Genetic Genealogy Solves Murder Of Two Colorado Women After Four Decades
“I never thought I’d see the day, frankly,” says one investigator who worked on the 1982 cold case.
Authorities who spent almost 40 years investigating the murders of two women in Colorado used genetic genealogy to crack the cold case earlier this year.
At a March 3 press conference, Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw announced the arrest of Alan Lee Phillips, 70, for the deaths of Annette Kay Schnee, 21, and Barbara “Bobbie Jo” Oberholtzer, 29.
“I want to focus on the most important part of this case, and that is Bobbie Jo and Annette and their families,” McGraw said of the women who had both been hitchhiking near Breckenridge when they went missing, according to Vail Daily. “I cannot begin to understand the pain and suffering their families have had to face for nearly four decades. With each year that has passed, they have remained vigilant in their unwavering commitment to seek justice for Bobbie Jo and Annette.”
On January 6, 1982, Schnee was last seen alive around 4:45 p.m., the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Cold Case Files show.
Schnee’s clothed body was discovered six months later, on July 3, 1982, lying in a creek flowing through an isolated mountain valley 20 miles from Breckenridge. Her probable cause of death was blood loss from a gunshot wound, CBI said.
The same evening Schnee went missing, Oberholtzer was spotted at about 7:50 p.m. Her body was found the next day off a highway on Hoosier Pass, a mountain summit 10 miles from Breckenridge.
Like Schnee, Oberholtzer was shot and died from blood loss, CBI said. Police recovered the victim’s backpack, which contained a bloodstained tissue and glove, on a roadside around 20 miles from the crime scene.
Investigators tracked down several leads but after less than two years, the case went cold.
In 1989, former Denver detective Charlie McCormick began working with local police and looking into the unsolved double murder as a private investigator for Schnee's family.
“I have no problem working it to the bitter end,” McCormick, 81, told Denver’s KMGH-TV last summer. “You can't walk away from it, or I can't. Haven't wanted to. Tomorrow's another day, and you got stuff to do, and you see what might happen.”
Investigators caught a huge break after they turned to genetic genealogy for an answer on who could have killed the two women and hired a Denver-based company to sequence DNA recovered in the case.
In January, the process identified semi-retired mechanic Phillips as a suspect. Detectives surveilled him for over a month before they obtained arrest warrants and took him into custody on February 24.
Alan Lee Phillips as a younger man (left) and in a mug shot following his arrest in the murders of two young Colorado women in 1982 [via Park County Sheriff's Office]
“This arrest is the culmination of technology, extraordinary police work, and an unwavering commitment to justice for Bobbie Jo, Annette and their families,” Sheriff McGraw said.
Private investigator McCormick admitted he was having a hard time defining his emotions after the arrest, Vail Daily reported.
“It’s a case that just kept going and kept going, and there was always something to do that — as a good investigator or a professional investigator — you couldn’t ignore, and you had to work on,” he explained. “Day after day after 32 years — bingo! It’s solved.”
Phillips is currently incarcerated at the Park County Jail. He faces two counts each of first-degree kidnapping, assault and homicide.
In a statement, Oberholtzer’s husband Jeff said he hopes the capture of Phillips will bring closure to what he called a “hideous nightmare” for himself and Schnee’s loved ones.
“I cannot thank enough all who never gave up the search for the truth,” he wrote in the statement Sheriff McGraw read at the press conference. “They are without doubt extremely dedicated and extraordinary individuals. Phillips is finally in the hands of the judicial system. May justice be served.”
This case was covered in the "Rocky Mountain Mystery" episode in Season 18 of On The Case With Paula Zahn. Stream now exclusively on discovery+.