Murderer's Row

Two years ago, a deadlocked jury saved Thomas luther from the death penalty. But the legacy of his crimes continues.

In Denver, homicide detectives remain stymied by the June 1994 case of a woman who was found stabbed to death in her apartment. She had been sexually assaulted, and her body had been covered by an American flag. Detectives have only a single, gray curly hair discovered on the body, a hair microscopically similar to Luther's, and the word of a former Jeffco inmate who claimed that Luther had told him details of the murder that only the killer could have known.

In Summit County, blood found on one of Bobby Jo Oberholtzer's mittens was tested for DNA--and came back negative for Luther. Luther remains on Detective Richard Eaton's short list of suspects, and the detective follows each new lead as it appears. He's tried to trace a report that a California airline stewardess, who sold Luther the truck he was driving in 1982 when he raped a Summit County woman, was later found beaten to death. But so far, it remains a rumor.

In the meantime, Eaton is looking more closely at another convicted killer from Idaho, who was known for shooting his victims in the back--as both Bobby Jo Oberholtzer and Annette Schnee were. There is no evidence, however, that the man was ever in Colorado.

Initially, Eaton was troubled that Bobby Jo and Annette were executed with a gun: Luther had attacked his known victims with a hammer and his hands. But then Luther was convicted of shooting Cher Elder and stabbing Heather Smith.

Today violent crime is more common in Breckenridge than it was back in 1982. Common enough, in fact, that Eaton is too busy to devote much time to the murders of Bobby Jo Oberholtzer and Annette Schnee. But he still pulls over whenever he reaches the summit of Hoosier Pass, where Bobby Jo was murdered; when his travels take him to Alma, he still stops by the small white cross beside the stream where Annette's body was found. "No one stops being a suspect until I got the guy who did it," he says.

Although they're not his cases and he keeps a discreet distance, Lakewood Detective Scott Richardson remains convinced that the murders of Bobby Jo Oberholtzer and Annette Schnee are Luther's work. Murders were rare in the area back then, he points out, and they stopped when Luther was arrested for the rape of the third woman.

"Luther is an opportunistic killer," he says. "It's only in television and the movies that a serial killer always kills the exact same way. Luther'd take a trash can and shove it down your throat if that's what he had. On the night Cher died, he just happened to have a gun in the car because numbnuts [Powers and his half-brother] had given it to him a couple days before."

When Luther's appeals are over--and assuming they're unsuccessful--Richardson plans to visit his archenemy in West Virginia. He hopes to then learn the whole story of what happened to Cher Elder and, perhaps, what happened to the other women linked to Luther.

Cher's case took a toll on Richardson, both emotionally and physically, and he hopes to never have another one like it.

Before Luther's trial, he returned to the spot where Luther had buried Cher and replaced the rocks with which Luther had covered the grave. Richardson says he did it so that a hiker wouldn't stumble into the grave; those who know him believe the act had more to do with seeking closure of his own.

Richardson, who was asked by Cher's family to be a pallbearer when her remains were reburied in Grand Junction, returns often to that lonely spot outside Empire. And while the photographs of other victims have come and gone from his office walls, Cher's pictures, including one of her as a three-year-old, still hang beside those of his family.

If a case can ever be made against Tom Luther in Summit County, the prosecutor there may find it easier to introduce evidence of his past crimes. In Jeffco, the judge was swayed by the argument that Luther hadn't used a gun during the two crimes for which he'd been convicted and that the victims of those two assaults had survived. After Cher Elder, though, that argument won't wash.

Forensic psychiatrist John Macdonald, who's spent years studying criminals and their habits, interviewed Luther in 1984 after his conviction for sexual assault in Summit County. During that interview, Luther said that he was a lion and the victim had come into his territory.

Luther went on to murder Cher Elder. Before the trial in that case, Macdonald was contacted by both the prosecution and defense teams. He declined to testify, saying he had not spent enough time to diagnose the suspect.

At various times in his criminal "career," Luther has been diagnosed as having personality disorders. And although Macdonald won't discuss Luther specifically, he will discuss personality disorders in general.

"Everyone has personality traits," he says. "It's what makes people individuals. For instance, some people are outgoing, others are introverts. There is nothing wrong or dangerous about either, unless taken to extremes. Personality traits become disorders when they interfere with a person's ability to function normally and legally within society...

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