ON 20 BILLBOARDS AROUND AUSTIN, Texas, the faces of four pretty teenage girls loom larger than life. Their eyes are bright and trusting, their smiles unguarded. Under their pictures, in bold letters, is the question that haunts the city: WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? Despite the most intense murder investigation in Austin's history, the unknown murderers are still free, their crimes still unpunished.

It was around midnight last Dec. 6 when firemen fighting a two-alarm blaze at the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt shop in Austin's Shoal Creek neighborhood made a grisly discovery. They called the police, and a few minutes later homicide sergeants John Jones and Mike Huckaby entered the still smoking nubble. In the back room they found the bodies: Jennifer Harbison, 17, her sister, Sarah Harbison, 15, Eliza Thomas, 17, and Amy Ayers, 13. The two older girls were part-time counterhands at the store and had agreed to give the younger girls a ride home. They had all been tied together and shot in the back of their heads, execution style. All of the bodies had been burned, three beyond recognition.

"I looked in there and I go, 'Oh, oh, my God,' " says Jones.

Following close on Jones's heels, Huckaby steeled himself for the worst. "In homicide you get hardened to mutilations, blood and guts," he says. Still, Huckaby shuddered when he noticed one of the girls had on a wrist-watch just like one his 19-year-old daughter Cherane wears. "The first thing that hit me was panic," he says. "I thought, 'Where is my daughter?' "

In an era in which yesterday's heinous murder is quickly supplanted by news of another, the yogurt-shop massacre is an exception: The crime still weighs heavily on Austin. After six months the city of 465,000 continues to grieve for the victims, who have come to be known as "the four Texas angels." On June 5, which Texas Gov. Ann Richards officially designated We Will Not Forget Day, 1,200 people marched to the steps of the state capitol to honor the girls. Austin is awash in WE WILL NOT FORGET buttons, T-shirts and coffee mugs. White ribbons adorn clothing, trees and automobiles as a reminder of the crime. And people who once felt safe in this green, rolling Texas Hill country now look nervously over their shoulders and, in parking lots, check for possible assailants under their cars.

Not since sniper Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and fatally shot 16 people has Austin experienced such a collective horror. "The murder of these innocent, wholesome girls has had a ripple effect across the community," says William E. Denham, director of Austin's Counseling and Pastoral Care Center. "This thing was so random, so totally unpredictable, that it left people wondering whether they are safe anywhere."

A group of Austin businessmen recently increased a reward offer for information leading to the apprehension of the killers from $25,000 to $100,000. But after receiving some 2,000 tips, police appear to be no closer to solving the crime. Though key evidence was destroyed in the fire, a salvaged cash register indicated the last sale was made an hour before the blaze was reported. Some money was reportedly stolen; police will not say how much. Police suspect that more than one person is responsible for what may have been a robbery gone awry. One theory is that the intruders killed the girls because they feared they would be identified, and torched the shop to cover their tracks.

Even Austin's relatively civilized criminal class is appalled. "They have a code: 'Don't do anything against kids,' " says Sergeant Jones, the point man for a 14-man investigative task force formed to solve the crime. "Hardened criminals said they would talk if they knew who did it. We've even gotten assistance from dope dealers." So far, however, police have yet to identify any prime suspects. "We've had maybe a dozen who look good on paper," says Jones. "But people describe them as Attila the Hun, and by the time they get here we have Winnie the Pooh."

Police have no doubts about one thing: The four victims all had pristine reputations and no association with gangs or criminals. "These girls were as perfect as perfect can be," says Jones. "There is nothing in their backgrounds that would taint them."

All four girls were active members of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and raised lambs or hogs for stock-show competitions. Most afternoons they gathered at a farm owned by the Austin school system to tend their animals and listen to the latest country-and-western hits from the likes of Garth Brooks, George Strait and Clint Black.

Eliza Thomas, a senior at Lanier High, started working part-time at the yogurt shop in December 1990 so she could buy and maintain a green 1974 Karmen Ghia. Though the pay was minimum wage, $4.35 an hour, and the hours late, Eliza's parents were delighted by her show of independence. "That car was her pride and joy," says Maria Thomas, an artist who shared joint custody of Eliza with her ex-husband, James, a social worker. "Her birthstone was an emerald, so she just knew that car was meant for her."

Eliza's classmate Jennifer Harbison signed on at the yogurt shop last July. Jennifer's stepfather, Skip Suraci, a computer technician, and her mother, Barbara, a credit officer at a local bank, tried to discourage her from taking the job. "I didn't really want her to work," says Barbara Suraci. "I wanted her to enjoy her senior year, be wild and crazy." But Jennifer wanted to make some extra spending money.

Neither the Thomases nor the Suracis thought their daughters were in any danger at the yogurt shop. "It was a family hangout," says Maria Thomas. "A lot of regulars knew the kids by their first names." Even the Governor dropped by on occasion and ordered a small, nonfat yogurt.

On Dec. 6, a typically quiet Friday night in Shoal Creek, Maria Thomas stopped by the yogurt shop around 9:15 RM. "Eliza was in a good mood because she and Jennifer had been nominated for FFA queens," Maria says. The girls were responsible for closing the shop at 11 P.M., and afterward Jennifer had promised to give a ride home to her younger sister, Sarah, a freshman at Lanier High, and Sarah's best friend, Amy Ayers.

Amy planned to sleep over at the Suracis' house. "She and Sarah lived from one stock show to the next," says Pam Ayers, a state government clerk. "The only time they were separated was when one of them was in a show ring." Even though Amy had a semester to go before entering high school, Pam and her husband, Bob Ayers, a road maintenance worker, figured she was safe as long as she was with Sarah and Jennifer. "These kids were real protective of Amy," he says. "They kept telling us, 'Nothing is going to happen to her.' "

When Austin police woke the Suracis in the middle of the night to tell them that Jennifer and Sarah were dead, the couple found the news impossible to believe. "It totally immobilized us," says Barbara Suraci. "We didn't want anyone to know." Rage welled up in Maria Thomas when she learned of Eliza's death. "I wanted to kill the messengers," she says. "How dare they tell me such a horrible thing!" Pam Ayers was still in a state of denial the next morning when one of Amy's friends called to ask if she could go to an afternoon show. "I just told her Amy wasn't home," she says.

More than 2,500 people, including Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, attended a joint memorial service for the four girls at St. Louis Catholic Church. Jennifer, Sarah and Amy were buried next to each other at the Capitol Memorial Park Cemetery, and a bench at the gravesite carries the inscription OUR GIRLS. Before putting Eliza to rest at Austin Memorial Cemetery, her mother put several canisters of lipstick in the coffin. "That kid never went anywhere without lipstick," Maria Thomas explains. "Now her future—our future—is gone. I won't have the pleasure of shopping with her for a prom dress. I'll never know if she would have become a great writer or actress or model."

Christie Webb, 18, a friend of the slain teenagers, says kids who knew them well have found comfort in "pulling together. Everything we do is kind of centered on the girls." At the same time, they are learning not to take anything for granted. "My parents tell me they love me every time I go out the door," Webb says. "They leave a lot of lights on. They want to know who I'm with."

The parents of the four murdered girls have come to the hard realization that it is impossible to protect your children if you do not know what you are protecting them against. "What did we do wrong here?" says Barbara Suraci. "We moved to a nice house in a good neighborhood. We did all those middle-class American things that you do to protect your family and make it wholesome and right. If this can happen to us, it can happen to anyone."

DAVID GROGAN
JOSEPH HARMKS in Austin

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes.