City Panel To Hear More on Yogurt Shop Murders

Former investigator takes issues with PSC member's comments

Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen after a hearing dismissing their case on Oct. 28, 2009
Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen after a hearing dismissing their case on Oct. 28, 2009 (Photo by John Anderson)

It seems more than likely that a discussion of the Austin Police investigation of the infamous, unsolved yogurt shop murders will again be on tap at next month's meeting of the city's Public Safety Commission, prompted by the irritation expressed at the PSC's meeting earlier this month during Citizens Communication by retired APD Detective Paul Johnson. Johnson, who in 1996 reorganized the department's investigation into the quadruple murder – a reinvestigation that ended with four suspects identified and two of them, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, ultimately tried and convicted – came to the commission to complain that, at a meeting early this year, PSC Vice Chair Kim Rossmo was wrong in characterizing the case against Springsteen and Scott as "weak." According to Johnson, the fact that two separate jury panels convicted the two men, who were teenagers themselves at the time of the grisly 1991 murders, makes it clear that the evidence collected by police was not weak. "The evidence that [Rossmo] was talking about has already been evaluated and was determined not to be weak or quite weak," he said.

Rossmo – a retired police officer who, in his work as a professor at Texas State University, researches why police investigations fail – in February told fellow commissioners that he was concerned that tunnel vision or groupthink might have infected the APD's investigation of the 20-year-old case. Indeed, finding serious constitutional violation with the way the cases were prosecuted, the courts ultimately overturned both Springsteen's and Scott's convictions. And after previously undetected male DNA that does not belong to any of the suspects was found inside the youngest victim, 13-year-old Amy Ayers, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg dropped all charges against the two men. After reading our 20th anniversary coverage of the crime published in December (see "Scene of the Crime," Dec. 16, 2011), Rossmo suggested that perhaps it was time for an outside review of the case.

That has apparently ticked off Johnson, who told the PSC on May 7 that after retiring he actually came back to APD to continue working on the case. APD Assistant Chief David Carter this week said that did indeed happen, and that it isn't uncommon to have previous investigators work as consultants on cold cases they once investigated. In this case, he says that Johnson began working on the case again in 2007 and continued to do so until early this year. Johnson did not do any additional investigative work, Carter said, but did help to organize tips, leads, and to catalog DNA evidence sent out for testing. It seems unlikely that Johnson would be asked to do any further work on the case now that he has accused Rossmo (who was not at the Commission's May meeting) of lying when he said the evidence in the case was weak. "To state that the evidence was weak after it had already been determined [by jurors] not to be weak is just a lie," Johnson charged.

Of course, Johnson neglected to acknowledge that the convictions have been overturned, the charges against the two dismissed, and that the DNA discovered in 2008 effectively weakened the so-called "confessions" obtained from Springsteen and Scott – the only direct evidence the state had against either defendant. For example, although Springsteen told detectives that he raped one of the girls, no DNA evidence connected him – or any of the other three suspects in the case – to the murders.

Carter told the PSC in March that, from what he knew, the case had been vetted by an outsider once before, back in the late Nineties, when famed former police Officer Robert Keppel – known for his work on the Green River Killer case, among others – reviewed the work of Johnson et al. Keppel told the Chronicle this spring that he does remember doing some work for the APD on the case, but that he recalls only that he helped to review files on various suspects and to put them in order for investigation. Whether the APD would now be interested in an outside review of the case is unclear. Rossmo is expected to address Johnson's accusations at the June 4 meeting.

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Public Safety Commission, Kim Rossmo, yogurt shop murders, David Carter, Paul Johnson, Austin Police Department, Robert Springsteen, Rosemary Lehmberg, courts, cops, Michael Scott

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