OCTOBER 28, 2016
ON THE NIGHT of December 6, 1991, four teenage girls — Amy Ayers, Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, and Eliza Thomas — were murdered at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt!, where two of them worked, in Austin, Texas. The details of their deaths were appallingly gruesome: they were bound, gagged, raped, shot, and then burned (the extent of the sexual abuse wasn’t clear because of how badly damaged the bodies were). The crime stained the city’s image of itself, and, as it turned out, the stain was indelible. After exhaustive police investigations and guilty verdicts that were later overturned, the murders remain unsolved.
In her latest book, Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders, Beverly Lowry tells the story of the grisly crime and the desperate attempts by the Austin Police Department and District Attorney’s office to close the case. For people like me, who have been captivated by the renaissance of the True Crime genre in popular culture over the past few years, the stubborn repetition of what seem like novelistic plot conventions in real life is striking: dedicated but overzealous cops, the plasticity of memory, bizarre false confessions, and a staggeringly imperfect judicial system. At bottom, though, the book is a story of pain and loss, and how one heinous act that takes four lives quakes out and destroys so many others. What one experiences most vividly is the whirlpool-like narrative suction of an unsolved murder — the magnetism of the unknown. It is entrancing (and agonizing) to watch able minds fail to make a constellation of clues cohere into a meaningful shape. In its swift pacing, intimate peeks into the characters’ lives, and deep research and reportage, Who Killed These Girls? features everything we wish for in a book about an event we wish had never happened.
This is not Lowry’s first dive into very dark subject matter. In 1992, she published Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, which centers on the Houston pickaxe murderer Karla Faye Tucker, whom Lowry got to know after her own son was killed. As she writes early on in Who Killed These Girls?:
Writers don’t pick their subjects out of the clear blue. What mattered to me and drew me to this particular story was the uncertainty of the parents of the dead girls, the not-knowing they might well have to accept as their lifelong fate. This was something I knew about myself, having lived with it since 1984, when my son Peter was killed by a hit-and-run driver who was never identified.
AARON SHULMAN: I imagine that writing a book like this requires the digestion of thousands of pages of legal documents, dozens of hours of interviews, and countless other avenues of research. What was the process like for you?
BEVERLY LOWRY: The only way to convince yourself to commit to a large endeavor like this is to think it won’t be as difficult or as time-consuming as it seems. That in, say, a couple years you’ll have gathered all the information you need, take maybe a year to do the actual writing and … all in, all done! Never happens that way, of course, but we all do this all the time: trick ourselves into a particular mindset, whatever the emotional, psychic, work-related territory. Sometimes this works.
Walking out of the first Yogurt Shop hearing I went to, in 2009 — when I wrote in my notebook, “This is right” — I knew I was all in, however long it took, whatever the obstacles. You have to take the leap at some point. You have to … just … go.
Where do you start when you decide you’re all in?
One of the first things I do is create a very detailed timeline, which grows and grows as I come upon more information and form more specific notions. The timeline for this book was about 225 pages. I include national news and historical events in addition to the chronology of the four girls’ murders, from earlier in the day through the murders, into the arrival of the AFD, the APD, et al., and the development of the investigation, the ups, the downs, the questions, the local responses, the media coverage … whatever I can come by, through the trials and on. I include the passage of relevant Supreme Court decisions and anything else I think might have a bearing not just on the case itself but on people’s response to it, as well as my own occasional exclamatory remarks along the way. I began this timeline in 1884 with what’s called the Austin “Servant Girl Annihilator” murders, and the subsequent installation of the moonlight towers that still illuminate parts of old Austin.
I actually love the research, the challenges, the triumph of, say, finding the Will Sheff quote when he watched the television coverage of the four guys’ arrests, which ended up in an Okkervil River song … a tiny story at the bottom of a page of the local, free weekly paper — which is only one of a number of great discoveries, because people who’d been involved in the case at any level were so anxious to get the experience out of their lives. A rare thing. Then, of course, came the disappointment of several people refusing to give an interview. Other things on both sides. Interviews can be tough, but usually not.
How did the writing come together?
The actual writing took a whole lot of time. I had to discover the narrative that worked both to tell the story and supply the context I thought necessary to understand why things went the way they did, while understanding that this was no whodunit crime story. Anybody who wanted any information — just about anything at all — could type Yogurt Shop Murders on a search engine site and up would come many, many links to the crime and the trials. Meantime, of course, the story kept changing, things kept happening.
I don’t remember how many beginnings I explored and sat with and read and reread — maybe 18 stabs at getting the exact right one, maybe more — until I came to the decision to begin with the cop on the street taking the call. I think I was swimming when it came to me. Duh, I told myself. But I never have worked in a sensible, linear fashion, and I guess never will.
The True Crime genre had a kind of explosive renaissance in popular culture during the time you were working on this book. Did seeing what other people were doing in documentaries, podcasts, and books affect your process, or were you so dialed into your book that the rest was just background noise?
First off, in terms of the current popular appeal of what’s called True Crime, DNA has changed everything. So we’re questioning guilt and convictions, interrogations, confessions … We’re seeing more exonerations, because of DNA testing, and questioning the execution of people who may have been innocent of the crime they had supposedly committed. That’s one thing. And we’ve lost some faith in the criminal justice system as a whole. Both the O. J. trial series on FX and Making a Murderer on Netflix, plus the Serial series about Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee, end up as a question: Who killed these people? Is it the person who was convicted of the crime or was it somebody else? It’s no accident that the title of my book is a question. People want to know who I think killed the four girls when all I can do in response is add to the speculations of others — Sarah Burns’s book about the Central Park Five and the TV series, [Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 documentary about the West Memphis Three] Paradise Lost — I can do that, of course, but I will not claim to be able to nail particular people as the perpetrators.
The CSI series also changed everything, of course, as I write about in the book, making forensic science sexy in its accuracy, its speed, and its certainty. It became more difficult to assert with certainty that nobody confesses to a crime they didn’t commit.
Now we have, what, three big “Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey” extravaganzas? Unsolved murders will always seduce the imagination. Who was Jack the Ripper? The Zodiac Killer? The Boston Strangler? Who killed the Black Dahlia?
By the way, why wasn’t In Cold Blood called True Crime? Also, as a sidenote, Luc Sante has written a fine introduction to the NYRB anthology of William Roughead’s work [Classic Crimes, 2000], focusing on British murders of his era; Sante defends True Crime as an honorable undertaking, which doesn’t belong in the “literary slums,” where it usually resides.
With the publication of this book it seems like you’re going to be wading — or cannonballing — into a lot of sensitive issues in Austin: old wounds, police (mis)conduct, etc. Do you have any apprehensions about how the book will be received, and what are you expecting to happen?
Of course I have apprehensions. I’m a Southern girl, so I want to be loved by everybody! Those who maintain absolute certainty about who killed or did not kill Jennifer, Sarah, Eliza, and Amy will give me a hard time, no doubt. I try not to think about it.
From what you say in the book, a big part of the attraction of writing it was revisiting the insoluble uncertainty surrounding your son’s death through the experience of the four girls’ parents. Now that the book is done and out there in the world, do you feel you gained any new insights about — or emotional release from — your uncertainty and tragedy?
One thing I’ve learned is that, for some people, uncertainty is so thoroughly unbearable that they find a way to believe in a certain outcome or explanation. The parents of the four murdered girls believe that the arrested young men absolutely killed their daughters. And this is what many parents and loved ones of murdered people do, which is to find an answer and stick to it. It’s not that I’m totally certain that those guys didn’t commit the murders. But what I am certain about is that nobody knows for sure. Nobody. Except whoever did it. In a recent interview, one parent said he knew one of the guys was guilty because he had cold eyes. There are many things a lawyer or another citizen, another parent, could say to that, but it would do no good whatsoever. People find a way to deal with tragedy and they stick with whatever works. I understand that, and I expect we all do. As for me, anything I gained from the experience of writing the book and reading about the parents and talking to some of the people involved has come from Barbara Ayres-Wilson [the mother of one of the victims]. She is truly a soul sister to me and I value her friendship greatly. I hope I don’t lose her as a friend when the book comes out.
I know you just said people ask you who you think did it, and that you can only add speculation, but I can’t help it. Since you do explore alternative theories at the end, which feels the most convincing to you?
First off, as you know, I wouldn’t have titled this book with a question if I knew who had killed the four girls. The most compelling theory to me is the one that Carlos and Amber came up with. [Witnesses put two unidentifiable people sitting at a table in the Yogurt Shop near closing time, which is when the incident began.] That theory solves a lot of problems, answers a lot of questions about the back door being locked and how the whole thing came about. The parents still think the four arrested guys killed their daughters. They need answers. I understand that completely. But the DNA tests cast huge doubt on their certainty, which, I have to tell you, I’m really sorry to be perpetuating. It makes me sad to think that I might be increasing their grief and dismay.
You dedicated this book to your editor, Gary Fisketjon, of Knopf. Why?
Gary’s been right there for me in terms of editing and vision, and believed in what I was doing. When I thought about whom I wanted to dedicate this book to, I simply felt like there was no better, no other choice. He’s the best. We work very closely together both in terms of language — that is, verb usage, correct grammar, etc. — as well as the overall scope and vision of whatever book it is we’re working on, making it as good as it absolutely can be. Gary is an extremely careful, conscientious editor. The kind of editor people say doesn’t exist anymore. He’s a language guy, a grammar guy, but he’s also a spirit-of-the-work guy, who pays close attention — and if I want to leave something in that he thinks I should take out, we talk. He has stood solidly by me, and he deserves this dedication. Big time. Both of us are willing to put in long hours, days, weeks, months … until the thing seems to be of a piece and ready.
After the publicity launch and readings, will you be glad to move on from this project?