FACING THE MONSTER

HEATHER SMITH SAYS TOM LUTHER TRIED TO KILL HER. NOW SHE'D LIKE TO RETURN THE FAVOR.

Photos by Heather Weiser
part 1 of 3
The little girl forced herself to remain still as death. Otherwise he, the thing that waited in the dark of her bedroom, would pounce.

She lay in the exact middle of the mattress, beyond reach of any hands coming from under the bed, and tried to control her racing heart. Before going to bed, she'd made sure to close the closet door and remove any item that might cast a shadow in which a monster could hide.

Seven years old, she had always been afraid of the dark--no matter how many times her mother told her there was no such thing as monsters.

Now she knew one was out there again. "Mommy! Mommy!" she screamed.
As always, her mother came--to turn on the lights and vanquish the shadows. To keep the monsters at bay.

"Shhhh, Heather," Mrs. Smith said softly. "There's no such thing as monsters."

She was wrong.

Twenty years later Mrs. Smith's daughter, Heather, was looking at the face of a real, live monster in the newspaper. What's more, she was positive that he was her monster. He even had a name: Thomas Edward Luther.

It was March 1995. Heather was sitting in her psychiatrist's office, clutching the newspaper, fixated on that face. Nearly two years had passed since she had been savagely and repeatedly stabbed by a stranger outside her home in Washington Park. Left to die on the dark street as falling sleet made ripples on the wet pavement. Ripples tinted pink with her blood.

By all accounts, Heather Smith should have died that night. Everyone thought she would. The paramedics. The doctors. Her family. The police who opened the case as a homicide. But Heather lived, walking--an act nothing short of a miracle--into a Denver police station nine days after the attack to describe in detail for a sketch artist the face of the man who had tried to kill her.

Two years later she was still trying to heal emotionally. That's why she was in her psychiatrist's office. The doctor had handed her the newspaper and asked, "Have you seen this?"

It was a story about Thomas Luther, a man in a West Virginia jail for raping and beating a female hitchhiker. The paper noted that Luther had also raped and nearly beaten to death a woman in Summit County, Colorado, and had served ten years for that crime. Now he had been indicted for the murder of Cher Elder, a young woman from Golden, who had gone with him to a casino in Central City back in March 1993. A couple of weeks before Heather was attacked.

No doubt about it--the man was a monster, suspected of other murders. Heather turned the page--and there was the photograph of Luther. Fear rose in her like a teapot boiling over. Angry, whistling fear. Her right hand crept to the back of her neck and the scar there. "It's him," she said softly. "It's him."

On January 6, 1982, the temperature in Breckenridge hovered around twenty degrees below zero. It was the sort of cold that made it hurt to breathe as Barbara "Bobby Jo" Oberholtzer waited to catch a ride home from her job at a realty office in the ski town.

Bobby Jo and her husband, Jeff, lived in Alma, twenty miles to the south off Highway 9 on the other side of Hoosier Pass. Most days, Bobby Jo, a popular woman who had lived in the area for fifteen years, got rides from friends. When she couldn't find one, she hitchhiked. That made Jeff nervous, but he needed their old truck for his work as an appliance repairman. So he fashioned a heavy brass key ring that Bobby Jo could use to wallop any attacker. She kept it clipped to the top of her backpack and promised to be careful. That satisfied Jeff. Although his wife was only 5'3" and 110 pounds, she could fight like a wildcat when cornered. A beautiful woman with blond, shoulder-length hair, she had just turned thirty that past Christmas.

January 6 began as a good day for Bobby Jo. Her boss told her she was getting a raise and a promotion. The two friends who were supposed to give her a ride home decided that was cause for celebration and persuaded her to join them for a drink at a local bar. One drink turned into several. When it looked like the party could go on all night, Bobby Jo decided to push on alone. At 7:45 p.m., she called Jeff to let him know she would be hitchhiking home. Bundling up, she headed for the Minute Mart parking lot on the edge of town, which locals used as a pick-up spot for hitchhikers going south.

Shortly before 8 p.m., a friend driving down the highway spotted Bobby Jo and pulled over. Bobby Jo opened the passenger door and leaned in to warm up. Her friend said he was only going as far as Blue River, a scattering of cabins and ski chalets a few miles up the road, but she was welcome to a ride. Bobby Jo shook her head. She didn't want to get stranded on that lonely stretch of the highway on such a cold night. She closed the door and the driver pulled away, unaware that that would be the last time anyone saw Bobby Jo alive.

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