On a snowy, frigid night in 1982, a man used his pickup truck headlights to signal SOS to a passing passenger plane overhead and was rescued from the snowdrift where he got stuck on a Colorado mountain pass.
Down the mountain in a ski resort town about 80km away earlier that night, two women disappeared whose bodies were later found.
For nearly 40 years the case went cold and the incidents seemed to be unrelated. But modern forensic genealogy techniques unveiled a different answer, leading to the arrest earlier this year of the man who had been rescued.
When Alan Phillips made his SOS signal, the sheriff from Jefferson County near Denver, Harold Bray, was on the plane and happened to see it. He notified the pilot, who in turn notified authorities, leading to a search, according to a UPI article at the time.
Dave Montoya, the fire chief in Clear Creek County at the time, found Phillips.
“Sure as heck, there he was in his little pickup, and he saw me and said, ‘Oh, God, I’m saved’,” Montoya told KUSA-TV.
“He said he got drunk and decided to drive home. And I said, ‘You came up over the pass? And he said, well, it seemed like a good idea’. I thought, how in the heck did this guy get so lucky, for all the stuff to fall into place?”
He had seen Phillips before at the mine where they both worked. But he did not see him again for nearly 40 years when he saw Phillips’ booking photo on television following his arrest in connection with the deaths of Annette Schnee, 21, and Barbara “Bobbi Jo” Oberholtzer, 29.
“We ended up picking up the guy straight out of hell,” Montoya said.
Phillips is represented by a public defender, who do not comment to the media on cases.
Schnee and Oberholtzer both went missing from Breckenridge separately on January 6, 1982. It’s believed both were hitchhiking.
Oberholtzer’s body was found the next day. Schnee’s body was found six months later.
Charlie McCormick, a retired Denver homicide detective who moved to Breckenridge in 1976 after being burned out on investigating murders, remembered reading and hearing about Phillips’ rescue at the time. McCormick, now 81, was eventually drawn to investigate the women’s deaths and has worked on the case nearly every day for the past 32 years.
“We had the leads of two or three serial killers in Montana and Idaho, so we spent a lot of time researching and going there,” said McCormick, who first worked as an investigator for Schnee’s family for $1 a year and then as a volunteer for the district attorney’s office. The investigation went overseas at one point, he said.
“It just kind of lit my fire, and I’ve been on it ever since,” he told ABC-7.
However, the man who became the suspect never left Colorado. When he was arrested, Phillips was living in Dumont along Interstate 70, about 32km down the road from Guanella Pass.
Investigators eventually turned to genetic genealogy, which combines DNA testing with family history research.
They spent about a year looking at hundreds of family trees until McCormick said he got a long-awaited call from the team’s lead genetics researcher earlier this year.
“And she said, ‘We got him’. It was phenomenal, something I thought I would never see,” he said.
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