It was January 6, 1982, a bitterly cold evening with blizzard-like conditions, when two female hitchhikers disappeared from the popular ski resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado, and were later shot to death.
Although the women — 29-year-old Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer and 21-year-old Annette Schnee — disappeared on the same day, their cases were not connected until Annette’s body was discovered six months later. He was wearing an orange stocking—a recent Christmas present from his mother. Investigators found another orange sock near Bobbie Jo’s body, and knew then that the women were almost certainly killed by the same man.
But for nearly 40 years, the identity of his killer eluded police, even though he was in their grasp on the night of the murder. Decades later, when the killer was identified, investigators learned the grim truth.
On the night of the murder, the authorities launched an all-out effort to rescue a local miner.whose truck got stuck in a snowstorm. It would be decades before the police realized that Phillips had killed Bobbie Jo and Annette just hours before the rescue.
Details of Phillips’ rescue and his crimes emerged during his trial this year, where he was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and other charges.
Some remember that the weather on the night of the murder was brutal, with temperatures dropping to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When Phillips’ truck got stuck in a snowdrift on a mountain pass, he began using his truck’s headlights to signal SOS in Morse code. Amazingly, a sheriff flying overhead on a commercial jetliner saw the signal through the falling snow and alerted the crew, who radioed down to dispatch to the sheriff’s office.
Dave Montoya, a local fire chief, heard the call and offered to run the pass. When he arrived, he met a familiar face. He had worked in the mines with Phillips. And Phillips’ face, Montoya recalls, had a noticeable bruise. He told Montoya that he found it when he fell while walking around in the snow.
Police now believe Phillips was injured when Oberholtzer hit her in the face with a special brass key ring made by her husband, Jeff. He made it especially for him in case he ever got into trouble while hitchhiking.
Partly because investigators didn’t believe Jeff Oberholtzer had a solid alibi, he became a suspect in his wife’s murder.
“48 Hours” contributorOberholtzer interviews and highlights Phillips’ 40-year journey to justice in “Last Seen in Breckenridge,” airing Saturday, Nov. 19 at 10/9c on CBS, and streaming on Paramount + .
“Living under that cloud of doubt as long as you did, what did it do to you?” Morales asked Oberholtzer on location in Colorado.
Jeff Oberholtzer continued to live in the area after his wife was killed.
“It was very painful,” he replied. “Not only under suspicion from the authorities, but also being tried in the court of public opinion. People didn’t want a suspected murderer in their home.”
It would take a long time to unravel the whole story, but Oberholtzer was eventually cleared.
As it turned out, Phillips’ first victim that January day was Annette Schnee, a housekeeper at a local Holiday Inn. After Annette left work, she went to a doctor and then to a drugstore in Breckenridge later that afternoon. In the 1980s, hitchhiking was very common in hill towns. Annette got some medication at the drugstore and was not seen until after 4:45pm that day.
Authorities now believe Phillips picked up Annette in his truck.
A few hours later, around 7:50 p.m., Oberholtzer disappeared. Oberholtzer was at a pub with a few friends that night, and at 6:21 p.m., she called her husband, Jeff.
“She said she’d be home relatively soon … She said she had a ride,” Jeff told “48 Hours.”
Jeff said he fell asleep watching TV. When he woke up around midnight, and Bobby Joe wasn’t home yet, he realized something was terribly wrong. He said he went looking for her, and tried to report her missing. Breckenridge police told him they couldn’t do anything for 24 hours, so he went back home.
A few hours later, Jeff said he received a call from a rancher in the area, who said he had received a Bobbi Joe license on his property. Jeff sped off and, on his way, said he saw Bobby Joe’s distinctive blue bag on the side of the road and stopped to retrieve it. He said he also found two items: Bobby Joe’s right glove, and a tissue, both of which had traces of blood on them.
No one knew at the time, but decades later, those traces of blood would lead directly to Phillips. The police have always credited Bobby Joe with fighting hard enough to draw that blood.
The next day, January 7, the distraught friends form a search party and go out on skis in search of Bobby Joe. Around 3 p.m. that afternoon, they found her body in the snow bank where Phillips had shot her to death.
Then-agent Jim Hardke of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said that Bobby Joe was fully clothed, and an autopsy would later reveal that she had not been sexually assaulted. A pair of zip ties was on one of his wrists. Not far away was a special chain made by Jeff.
Another object was found far from Bobby Joe’s body – an orange sock or bootie. It doesn’t appear to have any direct connection to the crime scene, or at least none that is readily apparent, according to Hardke.
“It was just one of those mysterious things you pick up at a crime scene that you keep until you either know what it is or never will,” Hardtke said.
One of the many twists in the case is that, at the time, authorities still didn’t know Shani was missing. They had never even heard his name.
It wasn’t until two days later — on Jan. 8 — that one of Annette’s co-workers reported to Frisco police that Shani hadn’t come to work at the Holiday Inn in two days. It was the exact opposite of Annette, said her sister Cindy French.
Police traced Shani’s movements to a drug store in Breckenridge, but he disappeared there. He seemed to have completely disappeared.
“Mom would just say, ‘I just want to know why, how,'” French recalls. “And no one can give it to me. No one knows why or how.”
But on July 3, 1982 — about six months after Shani was last seen alive — a young boy out fishing came upon his body in a stream near where he was last seen in Breckenridge. It was about 23 miles away. Agent Hardtke attended the autopsy. Authorities said no bullets were recovered, but forensics showed Annette was shot in the back as she ran downstream toward the creek.
Hardke suspected that Annette had been sexually assaulted, but it was impossible to say how long her body had been in the river. Hardke based his hypothesis of sexual assault on the state of Annette’s clothing. The zipper on her jeans was broken and her shoes were on the wrong foot.
During the autopsy, Hardke saw something that would change the investigation forever.
“On his left foot, I saw an orange plant,” she said. “And in my mind, I’m remembering that orange plant that was found over Hoosier Pass… right next to where Bobby Joe Oberholtzer’s body was found… so that ties the two together.”
As Hardtke told “48 Hours,” “Holy s***, it’s amazing. It… ties the cases together.”
Piecing together a timeline of events on the day of the murder, detectives believed that Phillips first picked Shani up from hitchhiking, assaulted and killed her. During the attack, Shani loses his orange bowtie in Phillips’ truck. Later that day, police believe Phillips picked up Oberholtzer hitchhiking and tried to assault him as well.
Detectives believe that when Oberholtzer fought back and jumped out of his truck, he threw out the orange bootie that Annette had left there.
The orange socks/shoes led police to believe they were looking for a killer, but Phillips’ identity remained hidden for decades. In early 2020, Park County Detective Sgt. Wendy Keppel heard about something called genetic genealogy, in which specially trained genealogists upload a DNA sample from a crime scene through a publicly available DNA database.
Keppel submitted DNA from blood collected in connection with Oberholtzer’s murder to United Data Connect, a Denver-based genetics company.
“On January 9, 2021, I get a call from the genealogist, and he says, ‘I have two more names for you.'”
“And what were the two names you were given?” Morales asked Keppel.
“Alan Phillips and Bruce Phillips,” Kapil replied.
“And Bruce Phillips was the brother who never lived here, he had nothing to do with Colorado. And what did you learn about Alan Phillips?” Morales asked.
“Alan Phillips still lived nearby,” Kappel said. “He worked here, at the Henderson mine, for decades. He had his own mechanic shop. And he was still here.”
As it turned out, he was the man who had been rescued by the authorities in a blizzard a long time ago, with severe facial injuries. But it took nearly 40 years to connect the rescue victim to the man who killed Annette Schnee and Bobby Joe Oberholtzer.
On November 7 of that year, Phillips was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.