DENVER — Last summer, Eileen Franklin worried she'd never get the call, that a suspect in her young daughter's murder would never be arrested, or that she'd die before it ever happened.
From the day she found out her daughter went missing, in January 1982, to last month, Franklin lived what she called "39 years of hell."
Then one day last week, Clear Creek County authorities tailed a 70-year-old man driving near his home in Dumont and pulled him over. The deputies placed him in handcuffs and told him why he was being arrested: He was a suspect in the killings of Annette Schnee, 21, and Bobbi Jo Oberholtzer, 29, two women who went missing after they were seen hitchiking out of Breckenridge on Jan. 6, 1982.
"You know, I thought there'd be no closure," said the 88-year-old Franklin, Schnee's mother, who waited decades for an answer in her daughter's death. "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."
Authorities announced Phillips' arrest in a news conference Wednesday. Phillips, who worked as a part-time mechanic, was taken into custody on Feb. 24 and remains jailed in Park County. He faces murder charges in the deaths of Schnee and Oberholtzer, along with charges of kidnapping and first-degree assault.
Both women were found shot to death in 1982 — Oberholtzer on Jan. 7, the day after she went missing, and Schnee several months later that year.
They had no apparent connection but both women worked in Breckenridge and both were last seen on the evening of Jan. 6, 1982. Detectives pursued several initial leads but all fizzled, despite a wealth of tips through the years.
"I cannot begin to understand the pain and sufferings their families have had to face for nearly four decades," Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw said at Wednesday's 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."
A Colorado cold case and the chase for closure
McGraw read statements from the victims' families, including from Oberholtzer's husband, Jeff.
"I pray that the arrest of Alan Phillips for the murder of my wife Bobbi Jo and Annette Schnee will finally, after all these decades, bring closure and peace to this hideous nightmare for myself, along with all the lives he has horribly affected by his actions," Jeff Oberholtzer's statement said. "I cannot thank enough all who never gave up the search for the truth."
Authorities were led to Phillips through a new investigative technique known as genetic genealogy, using DNA from the crime scene to build a family tree through genealogy databases. Detectives traced the family tree to Phillips, then worked to obtain his DNA sample and match it with the DNA from the crime scene.
The technique has drawn attention in recent years for solving decades-old murders, including the Golden State Killer spree in California.
For the Oberholtzer and Schnee case, investigators worked with United Data Connect, a company founded by former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey that specializes in genetic genealogy research. Detectives and United Data Connect began exploring the possibility of genetic genealogy in the Oberholtzer and Schnee case last year.
But their deaths have been actively pursued for decades, the efforts led by the Park County Sheriff's Office and private investigator Charlie McCormick, a former Denver homicide detective.
McCormick began working the case in 1989 with Richard Eaton, then a detective with the Summit County Sheriff's Office. McCormick combed through the case file and stuck with it ever since, chasing down leads and trying to find a break in the case.
This week, McCormick, now in his 80s, reflected on the "long haul" nature of the case. The file of two case books he took home to review in 1989 has grown to 48 case books.
"I've been trying to define my emotions, and it's been very hard to do," McCormick said. "I never thought I'd see the day, frankly."
McCormick said a key point in the investigation was 1998, when they discovered there was usable DNA from the crime scene. The DNA failed to get a match in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System but new hope came with the development of genealogy testing.
"It's a case that kept going because it kept going," McCormick said. "There was always something to do, that as a good investigator, or a professional investigator, you just couldn't ignore. You had to work on it. So day after day after day for 32 years — bingo. There's an arrest."
Investigators are still taking tips and information about the case or about Phillips.
The tip line is 720-248-8378.
For questions regarding the case contact the District Attorney’s office at 719-836-2080.
Full statements from the families
"I pray that the arrest of Alan Phillips for the murder of my wife Bobbi Jo and Annette Schnee will finally, after all these decades, bring closure and peace to this hideous nightmare for myself, along with all the lives he has horribly affected by his actions. I cannot thank enough all who never gave up the search for the truth. They are without doubt extremely dedicated and extraordinary individuals. Philiips is finally in the hands of the judicial system. May justice be served." — Jeff “Obie” Oberholtzer, husband of Bobbi Jo.
"I, the daughter of Bobbi Jo Oberholtzer, would like to thank both Charlie McCormick and Richard Eaton for never giving up on solving my mom’s case. When I look into my child’s blue eyes, which are truly beautiful like my mom’s, I see her. I have lived with a monster in my mind since I was 11 years old, and now I can rest knowing justice will be served." — Jackie Vucas Walker, daughter of Bobbi Jo
"From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank everybody who has been involved in the investigation of this case. It has been a mind-boggling affair. We finally have closure after 39 years. I thank you all. I’m just in shock that this case has finally been solved and come to an end. Also thanks to all the TV people with Unsolved Mysteries, Discovery Channel and Paula Zahn. Thank you all for your efforts to help bring us closure." — Eileen Franklin, mother of Annette Schnee