FACING THE MONSTER

Rebecca knew that Heather was more troubled by the scars than she let on. Once she caught her friend crying in front of a mirror. "I'm scarred for life," Heather said as the tears ran down her cheeks. "I'm ugly." But Heather was still beautiful. The more noticeable change was that she now seemed so delicate.

Everything seemed different. Rebecca couldn't look at snow falling in the glow of a streetlight, as it had that night, without her chest tightening. And as winter approached, the shorter days only exacerbated the feeling that they were prisoners in their homes.

"It's getting dark," Heather said at about five o'clock.
"Yes," Rebecca conceded. They both shuddered.

"They're gonna kill me and my family," Byron Powers whined. He'd been shown a picture, he said, of a bunch of white guys standing around a Corvette convertible that was being held above a hole by a crane. In the car was a girl, "a real rich girl from Summit County," her throat slashed. Victim and car were about to be buried in some remote mountain area. The message was clear: A snitch's life wasn't worth a damn in prison.

Detective Richardson shrugged. The way he figured it, you play with fire--or Thomas Luther--and you get burned.

On September 23, 1993, Byron Powers and another man had been arrested for the assault and attempted murder of an acquaintance. Coincidentally or not, Richardson was the lead investigator on that case.

By the following April, Cher had been missing for more than a year. Although Byron had turned down an earlier deal, which would have dropped the attempted murder charge in exchange for the location of Cher's body, the 23-year-old thief and drug dealer was getting a little more desperate as his trial date approached. Richardson was turning the screws.

Byron complained that he wasn't guilty of anything in this new "unrelated" case. His supposed accomplice had already had the charges dropped. Byron's family, friends, even his lawyer were telling him that the whole thing was a setup to force him to cooperate in the Elder case.

Richardson brushed off Byron's complaints. If Byron didn't want to spend the rest of his youth in the penitentiary with a snitch jacket, he'd better start talking. "Where's the body?" the detective asked again.

"I don't know, but I know who does," Byron finally replied. He had recently married; he didn't want to be an old man when he got out of prison. He said he'd heard that another guy killed Cher because she was thought to be a police informant. Luther had helped get rid of the body; a guy nicknamed "Southy" had helped. But Byron wanted a deal before he went any further: no charges in the Elder case and no prison time.

In the end, Byron took his chances in court--and lost. In July 1994, a jury found him guilty of three counts of first-degree assault. The judge handed down three eight-year sentences to run consecutively...24 years in prison.

On July 12, a couple thousand miles to the east of Byron Powers's trial, the West Virginia State Patrol got a call from a woman identifying herself as Deborah Snyder, a nurse at Rocksbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown, Maryland. She wanted to let them know that her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, one Thomas Edward Luther, was suspected of murdering a missing female in Colorado. He was now living in their neck of the woods, she said.

Snyder had moved east from Colorado to be with Luther, but now they were splitting up. She thought that she'd better warn them that Luther had recently purchased a .12-gauge shotgun and a handgun. And he didn't like cops, particularly some Colorado detective named Richardson.

The West Virginia troopers contacted Richardson, who sent them a five-page report on Luther's "particulars," including his conviction in Summit County and his status as a suspect in the murders of Oberholtzer and Schnee. The troopers found out where Luther was living, in a cabin near a small West Virginia town, and took a look. A truck and a blue Geo Metro, both registered to Luther, were parked in the drive.

For the time being the West Virginia troopers left Luther alone. But a notice was sent to nearby states asking about murdered or missing girls.

Luther had left Colorado in May 1993 and headed for Chicago, where his former cellmate Skip Eerebout lived. In October, Luther traveled to Pennsylvania, where his brother-in-law was working on I-81 near the town of Newport. Luther returned to Chicago, but in November went back through Pennsylvania and on to West Virginia, where his sister lived.

On August 21, 1994, unaware that he had already come to the attention of the local police, Luther was driving down a rural highway when he stopped to pick up two hitchhikers: a man and a 32-year-old woman with dark, shoulder-length hair.

When he dropped the man off, the woman--another Bobby Jo--stayed with Luther. They were driving down the road when he pulled off into a field. "I'm going to rape you," Luther announced.

When the woman tried to escape, he punched her. Going around to her side of the Geo Metro, Luther pulled her out of the car and tore her clothes off. While he was undressing, Bobby Jo tried to make a run for it, but Luther was too quick; he beat and choked her until she began to lose consciousness. Then he raped her repeatedly.

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