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An SOS Call And A 40-Year Murder Mystery

Could a decades-old mountain rescue be the key to solving two murders?

An SOS Call And A 40-Year Murder Mystery

Background

As Harold Bray, a sheriff in Jefferson County, Colorado, looked out the window of the United Airlines jet he was a passenger aboard, he noticed something strange below, a series of flashing lights from the snowy moonlit landscape. While others onboard thought nothing of it, Bray’s stomach sunk as he realized that the light pattern was morse code for SOS. Quickly, he rushed to speak to the captain of the United Airlines flight, who alerted the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office below.

Sheriff Bray’s sharp eye that cold January night in 1982 set the stage for rescuers to head up the 10,000-foot peak of Guanella Pass, just east of Breckenridge, Colorado. There, they found a man by the name of Alan Lee Phillips, 30, stranded in the cold. Phillips said his truck got stuck in a snowdrift on his way home from the bar. His face was covered in scratches and bruises, which he claimed were caused when he slipped and struck his head. The temperature that night was a whopping 20 degrees below zero; he was lucky to be alive.

Sadly, two others in the area were not so lucky. Annette Schnee, 21, and Barbara “Bobbie” Jo Oberholtzer, 29, were both reported missing that night after failing to come home. Oberholtzer’s body was recovered the following day at the peak of Hoosier Pass, about 10 miles south of Breckenridge. She had been shot at close range by a medium-caliber revolver, once across the arm and once in the chest. The only clue found at the scene was a single orange sock that did not match either of the ones she was wearing. 

Schnee’s body was found about six months later and 13 miles away. She had also been shot by a medium-caliber revolver. Investigators immediately suspected a connection, especially when they noticed that one of Schnee’s socks matched the stray sock found at the other crime scene. Also, both women had been hitchhiking that night, separately; Oberholtzer was trying to get home, while Schnee was trying to get to work. At the time, hitchhiking wasn’t perceived as dangerous and was a common way for locals to get around town.

“Sheriff Bray’s sharp eye that cold January night in 1982 set the stage for rescuers to head up the 10,000-foot peak of Guanella Pass, just east of Breckenridge, Colorado. There, they found a man by the name of Alan Lee Phillips, 30, stranded in the cold. ”

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Suspect A

Almost immediately, police focused on Bobbie’s husband, Jeff Oberholtzer. According to Jeff, Bobbie called him at 6:20 p.m. to say she was having drinks with some coworkers and would be home soon. He got dinner ready, but he eventually fell asleep as time ticked on. He awoke around midnight and panicked as he realized she had still not returned. He called her coworkers and searched the bars, but Bobbie was nowhere to be found. Jeff went to the police station to report her missing and was turned away. They told him to come back after 24 hours had passed. Her body was found later that day. 

Although Jeff passed two polygraph tests, investigators seemed convinced the husband was their guy. For one, they thought it odd that he was the one to locate her belongings along Route 285 and that he did so before her body was found 20 miles in the opposite direction. Also, the friend who provided his alibi—Jeff claimed the two had hung out at the house that night—couldn’t be found. When he finally surfaced years later, the timeline he gave police did not line up with the one provided by Jeff. 

But it was what investigators found at the Schnee crime scene that made them the most suspicious—Jeff’s business card in Annette’s wallet. While he initially claimed he had never met her, he later realized that he had picked her up hitchhiking a year earlier. He said he gave her a card to his appliance repair business when he dropped her off, but he never saw her again. 

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Suspect B

Six weeks after the murders of Oberholtzer and Schnee, another hitchhiking woman was murdered in the Breckenridge area—Mary Brown, 21. Law enforcement later determined her killer was a man named Tom Luther, 25. While serving a mere nine-year sentence for his crime, Luther bragged to fellow inmates that he had killed two other women in the Breckenridge area. He denied making such claims when questioned by police. Luther was released from prison in 1993 and immediately went on a long killing spree. He was eventually captured and is currently serving a 48-year sentence.

DNA

While police found bloody tissues near Oberholtzer’s backpack, DNA technology was not advanced enough at the time to use in solving cases. That changed over the years, and both Luther and Jeff Oberholtzer were eventually cleared. In 1998, CODIS (“Combined DNA Index System”) was established, and investigators began running the DNA sample through the system once a week in hopes a match would pop up. This went on for 20 years without a hit. Finally, a new forensics tool emerged—genetic genealogy, which uses DNA to trace family connections, hopefully right to the offender. In the Colorado murder cases, it did just that. But when the name of the suspected killer was revealed, everyone’s jaws dropped.

“While police found bloody tissues near Oberholtzer’s backpack, DNA technology was not advanced enough at the time to use in solving cases. That changed over the years, and both Luther and Jeff Oberholtzer were eventually cleared.”

Killer Revealed

On Feb. 24, 2021, Alan Lee Phillips—the same man whose SOS had been spotted by a United Airlines passenger nearly 40 years earlier—was arrested for the kidnap and murder of Oberholtzer and Schnee. Despite Phillips’ injuries the night of the rescue and his proximity to the murder scenes, authorities never connected the dots. In hindsight, it seems baffling. Phillips went on to live a relatively normal life, retiring as a mechanic with a wife and three kids. Meanwhile, Jeff Oberholtzer’s life was turned completely upside-down as he grieved the loss of his wife while also suffering decades under the cloak of suspicion. Perhaps if the spotlight had instead been pointed toward the man Sheriff Bray saw calling for help from his flight that night, justice would have been served decades earlier.

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Do you want to read more Mysteries of Flight articles? Enjoy “The Missing Ghost Bomber Of Pittsburgh” here.

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