Cold case closed: 1982 murder of two hitchhikers, who were last seen in Breckenridge, ends with conviction
More than 40 years after two women disappeared near Breckenridge, the man suspected of murdering the pair of hitchhikers was found guilty by a Park County jury Thursday.
Modern forensic genealogy techniques reopened the case after it sat cold for nearly four decades after the women were last seen on Jan. 6, 1982. The investigation led to the arrest and conviction of Alan Lee Phillips, 71, of Dumont.
Phillips was arrested in February of 2021 on two counts of the following charges: kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon and murder after deliberation.
Alan Lee Phillips was found guilty of first-degree murder for the killings of Annette Schnee, 21, and Barbara Oberholtzer, 29. The two were reportedly hitchhiking separately from Breckenridge. Both were shot to death.
Oberholtz’s body was found Jan. 7, 1982, near the summit of Hoosier Pass with a single zip tie on her left wrist and a bullet hole in her chest. Her backpack, a bloody glove and tissue were found discarded 7 miles north of Fairplay.
Only a few miles away — but six months later — Schnee was found face down in Sacramento Creek in Park County with a gunshot wound in her back. Connecting both of them: a pair of orange socks. A former agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said during the preliminary hearing that Schnee was wearing one, and the second sock was found near Oberholtz’s body.
Investigators followed up on what leads they could, but the case went cold. Investigators only had two 5-inch binders of information in 1989, seven years after the case began.
Leads were still coming in when Wendy Kipple joined as lead investigator with the 11th Judicial District’s Attorney Office. Kipple now works with the Park County Sheriff’s Office and the Summit County Coroner’s Office.
“We knew it was going to come down to DNA,” Kipple said Friday.
So DNA was sent to Denver-based forensic genealogy service United Data Connect for sequencing and potential genealogical matches, a process used to identify a John Doe this year who died in 2012. United Data Connect provided two possible matches on Jan. 9, 2021: Phillips and his brother.
Kipple said the brother was eliminated as a suspect, and so all attention went to Philips.
Law enforcement officers monitored Phillips for almost two months. During that time they searched for surreptitious DNA, Kipple said, meaning discarded napkins, food scraps and any bits of trash that could carry Phillips’ DNA. Investigators found what they were looking for in the form of a Sonic fast food bag. The DNA in saliva recovered from that Sonic bag in 2021 matched the DNA from the blood recovered from Oberholtz’s glove in 1982, Kipple said.
Phillips was arrested Feb. 24, 2021 during a traffic stop. He was working as a semiretired mechanic in Clear Creek County at the time and lived in Dumont, less than 20 miles from where the bodies were found, according to prior Summit Daily News reporting.
On the night of the murders, Phillips was signaling commercial airliners with the headlights on his truck. A snowstorm had hit and he’d been stranded in a snowdrift at the top of Guanella Pass, Kipple said.
The Jefferson County sheriff serendipitously spotted Phillips from a commercial flight as Phillips flashed “S.O.S.” with his headlights, Kipple recounted. The flight crew got word through a chain of organizations to Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office, according to Kipple. Phillips was rescued from Guanella Pass that night.
Investigators ultimately concluded Phillips threw pieces of evidence of the murders out the window of his truck, Kipple said, explaining why Oberholtz’s belongings were found on the side of the road.
Phillips never became a suspect in the case until 2005, when an anonymous tip offered him as a suspect, but investigators didn’t find a connection at the time, Kipple says, possibly because they didn’t do a thorough investigation.
Early DNA tests couldn’t point to Phillips as a suspect during the early years of the case. At the time, a DNA match could only be found if the suspect had committed a felony and subsequently had their DNA stored in a national database.
Phillips was also found with a gash above his eye. A gash which reportedly came from Oberholtz in her final fight with Phillips. Oberholtz always carried a “big brass hook” with her when she went hitchhiking to defend herself, according to Kipple.
The case finished, 40 years after its inception, with 62 binders worth of information, Kipple said. Far more than the two it started with.
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