part 2 of 2
On April 20, Debrah came home from work and found Tom pacing about in her kitchen. Over the preceding weeks, she'd heard him make a number of calls to his mother and sisters, all insisting that he was being made a scapegoat for the disappearance of the woman he now referred to as Cher Elder.
"What's the matter, Tom?" she asked.
"Byron called. The police have a video from Central City...I'm on it with Cher," he replied. "But the boys screwed up and said they didn't know me. I called the cops, and now they want to come and talk to me."
"I want to be there," Debrah said.
Tom agreed. In fact, he'd already arranged for the cops to meet him at Debrah's. He asked her to wait fifteen minutes after the police arrived and then walk in as if she didn't know anything.
She did as she was told. When she returned to the house, two Lakewood police detectives were there. One of the detectives, the bald one, said something to Tom.
"Honey, take a walk around the block, would ya?" Tom asked. The conversation between Tom and the detectives looked cordial enough. But she noticed that Tom was recording the discussion, and one of the business cards lying on the table indicated that its bearer, Scott Richardson, was a homicide detective.
Debrah went out and sat in her car. A few minutes later Tom and the detectives walked outside. They seemed almost friendly. Then the bald one, Richardson, walked over to Tom's Geo Metro.
"Would you mind opening it?" he asked. Tom complied. Looking in, Richardson said, "Those are stolen tools."
Suddenly the two men were snarling at each other like wolves. Richardson said he'd be back. Tom said he'd want a lawyer present.
Missing girl, like hell, Debrah thought as she went into the apartment. A moment later, Tom came slamming in. "They're going to try to frame me," he snapped.
The next day Tom told Debrah he was going to find out what was going on. He needed to call somebody nicknamed Mortho, a Denver drug dealer who apparently knew everything. But he couldn't call on Debrah's phone, he said, because it was probably tapped.
While Tom was gone, Debrah listened to the tape he'd made of the interview with the detectives and heard Tom confess to having sex, "a quick little intercourse thing," in his car with Cher.
Tom returned a short while later. "You had no right to be with that woman, Tom," she yelled. "You were supposed to be in a relationship with me!"
The woman was dead, Tom told her. "She was a snitch, so they cut off her lips and dumped her body along a road as a warning to other snitches. Now I've got to find her and dispose of the body. With my record, they'll be coming after me."
That night, when they got into bed, Tom cried. "I wish I never got involved," he said. Whatever had happened, Debrah knew she loved him--at least the good part of him--and she held him tight. And when at last he slept, she turned her anger on Cher Elder. You had no business going anywhere with my boyfriend, she thought. If you got killed, it's your own goddamn fault.
The next morning she asked Tom what she could do to help. He told her he'd need some camping equipment so that he could go find and bury the body. Debrah helped him pack.
Two days later Tom was back. "Did you get it taken care of?" she asked.
"Yes, she's buried," he said, and told how he'd taken her to a spot off eastbound I-70 and used plastic cups to dig a shallow grave. It was near a historical marker of some sort, where travelers stopped to stretch and walk their dogs.
"You couldn't do better than that?" she demanded. "Dogs will dig her up. You're going to have to do it again."
Debrah couldn't think straight. Maybe if Tom was caught for some small crime, he'd be sent to prison and the whole Cher Elder thing would go away.
She called the Larimer County sheriff's office and told a deputy that Tom was getting marijuana sent to him in the mail. The deputy put her on hold, then came back on the line and told Debrah she needed to come in.
The next day was the Friday before Mother's Day. Tom was over watching movies and eating pizza with Debrah's sons and husband; the two men had reached some sort of understanding and actually got along fairly well. Debrah said she needed to run out to buy a Mother's Day card. "I'll be back soon," she promised.
She headed straight to the sheriff's office, where she tried to tell a deputy about Tom's petty crimes. But the conversation kept coming back to the missing woman.
Finally another man came out of a back room. It was Detective Richardson. "I want to know about Cher Elder," he said.
When Debrah hesitated, Richardson described in detail Tom's horrific assault on Mary. "He's also a suspect in two other murders in Summit County," the detective said. "Kidnapped them, raped them and shot them."
As he spoke, Richardson moved closer and closer to Debrah. "Tom Luther's a serial killer," he said. "He killed those two, raped Mary and would have killed her.
"When he was in the joint, he told other prisoners that the next girl would die...he'd bury her and no one would ever find her. That girl is Cher Elder. And the thing is, he's gonna kill again."
Now Richardson's face was only a foot from Debrah's. "Back off, detective," she said.
Debrah knew Richardson might be right about Tom. She'd read enough about serial killers to realize he fit the profile. She also recognized that she fit the profile of the women who fell in love with such men. These women always believed they would be able to tame the wildness. These women were always wrong. Still, she was unwilling to give him up.
Richardson was saying he believed Cher was buried somewhere in the mountains. "She was a good kid," he said. "Clean. Wholesome. Just fell in with the wrong crowd."
Debrah told the detective the first story Tom had told her. "He took her to Central City but brought her back to Byron's," she said, adding hopefully, "Someone saw her at a bingo parlor."
"No one saw her at a bingo parlor," the detective responded angrily. He said he had a search warrant for Tom's car and was going to pick it up.
Debrah looked at her watch. She'd been gone several hours, and the card excuse wasn't going to work. "I'm in trouble," she said. "I'm going to say you pulled me over."
Richardson looked at her and nodded. "We'll back you up."
That night Debrah gave Tom an abbreviated version of her interview with the cops, leaving out her own thoughts. "Richardson said you're a serial killer," she told him.
"Do you believe him?"
Debrah looked at Tom. "No," she said.
On May 7, Debrah accompanied Tom to the public defender's office in Golden. On the way there, he started talking about finding Cher's body. "It was really stinky dead," he said.
"She was not an it!" Debrah yelled. "She was a girl. She did not deserve what they did to her."
Angry, Tom insisted Debrah stay in the car while he talked to the lawyers. When he returned, he said, "They told me you're my greatest threat. You know I buried her." It was almost, but not quite, an accusation.
"That's not true," she said quietly. "I love you and will stand by you.
That seemed to satisfy him. But that night, as she was cooking dinner, the conversation again turned to Cher.
"Cher Elder was a vindictive bitch who was going to snitch on Byron," Tom said. "She deserved what she got."
"Tom, no one deserves to die," Debrah replied. "I talked to the cops. That makes me a snitch. So who's gonna kill me?"
On May 18, Debrah was again talking with Richardson. "J.D. just picked him up," she said. "If you want a body, you guys need to find out where he's going.
Richardson pressed. "Did he tell you he buried her? Where did he bury her?
Debrah ignored the question. Tom was real angry, she said. "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. Debrah sighed. "I don't value my life a whole lot, Mr. Richardson," she told the detective.
"Do you think he's capable of killing her?" the detective asked.
"Yeah, I do."
She'd finally said it out loud: Tom was a killer. She knew it as surely as she knew that she was still in love with him.
A year later, in May 1994, Debrah left her husband and sons and moved to West Virginia to be with Tom Luther. He'd left town a few days after the cops had pulled him and J.D. over, acting on Debrah's tip. But the cops had let them go. That August, with Tom gone, Debrah had finally told Richardson the truth...or as much of it as she knew.
Now she tried to put Cher Elder out of her mind. There was nothing more she could do for the missing woman. She just wanted to make a life with the man she loved.
Tom didn't want her to move into his cabin, so she rented space at a campground and lived in her van. She'd gotten a job at Rocksbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown, Maryland, and saw Tom on her days off. His behavior toward her would swing back and forth between what she thought of as good Tom and bad Tom. Good Tom enjoyed spending time with her. Bad Tom got angry and put her "on restriction."
On July 4, bad Tom had a few friends over for a cookout. Debrah was not invited. Miserable, she lay in the weeds near his cabin and watched. At one point, Tom emerged from his house with a rifle and shotgun.
On her way home, Debrah stopped by state police headquarters and told a trooper there about the guns. She also mentioned that Tom was a suspect in a Colorado murder case; if they wanted to know more, they should contact a Lakewood detective named Scott Richardson.
By August, she and Tom were back on, spending the weekend in a Virginia campground. A young woman--athletic, slender, sculpted in her spandex outfit--came by on Rollerblades. Debrah caught Tom watching as the girl sped off around the corner. He had that look in his eyes...that hungry look.
They had driven two cars to the campground. When they both got ready to leave, Tom, in the lead, pulled over and tried to wave her around. Debrah refused to pull ahead. She didn't know if she was operating out of jealousy or some sort of premonition, but she wasn't going to leave Tom behind to meet that girl on Rollerblades.
A week later, however, the beast was loose again. Deborah, who worked nights, was asleep in her van the morning of August 21 when Tom opened the door. He got in, panicky and anxious.
"I've got to go," he said.
"I'm on the run. Richardson showed up at work. I took off."
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Maybe he wasn't there to arrest you?"
Tom started to say something, then stopped. "I can't tell you that lie," he said. "I did it again. I beat someone up, a black guy, and, uh, then there was a girl who jumped in and...well, I think I beat her up pretty bad." He'd been at this party when the black guy tried to rip him off for some drugs...the girl, Bobby Jo, had escaped and run across the field to a store.
"Richardson will be coming," he said.
It was another Tom Luther story--Debrah knew it. It sounded just like his excuses for the Summit County assault, another drug deal gone awry.
But she didn't want him to leave. Part of her thought he had probably raped the girl, as he had Mary twelve years earlier, and should pay for it. But part of her was afraid she might never see him again.
Now Debrah knew how Laurie Wagner had felt when Tom had come to her back in Breckenridge. She must have loved him, too. "I won't lie for you, Tom," she said. But just like Laurie, she then took him to her bed.
It didn't take long for the West Virginia authorities to charge Thomas Edward Luther with the rape of Bobby Jo.
That Christmas, while Tom was awaiting trial, Debrah decided to go home to Colorado. She wanted to see Tom before she left, but because she wasn't his wife or a member of his immediate family, she wasn't allowed to. She called Richardson to see if he could pull some strings. "I know how you feel about him," she said. "But you know how I feel. I just want to say goodbye."
Richardson said he'd get back to her.
When he did, he said he might be able to help. In return, though, she had to do him a favor. She had to try to get Tom to talk about Cher Elder while a jail staffer secretly recorded the conversation.
When she went to see Tom, Debrah felt like Judas. But the truth was the truth; if Tom implicated himself, maybe it was a sign from God. In the months since his arrest, Tom had gone back and forth between telling her everything was okay and accusing her of betraying him. "You don't love me," he'd said. A bitch, he'd called her, and worse.
"Why don't you just give Richardson what he wants. Give him Cher's body," she said. "Even if you killed her, it's not first-degree murder. You'd be out in fifteen years." Fifteen years didn't seem so long to Debrah. She'd wait fifteen years if it meant she could spend the rest of her life with Tom.
"It wouldn't be fifteen years, Deb." And that was all he would say.
Deb did go back to Colorado for Christmas but returned to West Virginia in time for Tom's trial, at which she was scheduled to testify. The night before she was to take the stand, she got a call from Skip Eerebout urging her to recant her statement about Tom's confession. Tom's lawyer also had hinted that she might find a way to disappear until the trial was over.
Debrah agreed but first handed the attorney a sheet of paper that she called "Tom's resum." On it were newspaper clippings: one from a Summit County paper reporting Tom's conviction for sexual assault, which also noted that he had attempted to get another inmate to murder Mary so that she couldn't testify; another based on a July 1993 announcement by Richardson that Tom had been the last person seen with Cher Elder; the third an article recounting the events of the West Virginia rape.
"I am leaving and won't testify," Debrah told the lawyer. "But if he is set free and rapes or kills someone else, understand that you share my guilt in helping allow that to happen."
But Debrah didn't leave fast enough. She stuck around through the first day of the trial, hoping to see Tom one last time, and a trooper told her she'd have to show up to testify.
She agreed. She was tired of Tom's lies; he couldn't even keep them straight. Once he had tried to say that it would serve Richardson right if Cher came back from wherever she was hiding--but that was after he had already admitted burying her.
In January 1995, Tom Luther was convicted of rape. He was sentenced to 15 to 35 years in a West Virginia prison.
A month later, Debrah was asleep in a rented cabin when the telephone rang.
It was Richardson. Over the past two years she'd actually grown fond of the detective. Yes, he was trying to put the man she loved on death row, but he genuinely cared. About Cher. About her.
"You're wasting your life on that man," Richardson had told her on more than one occasion.
"You might be right," she'd always replied. "But he's the only person who ever took the time to make me happy."
Tom Luther hated Richardson. He also feared him, certain that without Richardson's tenacity, the whole Cher Elder case would have disappeared.
"I needed to let you know that we found Cher Elder's body," Richardson now told Debrah. Byron Powers had led the police to the gravesite--under a pile of rocks near a historical marker, but off of westbound I-70. "Sound familiar?" the detective asked.
Debrah could barely listen. She felt as though she were standing on the edge of a very deep, very dark hole.
This meant the end for Tom Luther.
Now the detective was trying to thank her. His voice cracked as he was caught up by emotion. "You did the right thing, Deb," he said. "You're a good person. I just needed to thank you..."
"Please," Debrah interrupted. "Please don't thank me. I'm having a hard time feeling good about this right now." She hung up the phone and the room went black.
On March 7, 1995, a Jefferson County grand jury indicted Thomas Edward Luther for the rape and murder of Cher Elder. On April 20, Richardson arrived in West Virginia. He called Debrah and invited her to dinner.
He asked her for the letters Tom had written while awaiting trial for the West Virginia rape. "It wasn't sex at all," Tom had written of the incident. "It was assault and anger, pure meanness from a subconscious level. This really scares me, Deb. I can't deal with this lack of self-control I have. I guess I really am dangerous if I can hurt people like this."
The next day, Debrah went to see Tom. "Richardson's here," she told him. "I thought you said you were the only one who knew where her body was."
Tom cocked his head, looking right through her with those blue eyes. "Well," he said with a half-smile, "I guess that wasn't true now, was it?"
And then he told Debrah one last Tom Luther story. Cher had a Colombian boyfriend, he said. A drug dealer. The boys were supposed to be setting up a deal with him through Cher. But something had gone wrong, and she got killed.
"Now don't tell anybody," he told Debrah. "But that's going to be my defense at my trial."
Two days later Detective Scott Richardson took Tom back to Colorado, to stand trial for the murder of Cher Elder.
Debrah never got to say goodbye.
Debrah Snider is now in West Virginia, awaiting the summons to appear at Tom Luther's trial, which started last week in Jefferson County.
At night she dreams of Tom. During the day she thinks about testifying against him.
She has been warned that she won't be able to talk much about Tom's past. In December Judge Christopher Munch ruled that Luther's previous record is inadmissable, and prosecutors don't want a mistrial.
But how will the jury know what kind of person Tom is, Debrah wonders, if she can't talk about the way he views women? If she can't talk about the anger...the hungry rage.
Richardson has told her that law enforcement authorities are trying to connect Tom to other murders, including the two in Summit County. He could be tied to a string of bodies from California to Vermont.
But to this jury, Tom will be just a good-looking, middle-aged man with pretty blue eyes and a pleasant smile. A real charmer.
At long last, Debrah is angry--not about how Tom treated her, but about how he treated others. She wishes she could tell Cher Elder's family how sorry she is that she didn't come forward the day Tom told her he had buried the body. She is filled with self-loathing for having placed love above the truth.
Since his extradition to Colorado last summer, Tom has written Debrah a half-dozen letters--some conciliatory and understanding, others bitter and accusing.
"I'm just feeling that nobody believes in me and that I always get blamed for more than I do," he wrote on May 24, 1995. "I feel like you don't really love me sometimes--that you are using me as an excuse to get attention from all these people that don't give a shit about you...When they get what they want, I'll get what's left over...which is confusion, hurt, loneliness."
On June 3: "I never realized how mentally ill you really are...You need to do something about your anger and hate. You have problems with men a lot worse than I do with women...You have no loyalty to love, you have no loyalty to blood...That's how come your life is miserable and you're lonely."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
All of his letters were signed "Love, Tom," until a final letter on July 26: "I hope you're happy (which I know you're not)...The reason you did what you did wasn't to get the truth. You may tell yourself that lie, but the real deal (and you know it) is because you wanted to end our relationship, and it was the meanest, most stupid, black-hearted vengeance you could think of.
"I hope you're as lonely and hurt and full of pain as me...Why couldn't you believe I loved you?"
end of part 2