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.
Luther was real agitated, she told Richardson. He had been making threats towards the police, "especially you."
"He's tired of you jackin' him around. He says that if somebody was to take and, uh, kill your wife and family, it'd teach you a lesson."
Richardson asked if she felt safe.
"I don't value my life a whole lot, Mr. Richardson..."
"You think he's going to try to kill ya?"
Snyder hesitated, then didn't answer directly. Luther was "real paranoid," sure that he was being followed (which he was). He would pull off the road suddenly to let cars pass. That morning he had been driving her truck like a madman, whipping around corners, cursing whoever got in his way, especially "bitches."
When he left with J.D., Luther had told her he was going camping and would probably be gone a few days. She said she thought he was going to the mountains to move Cher Elder's body, bury it better. But then she backtracked.
"I don't know if he's buried her at all. You know, I don't know if he did this. It's...it's just a possibility."
"You think he's capable of killing her?" the detective asked.
Again Snyder hesitated. "Yeah, I do," she said. Then she finally answered Richardson's other question: She was afraid to tell Luther to get lost, "afraid of what he might do."
The next day Richardson and other officers followed J.D. Eerebout to Empire, a small mountain community west of Denver, just off I-70. Eerebout had returned to pick up his father's friend. The police watched as J.D. met Luther walking down the road, then pulled the pair over. Luther was ordered to lie down on the pavement.
But a preliminary search of the area yielded nothing, so they had to let him go. In fact, Luther went straight to the Lakewood police impound lot and picked up his Geo Metro that the police had confiscated a few days earlier.
Richardson got another call from Snyder the next day. "Tom was here last night and got his stuff," she said.
"Where was he going?" Richardson asked.
"Chicago." Luther had been boiling mad, she added. "He wanted to whip your ass."
Richardson asked how Snyder was coping. "I feel real hurt," she said. She had called Luther's mother, Betty, who still lived in the Vermont town where Luther had grown up. Snyder knew from Luther's prison psychiatric reports that his mother had been abusive. "She'd go crazy and rant and rave... throw things and hit him." Luther's father had stopped her attacks by beating his wife into submission, she said.
Denver Detective Paul Scott and his partner, Detective Larry Kier, kept Heather Smith's case open as long as they could. After the March 1993 attack on Heather, her ex-boyfriend, Jason, had taken a lie-detector test that had detected no lies. (Then again, Scott mused, the test had detected nothing at all, since Jason hadn't even responded to control questions.)
The detectives had shown Heather photographs of men with assault histories. A couple of times she had thought a man somewhat resembled her attacker. But he was always too short. Or had an alibi.
Finally there was nothing left for the detectives to follow. The case was declared inactive. Scott and Kier made copies of the file and tucked them away in their desks.
After Heather got out of the hospital, she went to live with her mother. Her neighbor, Rebecca Hascall, who'd called 911 that night, went back to her mother's, too. It was a month before the women decided to return to their houses near Washington Park.
Rebecca, a lifelong liberal, brought a gun with her. What was that old saying? A liberal is just a conservative who hasn't been mugged yet? She hated "that man," Heather's attacker, for shattering her belief system, along with any sense of safety. Occasionally she entertained the notion of getting rid of the gun; once she even managed to move it to a hall closet. But it quickly came back to the bedroom after Rebecca dreamed a man was breaking into her house. She had never been afraid of the dark before. Now she dreaded nightfall.
When Heather decided to move home, her friends and family bought her a trained German shepherd guard dog, Heidi, so she wouldn't be alone. Heather's struggle didn't end there, of course. Her friends thought she was reckless to move back home in the first place; after all, her attacker was still out there. Heather wanted to talk about what had happened, but her friends grew tired of listening; one even told her that it had been easier to deal with Heather being hurt physically than it was trying to deal with the emotional damage. When Rebecca heard those comments, she came close to tears. "They're frightened," her mother explained. "We all are. They're trying to make sense of something that makes no sense."
One afternoon, six months after the attack, Heather and Rebecca were talking, as they often did, about how their lives had changed. Heather had withdrawn from her friends. From life. She was afraid to go out. Afraid to date. More afraid of the dark than ever...waking in a cold sweat sure that some monster was hiding in the closet, under her bed, in the shadows. She'd cross the street rather than pass a strange man on the sidewalk.
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.
When he was finished, Luther allowed Bobby Jo to put her clothes back on. The monster had gone back into hiding; Luther was apologetic and said he'd take the battered woman to the hospital.
But back in the car Luther changed his mind. He told Bobby Jo he had decided to take her to his cabin instead. Afraid of what might happen there, Bobby Jo jumped from the car when Luther pulled up to a stop sign. She ran. Luther took off.
Bobby Jo was taken to the hospital with a broken jaw and a broken shoulder bone. Although she clearly had been raped, her attacker had apparently been unable to reach sexual climax.
That evening Luther called Deborah Snyder, who met him at a nearby campground. His car was loaded with his possessions. He was panicky.
"I'm heading out," he told her.
"Richardson's coming for me," he said. Then he almost told the truth. "I did it again. I beat someone up."
Luther drove to his sister's house, where he told his brother-in-law that he beat up a woman because a drug deal had gone wrong. He was afraid that he'd hurt the girl real bad.
"What is ailing me?" he said suddenly, echoing the statement he'd made to Deputy Morales more than twelve years earlier. "I don't know what causes this to happen."
On August 27, the police called Luther's cabin. Deborah Snyder answered. "He's not here," she said. He'd gone to Vermont but would be back in a few days. And he was back at the cabin on August 30 to take a call from Bobby Jo, unaware that he was being recorded by the West Virginia state police.
Bobby Jo played it cool, saying she had left her keys in his car and needed them. "I just don't know why you did it," she said.
Luther sighed. "Yeah I...you know I'm a fucking idiot when it comes to that..."
"Tom, why did you rape me?"
"I don't know," he answered. "This wasn't a fun thing, you know."
So what was it, Bobby Jo wanted to know. "A mistake?"
"It was more than a mistake...you can't believe how sorry I am," Luther said. He was arrested the next day.
On October 24, 1994, Corporal Les Freehling of the Pennsylvania State Patrol responded to a nationwide inquiry regarding missing or murdered women fitting the modus operandi of Thomas Luther. He had something that sounded like it might fit.
The previous December, the nude body of an unidentified white woman, about twenty years old, had been found on a hillside near the town of Newport, off I-81. The region was heavily wooded and isolated.
Freehling noted that the woman had been remarkably beautiful, five-foot-four, about 110 pounds, with shoulder-length hair. She had been raped and strangled. And he had no clue as to who she was or who might have killed her--until he saw the notice about Luther.
In early November, Detective Richardson and Byron Powers were again talking.
"Of course your case is on appeal--along with the cases of three-fourths of the inmate population," Richardson said. "Meanwhile, you're looking at 24 years mandatory without parole."
Byron could live on the "false hope, the one in a million chance" his appeal would work, the detective added. But he should remember that Cher Elder's murder was a death-penalty case and it looked like Luther was going to take a bunch of people down with him.
"You know Cher was killed that night...there's no doubt she was killed that night," Richardson said. "I need the body."
The detective couldn't get Cher's face out of his mind. Her mother had sent him a photograph of the girl when she was three years old, sitting on a chair with a big grin. A good kid. Richardson had children of his own. "Cherish your kids," he'd told one of the slimeballs he'd interviewed for this case. "You never know when you'll lose 'em."
Now he was losing his patience. "Jesus Christ," Richardson exploded at Byron. "She was your girlfriend, buddy. She didn't deserve to die."
He told Byron about the Summit County murders, Mary's rape. As for Cher, he said, "I guarantee ya, she was sexually assaulted, strangled, beat to death and buried. Then he goes to West Virginia, picks up another girl, strangles her, sexually assaults her--anally, vaginally, orally--the only reason she's alive is because she got away.
"That's the fuck that did Cher Elder."
Cher's disappearance had destroyed her family: Her parents had divorced, her father was a broken man who walked "like a beaten child," her mother looked like hell. "The whole family knows Cher was killed. They can't bury their daughter, period," Richardson said.
"When he was in prison, Luther bragged that the next girl wasn't gonna live and the cops weren't gonna find her. That's the kind of asshole that you're protecting."
Byron tried to summon his courage. "If I sit there and tell you what you need to know, it makes you look good...But I have to come back here. And my wife is still out there."
"Well, at least I know what Tom Luther is," Richardson said.
"So do I," Byron replied.
end of part 1