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'You can't walk away': A Colorado double murder and the chase for closure before time runs out

Posted: 9:42 AM, Jul 10, 2020
Updated: 2020-07-10 12:05:41-04
Annette Schnee Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Charlie McCormick was done with murder cases.

Five years in homicide left the Denver detective burned out, the dozens of killings each year draining his desire for police work.

McCormick moved to Summit County in 1976 and carved out a steady career of private investigations, mostly focusing on civil litigation cases and pre-trial work for defense attorneys. When two young women were found murdered south of Breckenridge, McCormick, like the rest of the rattled resort community, followed the story in the local newspapers.

As detectives struggled to find the killer — to even find a motive — McCormick remembered thinking: "I'm glad I'm not working that one."

Barbara "Bobbie Jo" Oberholtzer, 29, and Annette Schnee, 21, were both working in Breckenridge when they went missing on Jan. 6, 1982. They might have seen each other around town but they had no apparent connection. But sometime in the afternoon and evening hours that day, they disappeared.

Bobbie Jo's friends and family found her body the next afternoon, in a snow drift on Hoosier Pass, south of Breckenridge. Annette remained missing for the next six months, until a young boy found her body, fully clothed, in a creek further south, near Fairplay.

Both women were believed to be hitchhiking on the day they disappeared. Both were shot to death.

The murders would have been shocking anywhere, but they especially rocked the small towns in Park and Summit counties.

Authorities warned women about the risks of hitchhiking. One woman told the Summit County Journal that she began locking her door at night, when before she had not. A ski instructor told the newspaper that he began giving his girlfriend a ride to work, when before she'd catch her own.

In the investigation, leads faded and after about 18 months, the case went cold.

Then one day in 1989, Richard Eaton, a detective with the Summit County Sheriff's Office and newly assigned to the old double murder, ran into McCormick at the courthouse. The two were friendly and decided to have lunch, where the cold case was brought up.

McCormick, who had started to miss working homicides, asked Eaton if he could take a look at the case. No charge, just a fresh set of eyes. Eaton was happy to have to have the help and handed over the case file, two five-inch binders. McCormick took the files home on a Friday.

"I don't even remember sleeping that weekend," he said. "I just couldn't lay it down."

Charlie McCormick
Charlie McCormick at his home in Breckenridge in 2015.

McCormick returned the files with an addition of his own: A list of about 50 tasks to start reviving the case.

"It just kind of lit my fire," McCormick said, "and I've been on it ever since."

While Eaton stayed on the investigation for the Summit County Sheriff's Office, McCormick signed on as a private investigator for Schnee's family, collecting a fee of one dollar per year.

The two detectives traveled the country, tracking leads and suspects from New Jersey to West Virginia to Vermont, where a psychic once claimed to see the killer driving down a lonesome highway.

Thirty-eight years after the killings, McCormick, now 80, remains on the case, chasing down leads and tips and trying to find a break. He works as an appointed detective for a task force through the Park County Sheriff's Office.

"It's just one of those things," said McCormick, who works out of a small loft office at his home in Breckenridge. "I can't put it down if there's something to do."

A cold night on the Hoosier Pass

Jim Hardtke, an agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, was working a duty shift, waiting to be dispatched to a homicide or unattended death, when the call came through on the evening of Jan. 7, 1982.

It was Norman Howey, the Park County sheriff. They had found a body up on Hoosier Pass, south of Breckenridge, and needed help from the CBI.

The victim, Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer, had gone missing the night before.

Howey's request wasn't unusual. Hardtke, who joined the CBI in 1976, worked the on-call duty shift every few months and had been called out to Park County a handful of times.

He left his office near Denver and headed west. Thirty-eight years later, the first thing he remembered was the cold. Temperatures dipped near zero, as they had the night before, when Bobbie Jo went missing. Highway 9 on the pass was plowed, but snow piled up in drifts along the roadway.

Bobbie Jo was located face up, about 20 feet off the road and down an embankment of snow. She had been shot in the chest. A pair of 18-inch zip ties were on one wrist.

Bobbi Jo Oberholtzer crime scene Hoosier Pass
Investigators on Hoosier Pass, where Bobbi Jo Oberholtzer's body was discovered.

The investigators collected what they could, bottling vials of bloody snow. Not far from Bobbie Jo's body, in the pass parking lot, they found two items: Her key chain with a hook, apparently fashioned as a self-defense weapon; and an orange bootie sock.

That same day, Jan. 7, Bobbie Jo's backpack was found about 20 miles to the southeast, off U.S. 285. Inside the backpack investigators found her bloodstained wool glove and a bloodstained tissue. In a separate location along U.S. 285, they found Oberholtzer's driver's license.

The investigators began to construct what they knew.

Bobbie Jo was last seen leaving the Village Pub in Breckenridge. She worked in an office in the same building and was at the bar, having a drink with coworkers.

A witness saw Bobbie Jo near the pub, shortly before 8 p.m. She was hitchhiking out of town, toward the Hoosier Pass. Bobbie Jo lived on the south side of the pass, in Alma, with her husband, Jeff Oberholtzer.

When Bobbie Jo didn't make it home, Jeff Oberholtzer and a group of friends began searching for her. They found her body about 3 p.m. the next day.

The crime scene indicated a couple things to detectives.

She was likely shot at close range, possibly 1-2 feet away, near where her body was found, at the bottom of the embankment. The location was also about 300 feet from a parking lot on the pass, where her key ring and the orange bootie were found.

Investigators assumed she might have escaped the suspect's vehicle in the parking lot and ran downhill before falling. But knowing the basic scenario of what might have happened only got detectives so far.

In those early hours, all they had were scattered pieces of evidence, strewn across miles of mountain countryside.

"It was certainly not a typical crime scene," Hardtke said.

Then, the next day, came a new revelation: Another young woman, also known to hitchhike to her home south of Breckenridge, had gone missing the same night as Bobbie Jo.

Orange socks for Christmas

Eileen Franklin had a feeling. Maybe it was a mother thing.

She had sent her daughter, Annette, a package over the Christmas holiday, 1981, and tried calling her but couldn't get through. Back home in Sioux City, Iowa, Franklin figured a winter storm downed the telephone lines in Colorado.

But Franklin couldn't shake that feeling that something bad was looming.

At the time, Annette Schnee was hoping to become an airline attendant, Franklin said. She had left Iowa after high school for Patricia Stevens College, a modeling school in Omaha. After a year there, she headed to Colorado and worked at Keystone and then Breckenridge and in Frisco.

Annette Schnee
Annette Schnee in the summer of 1981, months before her murder.

Franklin's Christmas package for her daughter included a pair of orange bootie socks. They matched the colors of her alma mater in Sioux City, East High. Annette was planning a trip home to Iowa in April for her mother's birthday.

On Sunday, Jan. 10, Franklin's phone rang. Annette was missing, authorities in Colorado told her.

Annette was last seen a few days earlier, Jan. 6, the detectives told Franklin. She was leaving a pharmacy in Breckenridge when she was seen talking with an unknown woman. Annette, a witness reported, reminded the woman to buy more cigarettes.

Investigators assumed that Annette then planned to hitchhike to her home, four miles away in Blue River, as she was known to do. She was between shifts at the Holiday Inn in Frisco and the Flip Side Bar in Breckenridge, where she was due to report about 8 p.m. But she never showed for work, and investigators found her uniform untouched.

Breckenridge cold case
A sketch of the unidentified woman seen talking to Annette Schnee before she went missing. Detectives are still hoping to identify the woman.

The investigators asked Franklin over the phone: Could she think of where her daughter might have gone?

Franklin had no idea. When she went to Colorado to retrieve her daughter's belongings, she found Annette's room intact, not abandoned. Annette was meticulous, her mother remembered. She'd have never left home with no possessions.

In those initial weeks after her disappearance, Annette's siblings walked the roads of Summit and Park counties, searching for their sister. They found nothing.

Investigators came up empty, too, in both Annette's disappearance and Bobbie Jo's murder.

“Nothing, we have absolutely nothing,” Summit County detective Dave Mikesell told a local newspaper, the Summit Sentinel, in early February.

About five months later, on July 3, a young boy and his father were fishing the Sacramento Creek, in a mountain valley about 10 miles south of the Hoosier Pass. The boy found a woman's body laying face down, fully clothed in a blue jacket.

It was Annette. The cold temperatures and chilly waters had likely preserve her body for months. She had been shot once through her back, but investigators found no bullet.

In Denver, Hardtke, the CBI agent on the case, went to the coroner's office for the autopsy.

As they examined the body, Hardtke noted that Annette was wearing both shoes, a pair of light brown boots; a pair of pants; the blue jacket; and a long, striped sock on her right foot.

But it was what Hardtke saw on Annette's left foot that stopped him: An orange bootie sock, presumably the missing match to the sock found near Bobbie Jo's body seven months earlier.

"It was just one of those 'ah-ha' moments," Hardtke said.

The sock — along with the fact that Annette was no longer a missing person but a murder victim — confirmed investigators' suspicions that their deaths were related.

But they had little else.

"There is no new evidence, no clues, no suspect, and we don't have a motive," Howey, the Park County sheriff, told the Summit County Sentinel. "It's tough."

The investigators were forced to "wait for someone to make a mistake," Howey told the newspaper.

And though Annette had been missing for months, the authorities still could not locate or identify the woman she was seen speaking with at the Breckenridge pharmacy on the afternoon of Jan. 6.

"We hope that if there ever was such a woman (with Schnee) she might come forward," Breckenridge Police Chief Ralph Schultz told the Sentinel. "As it stands now, we can't do anything much different with the investigation than we have been doing."

"It's an unfortunate ending," Schultz said, "to what we all thought was true."

mapevidencetext.jpg
A map of evidence from investigators in the Oberholtzer and Schnee murders.

"You'd have to be a local of some sort"

The authorities weren't just withholding details from the newspaper.

"Realistically, we — or I did, at least — assumed the cases were related," Hardtke said. "For everything we did for the Oberholtzer case, we did for Schnee. It wasn't like we had a whole lot of new work to do."

The discovery of Annette's body added to the confusing crime scene. Unlike the evidence tied to Bobbie Jo — her license and backpack, discovered along U.S. 285 — Annette was located in a remote area.

"The area where Schnee was found — you'd almost have to have known it was there," Hardtke said. "You'd have to be a local of some sort."

Hardtke and the investigators pulled a list of local sex offenders and worked to rule them out. When one witness vaguely remembered seeing a vehicle that might have been involved in the killings, the detectives resorted to hypnosis.

The witness managed to recall a partial license plate number and the investigators tracked down every potential plate in the state.

When a tipster in Alabama claimed to overhear two men discussing the murders at a diner, Hardtke traveled to Birmingham to check it out.

But those early leads went nowhere.

Bobbi Jo Oberholtzer
A portrait taken of Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer in 1977 (via RockyMountainColdCase.com)

In September 1982, Annette's backpack was found along Highway 9, between her home in Blue River and the Hoosier Pass. The backpack held a key ring and loose change and chapstick. And a photo of an unidentified man and a business card from Jeff Oberholtzer's repair business.

Detectives never identified the man in the photograph, but they were already focusing on Bobbie Jo's husband, Hardtke said.

Jeff Oberholtzer, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, was at home in Alma on the night his wife went missing, he told investigators. He also explained why Annette had his business card: He had once given her a ride while she was hitchhiking into Frisco.

McCormick said the story Oberholtzer told detectives — a version he also told last year for the television show, "On The Case with Paula Zahn" — was that sometime around the summer of 1981, months before the murders, he gave Annette a ride into town, stopping at a bank on the way.

A friend of the Oberholtzers later told detectives she saw Annette sitting in Oberholtzer’s truck at the bank, mistaking her for Bobbie Jo.

Oberholtzer said he dropped Annette off in Frisco and handed her a card for his repair business — presumably the business card found in her backpack after her death.

After McCormick and Eaton picked up the case, they worked to establish a tighter timeline of Oberholtzer's whereabouts on the day his wife went missing.

The investigators confirmed that Oberholtzer was in Alma through the afternoon. He spent much of the evening at home and was there until at least 8:15 p.m., or around that time, friends verified. At one point, a friend told detectives, Oberholtzer received a call from his wife.

In the mid-90s, as DNA testing advanced, the investigators were able to confirm the blood found on Bobbie Jo's glove belonged to a man — but not her husband.

McCormick also emphasized that Jeff Oberholtzer often cooperated with investigators through the years, taking and passing two polygraph tests and allowing detectives to search his home for evidence.

When interviewed for "On The Case" last year, Oberholtzer pleaded for the case to be solved.

"It would lift a great burden, or weight, off my back," Oberholtzer said, "and my family's back. We all need an answer."

Chasing a suspect

In all, McCormick and Eaton have had the DNA of about a dozen people tested against the blood found on Bobbie Jo's glove. None came back a match.

They're also still hoping for a match against the millions of samples in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which has collected DNA from convicted felons since the early 1990s. The DNA in the blood from Bobbie Jo's glove is scanned through CODIS weekly.

Near the top of the detectives' list for several years was a man named Tom Luther.

About six weeks after Bobbie Jo and Annette disappeared, Luther was arrested in a brutal hammer attack in Summit County. He had offered a woman ride, claiming he was a cab driver, and then beat and raped her, McCormick said.

Luther went to prison in the attack but was arrested again, in the early 1990s, accused in the murder of Cher Elder, a 20-year-old woman last seen leaving a casino in Central City.

One day the investigators in Elder's killing gave McCormick and Eaton a call. They had seen something about Luther being a suspect in the murders of Bobbie Jo and Annette.

McCormick and Eaton remembered the name — it was one of dozens suggested over the years as a possible suspect. When they dug deeper, McCormick said, a pertinent detail surfaced: Sometime between Luther's 1982 arrest and trial, he told other jail inmates that he killed two young women near Breckenridge, and that the authorities would never find the second girl.

McCormick and Eaton tracked down the inmates who heard the story, and they confirmed Luther's comments. Then they flew to Charleston, West Virginia, where Luther was serving prison time in a separate rape case.

Luther was angry and denied killing Bobbie Jo and Annette, McCormick said.

"'They aren't my girls' — I'll never forget him saying that," McCormick said.

Luther, McCormick said, pointed out that he was known to use a hammer, not a gun. When the investigators tested his DNA against the blood on Bobbie Jo's glove, it didn't match.

Thomas Luther
Thomas Luther, 63, was once a suspect in the Schnee and Oberholtzer murders but his DNA did not match DNA found on Oberholtzer's bloodied glove. Luther is serving multiple 50-year sentences for the 1993 killing of Cher Elder.

The Luther ordeal highlighted how a cold case can get complicated. Not only was there evidence scattered across a wide swath of mountain terrain, there were also several jurisdictions investigating the case.

Breckenridge police, the Summit and Park county sheriff's office and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation all worked the case, filing numerous reports. The mountain of assorted information, McCormick discovered years later, was difficult to sort through, with some gaps in communication between the agencies over time.

Somewhere along the line, Luther's alleged confession was lost in that shuffle.

In another instance, McCormick and Eaton learned that a CBI agent — not Hardkte — had looked into a possible suspect who was also accused of attacking a woman on a bike path in Frisco. The evidence in the agent's boxed file included a pair of plastic wire ties, the same kind found on Bobbie Jo's wrist. From the case file, it looked as if the plastic ties might have been found in the suspect's home or car.

McCormick followed up with the CBI agent, who, years after the fact, could not remember how the ties factored into the suspect's file. As it turned out, the agent had simply bought the ties to have them handy, in case he found a similar pair on the suspect.

wire ties Breckenridge cold case
The plastic wire ties found on Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer's wrist.

Even establishing a more detailed timeline for Jeff Oberholtzer's whereabouts on the night his wife died — the first main task undertaken by McCormick when he joined the case — took more than a year.

But one constant remained through the years: McCormick has had no shortage of leads to pursue, boosted, no doubt, by the publicity surrounding the case.

The murders were featured in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1992, a bump "that gave us about five years worth of work," McCormick said.

A Discovery Channel program in the mid-2000s, one that involved the help of psychics, freshened the investigation, and the Summit Daily newspaper has followed the case. And last year, On The Case with Paul Zahn aired an episode about the murders on Investigation Discovery.

Sometime after the Paula Zahn show, Franklin pulled into her driveway and found a woman sitting on the pavement. The woman had gone to school with Annette in Omaha and wanted to bring her mother the college's yearbook. Another friend, who had planned to visit Schnee for a ski trip the winter she died, stays in touch with Franklin, hoping to hear the case gets solved.

"All I know was she loved people," Franklin said. "She was a funloving person to be around. She was a wonderful person. That's all I can say, because she didn't have a chance to do anything else."

"My time is running out"

Today, McCormick can hope for a few outcomes: A killer coming forward, all these years later; a witness with key information, whether the suspect is alive or not; or a breakthrough with the DNA from the blood on Bobbie Jo's glove.

In 1982, the blood DNA held little use. Investigators were able to test the blood for a type, and it matched the same type as Bobbie Jo.

DNA testing did not become widespread until the early 1990s, with the formation of CODIS. But CODIS would require the suspect be arrested for a felony, and as the years pass by, those chances only dwindle.

"Maybe he found Jesus," McCormick said. "Maybe he's dead."

In recent years, a flurry of cold cases across the country — and in Colorado, in particular — have been solved through a new technique known as genetic genealogy, where investigators use ancestry databases to trace a killer's DNA through their family tree.

The case that opened the floodgates was the high-profile Golden State Killer murders in California. But genetic genealogy can only help a fraction of cold murders and sexual assaults.

For every case cracked, for every family that finds closure, thousands more remain unsolved and fade away, gone with the people who carried their weight through the years.

Franklin, Annette's mother, is 87. McCormick is 80. The other detectives who worked the case have long been retired or passed away.

"I've been waiting," Franklin said, "but my time is running out."

She stays in touch with McCormick and they share cards at Christmas.

"You couldn't find a better person," Franklin said. "Charlie has really went the whole nine yards on this thing. God bless him."

McCormick knows his time is running out, too, whether the case ends with him or if they land with nowhere to turn. The day will come, he said, where "you just have to put it in a drawer someplace. You can't solve them all."

McCormick estimated that rarely does a month pass where there's not something worth pursuing, a lead worth following, a tip worth chasing. Most end with a dead end. But they keep the case churning.

"It just doesn't want to seem to die," McCormick said.

Last year, he shifted the bulk of the case files — now 35 five-inch binders, up from the two he received from Eaton that day in 1989 — from his home office to the Park County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the small task force for the case. For whomever gets the case when McCormick is gone, at least the files will be organized, he figured.

"I have no problem working it to the bitter end," McCormick said. "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."

Do you have information about the case? Visit RockyMoutainColdCase.com to contact investigators.