BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Colorado authorities have charged a 70-year-old part-time mechanic with the kidnapping and murder of two hitchhikers who vanished on the same day 39 years ago.
Alan Lee Phillips, of Dumont, was arrested Feb. 24 and charged with two counts each of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and first-degree assault. He remained in the Park County Jail on Friday.
Phillips is accused of killing Barbara “Bobbi” Jo Oberholtzer, 29, and Annette Kay Schnee, 22, both of whom were last seen hitchhiking Jan. 6, 1982, near the town of Breckenridge.
The women were not traveling together and were abducted separately, Park County Sheriff’s Office authorities said. Oberholtzer’s body was found on the summit of Hoosier Pass the day after she vanished.
Schnee’s body was found in July 1982, six months after her disappearance, in a rural area of Park County.
Watch Wednesday’s announcement in the killings of Oberholtzer and Schnee below, courtesy of ABC 7 in Denver.
Each woman died of a single gunshot wound.
“I cannot begin to understand the pain and suffering their families have had to face for nearly four decades,” Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw said Wednesday at a news conference. “With each year that has passed, they have remained vigilant in their unwavering commitment to seek justice for Bobbi Jo and Annette. I’m here to tell them that their journey for justice has a much clearer path.”
Phillips was arrested without issue during a traffic stop, McGraw said. The semi-retired mechanic and father of three made no statements to police.
Phillips’ arrest is the second to be made public this week in a Denver-area cold case. Cherry Hills Village police officials on Monday announced the arrest of David Dwight Anderson, 62, of Cozad, Nebraska.
Anderson was charged in the brutal 1981 killing of Sylvia Mae Quayle, 34, inside her home.
Like Anderson, Phillips was tracked down through a collaboration between law enforcement, Metro Denver Crime Stoppers and United Data Connect, a company founded by a former Denver district attorney that works in the burgeoning industry of genetic genealogy.
Though the partnership between United Data Collects and Crime Stoppers typically only involves cases within the metro Denver area, the groups made an exception for the Park County murders.
“The real reason we wanted to work on this case is that, if you read the facts of this case, and you think about these two beautiful young women … lying in the snow after being shot, in the darkness by themselves, dying, basically freezing to death, it would make you not give up,” Mitch Morrissey, the head of United Data Connect, said at the news conference. “It would make you want to answer the question of who would do such a horrible thing to somebody.”
Authorities began working last year to link usable DNA left at one of the crime scenes to a potential suspect. A DNA profile of the killer was established in 1998, but searches in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, found no matches.
Little could be done with the profile until the advent of genetic genealogy, which became a mainstream law enforcement tool following the 2018 identification of California’s notorious Golden State Killer.
Genetic genealogy works by uploading a suspected killer’s genetic profile into public DNA databases and combing through thousands of possible relatives to find close matches.
As the potential pool of suspects is narrowed down, investigators use other public records to bolster their work and determine which of the possible offenders were in the area within the time frame of the crime.
Morrissey said cases involving the use of genetic genealogy are extremely labor intensive, and the Park County case was no different.
“We had over 12,000 people in this family tree to get to the point where we could give the sheriff’s office an investigative lead,” Morrissey said.
Once the data pointed to Phillips as a suspect, cold case detectives spent about six weeks investigating him and tailing him in order to gather a sample of his DNA.
When asked if Phillips is a suspect in any other cases, the sheriff responded that anyone capable of crimes like those that took the lives of Schnee and Oberholtzer “could have the tendency to commit other violent acts.”
“We’re following up on everything and … down the road, we’ll see where that goes,” McGraw said.
A cold and deadly night
It was a dark and frigid night when Schnee and Oberholtzer disappeared. According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s cold case files, Schnee was last seen alive around 4:45 p.m. as she hitchhiked south of Breckenridge.
RockyMountainColdCase.com reported that Schnee had filled a prescription at a Breckenridge pharmacy right before she vanished.
“Annette was scheduled to be at work at 8 p.m. that night at the Flip Side bar back in Breckenridge,” the website states. “Her uniform was at her home and was never picked up. She was described as very reliable, and it’s thought she may have been headed home to get ready for work when she disappeared.”
No sign of her was found until July 3, 1982, when her remains were found 20 miles south of Breckenridge in a rural part of Park County.
“The body was found face down in a small stream, fully clothed but with clothing in disarray,” CBI officials said.
The weather, with temperatures at minus-20 degrees the night she was slain, plus the cold water of the Sacramento Creek preserved Schnee’s body for autopsy.
“She was shot outside in a rural, isolated, mountain valley area where there would be no witnesses,” authorities said. “The death was due to loss of blood from a single gunshot wound to the back, and appeared to have occurred at the location where the body was found.”
Schnee was killed with a .38/.357/9-mm handgun. No bullet was found in her body.
Oberholtzer was last seen alive about three hours later than Schnee, as she, too, hitchhiked south of Breckenridge.
Her body was found around 3 p.m. Jan. 7 near a parking lot at the Hoosier Pass summit, along Colorado Highway 9. It is about 10 miles south of Breckenridge, where Oberholtzer was last seen leaving the Village Pub.
“Death was due to loss of blood from a gunshot wound of the chest, with a second grazing wound to the right breast, and appeared to have occurred at the location of the body,” CBI officials said. “The body was found approximately 20 feet off the highway, down a snow embankment, and was lying on her back.”
Oberholtzer had been killed with a hollow point bullet fired from a .38/.357 handgun, authorities said. RockyMountainColdCase.com states that evidence showed she was shot at a close range of between one and two feet.
A pair of 18-inch zip ties were found on one of Oberholtzer’s wrists, indicating someone had attempted to bind her hands.
“Evidence at the scene indicated that Bobbi may have gotten out of the suspect’s vehicle at the top of the pass. Her key ring, with a metal hook defensive weapon made for her by her husband, was found in the parking lot at the summit,” the website states. “Bobbi may have run downhill along the road approximately 300 feet, and was possibly again confronted by the assailant.
“She then seems to have gone over the snow embankment toward a stand of trees, stopping short of the trees, and retracing her tracks a short distance. She fell onto her back and slid down the snow a short distance before coming to rest where she died.”
The same day her body was found, items from Oberholtzer’s backpack were found 20 miles away, along U.S. 285, authorities said. Along with the backpack were the victim’s bloodstained wool glove and a bloodstained tissue.
DNA tests showed that the blood on the glove and tissue was from a man.
One piece of evidence that linked the two homicides was a pair of orange “bootie socks.” One sock was found Jan. 7 at the scene where Oberholtzer’s body was found.
Six months later, when Schnee’s remains were found, she was wearing the other orange sock, RockyMountainColdCase.com reported. On the other foot was a long striped sock.
The second striped sock was found in the pocket of Schnee’s blue hooded sweatshirt.
‘39 years of hell’
McGraw said some of the detectives involved in the case have been part of the investigation for more than 30 years. He said much of the success was due to private investigator and former Denver police detective Charlie McCormick, who worked on the case with authorities from both Park and Summit counties.
McCormick had been working on the case since 1989.
“I’ve been trying to define my emotions, and it’s been very hard to do,” McCormick said, according to ABC 7 in Denver. “I never thought I’d see the day, frankly.”
Neither did Schnee’s mother, Eileen Franklin, who described life since 1981 as “39 years of hell.” The 88-year-old told the news station she didn’t believe she’d live to see her daughter’s suspected killer behind bars.
“You know, I thought there’d be no closure,” Franklin said. “I thought maybe I’d be gone before I had closure to this case. So that really … I’m ready to go when it’s my time now.”
In a written statement read by the sheriff on Wednesday, Franklin thanked everyone involved in solving the case, including those who highlighted the case on television shows like Unsolved Mysteries.
“It has been a mind-boggling affair,” she wrote. “We finally have closure after 39 years. I thank you all.”
Jeff “Obie” Oberholtzer, Bobbi Jo’s husband, wrote in his own statement that he prayed Phillips’ arrest would “bring closure and peace to this hideous nightmare.”
“I cannot thank enough all who never gave up the search for the truth,” Oberholtzer’s statement read. “They are, without doubt, extremely dedicated and extraordinary individuals. Phillips is finally in the hands of the judicial system. May justice be served.”
Jackie Vucas Walker, Bobbi Jo Oberholtzer’s daughter, was 11 years old when her mother died. She wrote that she has “lived with a monster in (her) mind since then.”
Walker said she can now rest, knowing that her mother’s killer has been found. She also shared a bittersweet bit of information about her own family.
“When I look into my child’s blue eyes, which are truly beautiful like my mom’s, I see her,” Walker wrote.