By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 1 of 2
Last week in Westword:
In March 1995, Heather Smith recognized a mug shot in the newspaper as the man who had stabbed her five times outside her home near Washington Park two years earlier. The man's name was Thomas Edward Luther.
Luther, 37, had been convicted in 1982 of brutally raping and beating Mary in Summit County. "Why do I do these things?" Luther had asked the arresting officer, Joe Morales. He was also a suspect in the murders of two women--Bobby Jo Oberholtzer and Annette Kay Schnee--last seen in Breckenridge in early January 1982, five weeks before Luther's Summit County attack.
Luther served nearly eleven years in prison for the sexual assault on Mary and was released in early 1993.
That March, Cher Elder disappeared after an excursion to a Central City casino where she was photographed with Luther. Confronted by Lakewood detective Scott Richardson, Luther claimed to have dropped Elder off at the apartment of her boyfriend, Byron Powers.
Two weeks after Cher vanished, Heather was attacked. She surprised everyone, including the police who opened her case as a homicide, by living.
n late April 1993, Summit County Undersheriff Joe Morales took the call from Detective Scott Richardson of the Lakewood Police Department. "What do you know about one Thomas Edward Luther?" Richardson asked.
As much as he had expected to someday get this call, it still sent a chill up Morales's spine. Over the past ten years, he had kept track of Luther. It wasn't hard.
Luther had returned to the Summit County jail half a dozen times to argue legal technicalities regarding his conviction for sexual assault. Each time, Morales appeared in court to testify against him. There was no question the two hated each other. "It was mutual," says ex-Marine Morales. "He is the complete opposite of everything I believe is good and decent. He's a sociopath." Back in prison, inmates reported, Luther said he planned to get even with those who'd put him in prison. One claimed Luther wanted his old girlfriend, Laurie Wagner, dead "because she knew too much."
When Luther got out of prison in 1993, Morales distributed copies of his mug shot throughout Summit County. Shortly after his release, Morales learned, Luther had been inquiring as to Laurie Wagner's whereabouts.
Morales, a tall man whose shoulders barely fit through doorways, wasn't worried about his own safety. In fact, he sort of hoped that Luther would come gunning for him. But he didn't believe his old enemy had the cojones to take on a man. No, when he next heard of Luther, it would be because some woman was in trouble.
That's why when the Lakewood detective asked about Luther, Morales replied without hesitation, "Who'd he kill?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "We have a missing girl...," Richardson said.
"Was he the last one seen with her?" Morales interrupted. He knew the answer. Feared the answer. But he still had to ask.
"Yep. We got them together on a videotape from a casino up in Central City."
Morales sighed. "I'm sorry. But she's toast."
Over a decade had passed, but Breckenridge detective Richard Eaton was still determined to find who had killed Bobby Jo Oberholtzer and Annette Schnee. Every year he received Christmas cards from Annette's family, along with letters of encouragement and thanks.
Other cases had come and gone, some worse than others. Like the woman who had given birth, then drowned the infant in a bathtub and disposed of the tiny body in a paper bag that also contained an empty oil can and a half-eaten McDonald's fish sandwich. There were all kinds of monsters, and Eaton had rejoiced to see her convicted. But the monster he wanted most was still out there.
The case consumed him. He couldn't drive over Hoosier Pass without wanting to pull into the parking lot at the summit, retrace Bobby Jo's final flight toward the trees. If he was near Fairplay, he'd go check on the small cross erected at the spot where Annette died.
A 1992 Unsolved Mysteries segment about the murders had generated some real leads, including a man in Idaho who had been bumped to the top of the suspect list... where he joined Thomas Edward Luther. Richardson's call to Morales and subsequent meetings had reinvigorated the interest in Luther. But once again Eaton was confronted by the sloppy police work that had marked the start of the Oberholtzer and Schnee cases, before he was assigned to them in 1984.
There was nothing he could do but begin tracking down the inmates who had claimed to hear Luther brag about killing women more than ten years earlier.
"J.D. just picked him up," she said. "You guys need to find where he's going."
Snyder, a single mother, was unconvinced that her boyfriend had played a part in Cher Elder's disappearance. Still, she was well aware of his violent temper and had agreed when Richardson asked her to report Luther's comings and goings, particularly when they involved Byron Powers or one of his two half-brothers, J.D. and Tristan, sons of Jerald "Skip" Eerebout, an old cellmate of Luther's.