Pierce Shooting: 'Still About Four Murders'

Details of struggle still sketchy

Maurice Pierce's wife, Kimberly, stands behind him as he addresses the media in January 2003, shortly after charges against him were dismissed.
Maurice Pierce's wife, Kimberly, stands behind him as he addresses the media in January 2003, shortly after charges against him were dismissed. (Photo by John Anderson)

For Maurice Pierce, everything – including what should otherwise have been a routine traffic stop – was really all about four 1991 murders. At least, in the aftermath of Pierce's death last week, that's how his family, and in particular his wife, Kimberly, sees it. "This has been over his head for 11 years," Kim­ber­ly said this week. "I feel that if the events of 1991 had not happened, my husband would be here today." Pierce was one of four men arrested for the grisly quadruple murder of four teen girls inside a North Austin yogurt shop; he was killed Dec. 23, after an apparently unremarkable traffic stop by Austin Police went off the rails near his sister's North Austin home.

According to APD, Pierce ran a stop sign near Parmer Lane and McNeil Drive at about 10:54pm. After initially pulling over, officials say, Pierce got out of the car and fled on foot. One officer – rookie Brad Smith – followed Pierce in a patrol car, while a second, five-year veteran Officer Frank Wilson, pursued Pierce on foot. He caught up with him near the intersection of Shreveport Drive and Campos Drive, and a "struggle ensued," said APD spokeswoman Anna Sabana, during which Wilson tried to Tase Pierce, and Pierce allegedly grabbed a knife from Wilson's duty belt and cut the officer's neck. Wilson was able to draw his firearm and shoot Pierce, police say. Pierce ran off, but he was found, dead, nearby.

Wilson was taken to the hospital with a severed carotid artery, among other injuries, but he has since been released and is expected to make a full recovery. At a Dec. 24 press conference, APD Chief of Staff David Carter credited quick action by backup officers for saving Wilson's life. Both Wilson and Smith have been placed on administrative leave while the department investigates the incident – standard procedure in an officer-involved shooting.

At the time of the Dec. 6, 1991, murder of four girls – Eliza Thomas, 17; sisters Jenni­fer and Sarah Harbison, 17 and 15; and Amy Ayers, 13 – the four men eventually accused of the crime were themselves just teenagers. The girls were found inside the yogurt shop off Anderson Lane, stripped, bound, gagged, shot, and burned in a fire that police said was set to cover the murders. Pierce was charged and kept in jail for nearly four years before then-District Attorney Ronnie Earle in January 2003 dismissed the charges against him, citing a lack of evidence. Indeed, no physical evidence from the crime scene has ever been linked to any of the four suspects. Still, largely on the basis of controversial confessions, Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott were prosecuted and convicted for the murders (in 2001 and 2002, respectively). Those convictions were subsequently overturned on appeal, and last year, while the two were still awaiting retrial, D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg dismissed all charges against them, a move prompted by the discovery of new male DNA found inside Ayers that did not match any of the four suspects. (The charges against the fourth man, who police said acted as a lookout at the crime scene, were dropped after two grand juries failed to indict him.)

Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence against the original suspects, Lehmberg said last year that the original four remain the focus for investigators. It was in part that persisting stigma that made Pierce wary of police, says Kimberly. Police have known since 1991 that Pierce could not have been involved in the case, she insists; indeed, he was with her until shortly before firefighters and police arrived at the scene of the crime – there wasn't enough time for him to have dropped her off and then been involved in the crime, she notes. Kimberly said (as have other family members) that Pierce's ongoing distrust of police has been at the heart of the several run-ins he's had with the law since his release in 2003.

In 2008, APD and the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force arrested Pierce at his sister's home on Carrera Drive on an outstanding warrant from Collin County, where he'd allegedly injured an officer while trying to flee from a traffic stop. His family, however, claimed police used excessive force during the arrest. Moreover, they've disputed the official version of what happened in Collin County; they say Pierce was pulled over and told he was being arrested but not why he was being arrested. Pierce panicked and fled, his sister told the Chronicle in 2008, but he never injured any officer during the incident; that fact should be evident on police in-car video of the incident, she said.

"Absolutely," Kimberly says, Pierce was afraid of the police. "Of course. I know he was scared. That's what he said. If the police can pick you up with no evidence and put you in jail for three-and-a-half years, I don't know how you're ever supposed to trust the police again." Kimberly says she doesn't know what happened the night Pierce was killed. He'd been working in Austin and staying part-time with his sister; as far as she knows, when he was pulled over he was on his way home from a run to the store. No one from the Police Department has contacted the Pierce family or provided any information about the fatal incident, she said. But she said she imagines that what happened that night might be like what has happened in the past: He panicked. She doesn't believe that Pierce would have intentionally tried to injure anyone – especially a police officer. Nonethe­less, Wilson was injured – how, exactly, that came to pass is still unclear.

In the end, it may have been little more than a tragic accident. "A normal traffic stop with a regular person" is one thing. "A traffic stop with Maurice is still about four murders," Kimberly says. She says she keeps hearing that this was somehow justice – her husband's death some kind of proof that police were right all along about him and about his involvement in the yogurt-shop murders. That, she says, is simply not the case: "I wish they'd leave an innocent man to rest in peace."

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Maurice Pierce, yogurt shop murders, Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, David Carter, Frank Wilson, Brad Smith, Rosemary Lehmberg, Ronnie Earle, Eliza Thomas, Sarah Harbison, Jennifer Harbison, Amy Ayers

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