 23-year-old Tucker, who was convicted, along with her boyfriend, of committing a pair of 1983 pickaxe murders. As she did later with the yogurt shop case, Lowry spent months going over the trial transcripts. She also visited Tucker several times on death row, where the killer professed to having turned her life around with the help of faith.

“In time, I grew quite fond of Karla Faye,” Lowry admits. “But when anyone would describe what she did in a hearing, or anytime I looked at the pictures, it was like the first time. Unimaginably brutal.”

A writer’s life

Beverly Lowry was born in Memphis, Tenn., and grew up in the small Mississippi Delta city of Greenville, Miss. Her father was a jack-of-all-trades, a gambler and quite a character; her mother was an artist who came into her own toward the end of her life.

Lowry studied English, speech and drama at the University of Mississippi and Memphis State University. She got married in Memphis, moved to New York City and studied acting. Her first son, Colin, was born there.

She had already begun to write fiction by the time the family moved to Houston, where she kept journals and took the only creative writing class of her life, one offered at a summer conference at the University of Houston. Luckily, UH had nabbed some big-name authors and teachers, including playful postmodernist, Donald Barthelme, who read one of her stories.

“He blue-penciled it,” Lowry remembers. “He wrote: Make a paragraph here. Leave this out. Change this character’s name.”

Later, she was ready to take on the mantle of writer.

“I got it,” she says. “I was writing short stories, sending things off. I got an agent by a fluke and sold my first novel. I never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.”

She credits Truman Capote with melding the novel form with nonfiction subject matter in his 1966 masterpiece, “In Cold Blood.” But before doing something similar herself, she tried journalism. Brilliant writer and editor Bill Broyles opened a window for her at Texas Monthly.

“He said, ‘There’s a new magazine coming,’” Lowry remembers. Broyles didn’t assign her a story in the usual way. “What do you do? What’s your life like? I said, ‘I swim laps.’ Why not write about that?”

And so she did. Along with her six novels and three previous works of nonfiction, her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Granta and other publications. She developed a reputation for slowly cultivating interviews and backstories that had eluded other writers.

For a while, she lived in a frame house with a big yard in the Houston garden suburb of West University. There she raised a second son, Peter, the one who died in San Marcos. Her marriage broke up in 1992, and she went on the road for a while to live in Los Angeles, Missoula, Mont., Buffalo, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.

After multiple visits and some commuting, in 2006 Lowry moved permanently to Austin, where her son, Colin, a videographer, and his wife, dancer and choreographer Andrea Ariel, make their home.

“I came to Austin for a conference in 2006,” Lowry says. “I came back often because my family was here. My then-partner and I were swimmers and loved Barton Springs. A friend of mine said, ‘You need to see this house.’ I did and fell in love with it.”

Lowry now teaches literature and nonfiction writing online for the University of Houston-Victoria.

“My nonfiction Master of Fine Arts students ask me why I don’t teach a semester in interview techniques,” she says. “You don’t need a semester or a degree to do interviews. You fly by the seat of your pants.”

Yogurt shop

That hard-won wisdom is self-evident in “Who Killed These Girls?” which took its title from an Austin billboard that sought leads on the still-unsolved case.

“I would come home to Austin and there would be a new find in the case, or a reversal, or a Supreme Court decision,” she says. “I asked my son, ‘Are the yogurt shop murders ever going to be out of our lives?’ Colin said, ‘No, they’re with us forever.’”

The story will not be retold here. For those new to the crime, however, on Dec. 6, 1991, four teenagers were killed: Amy Ayers, 13, Jennifer Harbison, 17, Sarah Harbison, 15, and Eliza Thomas, 17. Officials fielded hundreds of tips, and more than 50 people confessed to the crimes.

In 1999, four men in their 20s were arrested in connection to murders: Robert Springsteen Jr., Maurice Pierce, Forrest Wellborn and Michael Scott. Only Springsteen and Scott went to trial. They were convicted, based solely on confessions obtained by Austin detectives. Ten years later, Springsteen and Scott were released based on DNA testing for alternative suspects.

As recently as June, the Texas Supreme Court rejected Springsteen’s bid to be declared innocent, because a lower court ruled that he had not been pardoned, and because prosecutors did not agree he was innocent of the crime. The victims’ family members profess different opinions.

“I’ve gotten to know Barbara Ayres-Wilson very well,” Lowry says of Amy’s mother. “Barbara’s a friend. The other families are pretty much convinced that the four guys who were arrested are guilty. That’s a gap between me and them.”

How did Lowry come to her carefully argued conclusions?

“When I moved here in 2006, I attended a hearing,” she says. “Reading more about it, I went down where the court documents were kept in the basement of the Court of Criminal Appeals. I spent a lot of time down there and had a pretty strong sense of what was what.”

Her experience with her son’s unsolved death lent her a sense of what it was like to live with uncertainty when above all else one craves certainty.

“I interviewed the parents first, then the guys,” she says. “I kept asking, ‘Why don’t we know? How could this have happened?’ Then the two convicted guys got out of prison. Everything was up for grabs again. Both cases were dismissed.”

So Lowry read more, thought more. How could the young men have confessed to the crimes if they didn’t do them?

“The inability to let something go may move writers more than a determination to do it,” she says about her eight years of research. “The interrogations at the center of the book explain that false confessions can and do happen. Some lawyers say they have never read a better explanation of how people come to do this. And that you, too, could be persuaded.”

One of the things that Lowry gets just right is Austin.

“It’s fascinating how a town is affected by an event like this,” she says. “Some people weren’t born in 1991 and never heard of this. But anyone who was here anytime during that era remembers it, and even those who weren’t say, ‘My mom talked about that.’ It affected the city because it was four young girls, and because of where it happened, and at the back of a shop that was supposed to be a safe place. It wasn’t supposed to happen here.”

Lowry thinks the Charles Whitman murders from the University of Texas Tower in 1966 are shocking but explainable.

“But not this,” she says. “It was random and pure evil. Some people say: What got me was the fire. The bodies. All of it was unthinkable.”

Like her son’s unsolved hit-and-run case, this one might remain open for a lot longer.

“Life if anything has its uncertainties,” Lowry says. “We like endings. We like certainty. Sometimes they just will not appear.”