Cold Case: Two young women disappear within three hours of each other in 1982
BRECKENRIDGE – Three hundred feet beyond the summit of Hoosier Pass on Highway 9, a 5-foot-tall wooden cross sits in a small clearing between spruce trees and within earshot of the busy roadway. About 12 miles south, a bumpy, gravel road past Alma leads to a second cross on a steep embankment above the fast-flowing Sacramento Creek.The two small memorials mark where the bodies of two young, attractive High Country women were found murdered 23 years ago.Annette Kay Schnee, then 21, and Barbara Jo Oberholtzer, then 29, were both last seen on Jan. 6, 1982, hitchhiking separately out of Breckenridge toward Park County.Oberholtzer’s body was found the following afternoon and Schnee’s body was found six months later in rural Park County. Both women died from a single gunshot wound. For investigators Richard Eaton and Charlie McCormick, who have been working on solving the double murder for the better part of two decades, the memorials represent a long road filled with ups and downs, new leads and dead-ends.For the family and friends of Schnee and Oberholtzer, the monuments symbolize grief and unanswered questions.”There’s only one road from here to Breckenridge and back. The cross is there. Everytime I go over, I think of Bobbie,” said 49-year-old Alma resident Jeff Oberholtzer, who was married to Barbara Jo Oberholtzer for five years before her murder. “Sometimes it’s a little less of a hurt, I’m just kind of saying hi to her on the way by: ‘Hey, what are you doing today? Fishing with Grandpa today?'”The chilling murders are now the focus of a refreshed publicity push by the 11th Judicial Homicide Task Force in the hopes of attracting new leads to the women’s killer or killers.Eaton and McCormick are two members of the five-person task force, which has been working solely on the murders since 1998. Long before the group formed, Eaton and McCormick were spending their free hours following leads and seeking tips.Eaton was assigned to the case in 1984 when he worked as an investigator for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. When he retired 15 years later, he took the case with him.McCormick, a Breckenridge private investigator who worked in the homicide unit in Denver for five years, teamed up with Eaton in 1989. At the time, McCormick had just quit homicide and had always been interested in the case because he knew Oberholtzer as an acquaintance through her job as a secretary at a local real estate developer’s office in Breckenridge.The two silver-haired men have logged thousands of hours working on the cold case, traveling as far away as West Virginia to interview suspects and paying for many expenses out of their own pockets.”I think we’re going into the 23rd year and we’re kind of running out of viable, good leads,” McCormick said. “Somebody out there knows something.”
Jan. 6, 1982Schnee’s and Oberholtzer’s murders took place on one of the coldest nights of the winter in Summit County, with temperatures dipping down to below 20 degrees. At the time, Schnee lived in Blue River and Oberholtzer in Alma. Witness statements have confirmed that both women were hitchhiking separately out of Breckenridge toward their homes before their deaths.Back then, the Breckenridge community was much smaller, everyone in town knew one another and hitchhiking was a common mode of transportation that was considered to be safe, Oberholtzer said.Schnee, who investigators believe was the first woman kidnapped and the first killed, was last seen at about 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 1982, at a pharmacy on Ski Hill Road with another woman, who investigators have not been successful in identifying.Earlier in the day, Schnee had left her job at the Holiday Inn in Frisco because she wasn’t feeling well. She went to the medical center in Frisco, then got a ride to Breckenridge and went to the pharmacy.Investigators believe Schnee knew her companion because the two were conversing inside the store and, at one point, Schnee reminded the woman not to forget to buy cigarettes.Schnee never showed up for her 8 p.m. shift at the Flipside bar at Beaver Run that evening.A father and son on a fishing trip found her body on July 3, 1982, face down in Sacramento Creek, in a rural area about 20 miles south of Breckenridge. She had died from a single gunshot wound to the back, and it appeared the shooting took place at that location. Schnee was fully clothed, but her clothing was in disarray – she had one orange bootie-style sock on her left foot, but her longer sock was in her sweatshirt pocket. She also wore just one longer sock on her right foot. She was wearing boots on both feet. The cold water in which Schnee’s body was emerged allowed enough preservation for an autopsy, although testing for signs of sexual assault could not be completed.The weapon used in her murder was possibly a .38, .357 or a nine millimeter handgun.Oberholtzer was last seen three hours after Schnee disappeared, at 7:50 p.m. on the same night.She had left a group of friends at The Village Pub – an old bar at the Belltower Mall – to hitchhike home.According to Jeff Oberholtzer, Barbara Jo had called that evening to tell him she would be home late from work because she was waiting for a ride from some friends. At 11:30 that night, he woke up worried and upset because she wasn’t home.
At about 1:30 a.m., he knew something was wrong because the bars were closed and Barbara Jo wasn’t home. He went to Breckenridge and searched through the night for his wife, without any luck.The next day, a search party organized by Oberholtzer and a group of friends found her body at about 3 p.m. Oberholtzer was laying on her back down a snow embankment. She had a gunshot wound to her chest and a grazing wound to her right breast. The shots appeared to have been fired at that location. Oberholtzer’s body showed no signs of sexual assault.Oberholtzer remembers his mental state when the best man from his wedding told him that he had found Barbara Jo’s body:”Anger. I mean just anger. And gosh, how could this be? It was just a flood of just emotion,” Oberholtzer said. Oberholtzer’s backpack, a glove and a tissue were found that same day off of U.S. Highway 285 past Fairplay, much closer to where Schnee’s body was eventually located. Her driver’s license was also found in an area off 285.Eight months later, and only two months after Schnee’s body was found, her backpack was found near Hoosier Pass, in a location near where Oberholtzer was killed. One of her bootie-style socks was also found near the pass.The weapon used in Oberholtzer’s murder was a .38 or .357 handgun using a Remington/Peters copper jacketed hollow point bullet.Investigators believe the same person or people are responsible for killing both women, although there is no proof that the two ever knew each other.They also believe the murderer was someone familiar with the mountains because the remote area where Schnee’s body was found was near a well-known makeshift firing range locals frequented.The scenario of how the events leading up to the women’s deaths unfolded is something Eaton and McCormick have played out over and over in their minds, but other than knowing what time the woman were last seen, everything else is a hypothesis. “From that point, you can – and everybody has – speculate to nauseum how this all happened,” McCormick said. “We just don’t know.”A long road with few rewardsInside McCormick’s Breckenridge house, two of the task force’s 25 three-ring binders crammed with evidence, crime scene photos, notes and suspect information lay on a small round table.Eaton, McCormick and task force newcomer investigator Betty Royse, from the 11th Judicial District Attorney’s office, sit around discussing the case that has consumed their lives daily.
“I think there’s hardly a day does by that something isn’t done,” McCormick said.Over the past two decades, the investigation into the double homicide has taken many twists and turns, new leads have been uncovered and hopeful theories have been ruled out.The group’s biggest break came with the progression of DNA technology in the early 1990s.They began looking into DNA testing at the urging of the Lakewood Police, which had indicted a man named Thomas Luther for the murder of a Lakewood woman.Luther had also been convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in Silverthorne in 1982.They lifted DNA off of Oberholtzer’s blood-stained glove and the tissue found along side it and determined it came from a man. When they compared it with DNA Lakewood police had pulled from Luther, however, they found it was not a match.Since then, they’ve tested eight or nine specific people who had close relationships with the woman or were considered suspects. Some people offered to be tested, while investigators obtained search warrants for others. Jeff Oberholtzer was under suspicion in the murders for about 10 years, but was ruled out by DNA testing and a timeline that placed him occupied at the time of Schnee’s murder. He also passed a polygraph test. At least four serial killers were in Summit County or passed through the area in 1982 and one by one, they’ve been checked off the suspect list.Most recently, investigators ruled out a man who has been dead since the early 1980s by gathering DNA from his family members in Great Britain.Another surge of leads also came in the early 1990s, when the case was featured on murder television show, “Unsolved Mysteries.”One tip from a psychic led them to a man on death row in Boise, Idaho, but his DNA didn’t match the evidence found at the scene.”The only negative thing about the DNA problem is we really eliminated all of our best suspects,” Eaton said.The DNA sample is also registered with a national DNA index database that compares samples to profiles of offenders on a weekly basis.Although many people have been ruled out as the source of the blood on the glove, investigators say until they find whoever committed the crimes, no one is eliminated from any involvement in the homicides.
“Every single scrap of information we get is important to us. … Something’s out there that we still need,” Eaton said.Their persistence stems partly from stubbornness, but also because an attachment has formed in the two decades Eaton and McCormick have dedicated to solving one of Summit and Park counties’ most heinous crimes.It’s apparent the case has become personal as the two men walk around the crosses, which they had someone carve. They erected the crosses themselves a few years back. They visit the memorials at least once a year to restain the wood and make sure they are still intact.”You get to be a part of it,” Eaton said, standing above Schnee’s cross last week. “They’re not just a dead body after a while. It becomes someone you feel like you’ve known or should’ve known.”Oberholtzer, who remarried 10 years ago, says he has coped with Barbara Jo’s death by dedicating his time and love to his new family, but he still has bad days.He thinks it is “absolutely outstanding” that the task force is still concentrating on solving the mystery to provide much needed answers to everyone who loved Barbara Jo and Annette.”I need my answers just like everybody else in the family,” Oberholtzer said. “There can’t be closure without having that answer.”Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or at firstname.lastname@example.orgIf you have any information on the homicides of Annette Schnee &/or Barbara Jo Oberholtzer, call investigator Betty Royse at (719) 836-2080 or e-mail her email@example.com. Callers wishing to remain anonymous may call Summit County Crimestoppers at 1-866-453-STOP. You may be eligible for up to a $1,000 reward.The 11th Judicial Homicide Task Force is starting a website on the murders and the investigation. The site will be http://www.rockymountaincoldcase.com and is expected to be up and running in the next month.The leadsInvestigators are interested in talking with two people who could know something about the case. The first is the woman who accompanied Annette Schnee to the pharmacy in Breckenridge on the night of her murder. Investigators believe the women were acquaintances, at the very least.A photograph was found in Schnee’s wallet of a young man. It was taken in 1977 in a photo booth that enables people to snap pictures of themselves. Investigators have never been able to identify that person.
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