part 2 of 3
When the call went out at a little after 4 a.m.--female brutally raped and assaulted in Silverthorne by white male driving green or dark-colored pickup truck--police officers from across Summit County began to converge on the scene. Among them was deputy Joe Morales, who was asked to patrol the area of Frisco where the victim had been picked up by her assailant.
Morales and another officer were passing a trailer park when they spotted a dark blue pickup. Trucks in the mountains are about as common as trees, but this one had the lawmen doing a double-take. There was a bloody handprint on the vehicle's back window.
Parking their police car down the block, the officers crept back to the suspect truck. It wasn't the right color, but there was the wood in the back that the victim had remembered. As if they needed that proof: The passenger window was smeared with blood. Shining his flashlight through the driver's window, Morales could see that blood had run down the passenger door in a sheet. Tools...a wooden-handled hammer...lay scattered about.
The officers ran a check on the truck's license plate. It was registered to a Thomas Edward Luther. They called for backup. Then, with the trailer surrounded and their guns drawn, Morales and a Silverthorne detective approached the door of the trailer. Morales knocked.
A sleepy woman answered. Morales was surprised to recognize her as former Frisco reserve officer Laurie Wagner.
"Tom here?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, looking doubtfully at the early-morning visitor with the gun in his hand. "Come in."
Morales entered, ready for action, unsure of what he'd find. He made his way to the bedroom where Wagner indicated her boyfriend was sleeping. Flicking on the hallway light, he could see a naked man sitting on the bed. He ordered him out.
"Yeah, I know why you're here," Tom Luther said, pulling a blanket around him. As he passed Morales, he said under his breath, "Please don't say anything to her," indicating his girlfriend. But Morales hardly noticed; he was too busy staring at Luther's face. Luther looked like he had been in a fight with a mountain lion. Long scratches ran down his cheeks, and he was covered in blood.
Morales sat Luther down in a chair and read him his rights as he cuffed his hands behind his back. Laurie stared at her boyfriend.
"Where are your clothes?" Morales asked.
"In the bedroom." Leaving his charge with the other officer, Morale returned to the bedroom and turned on the light. There, where Luther had stepped out of them and right into bed, was a pile of blood-stained clothes. Morales took them as evidence; they found other clothes for Luther.
Luther was placed in Morales's car for transport to the Summit County jail in Breckenridge. As the car wound along Lake Dillon, Luther began fidgeting and breathing hard. Morales had just looked in the rearview mirror when his captive blurted out, "Why don't you just kill me...just pull over and shoot me...I don't know why I do these things...I don't know why I did this."
Morales, careful not to say anything that a defense attorney might later try to use, replied as evenly as he could, "I'm not going to shoot you."
Thirteen years later, Morales now says, "If I knew then what I know now, I might have been tempted to oblige him."
At the Breckenridge jail, Luther was a model of cooperation. Asked if he would consent to having hair and blood samples taken, he replied, "Yes, I want to. I'm really sorry about all this...How's the girl?"
The girl had been transported to the Summit County Medical Center and then taken by ambulance to Rose Medical Center in Denver. Examination showed her head, swollen to the size of a basketball, was fractured; she had a concussion and was bleeding from her ears; a heavy blow from behind had broken her neck at the C7 vertebra; a finger had been dislocated and broken. And then there was the trauma of the rapes.
When he got a chance, Morales called his superior and told him about the Silverthorne assault because, as his report later noted, "of other pending assault and homicide cases under investigation" in Summit County. There didn't seem much similarity to the Schnee and Oberholtzer cases. Oberholtzer had been shot and left to die; there was no evidence of rape. Mary, on the other hand, had been tortured for more than an hour, raped with a hammer, strangled and nearly beaten to death. She had survived only because she had refused to die.
But considering the proximity of the crimes, both in time and distance, Morales thought it was worth checking out any connections. Certainly all three crimes had been committed by someone who didn't like women and wanted them dead. A gun. A hammer. In the end, what was the difference? And he was troubled by Luther's question: "Why do I do these things?"
Luther was interviewed briefly by a Summit County detective, who left with no useful information about the two Breckenridge cases. "But I got the distinct impression that he had a strong dislike for women," the detective noted.
A Summit County detective also contacted the pharmacy clerk who'd seen Annette Schnee and her dark-haired companion the night she disappeared. The clerk had helped a police artist come up with a composite drawing of the unknown woman shortly after Annette was reported missing.
Now the detective pulled out a blurry photocopied blowup of Laurie Wagner's driver's license. "Is this the woman you saw?" he asked. The clerk could barely discern a woman with straight, dark hair. "It's too dark," the clerk said. "I couldn't say for sure."
The detective left. He did not return with a better photograph.
Laurie Wagner was asked for her .38 caliber service revolver, for a ballistics comparison to the gun that killed Oberholtzer. That report was lost.
Meanwhile, Laurie Wagner was apparently standing by her man. Waiting outside the courtroom one day, Mary was approached by a young, dark-haired woman. She said her name was Laurie Wagner and that she was Luther's girlfriend. "You got the wrong man, you know? He's innocent." Then the woman added, "He's really glad you're doing okay."
Tony Browning, an inmate in the Adams County jail where Luther spent some time in May, told authorities that Luther had approached him about killing Mary when Browning got out so that she couldn't testify. Browning said Luther also told him that he had a gun in the truck that night and had actually taken it out and pointed it at Mary's spine when she had her back to him. "But he decided that there were too many people around who might hear the shot," Browning said.
He wore a wire into jail to record Luther's threat. After that, a charge of trying to commission a felony was added to the counts Luther already faced: attempted murder, sexual assault and assault.
Back in the Summit County jail, Luther was bragging about "other girls" he had done, including one he had killed and left lying in a stream.
On the day before the Fourth of July, 1982, eleven-year-old Toby was walking along a dead-end road that borders Sacramento Creek between Alma and Fairplay. The boy was about two miles from where the creek intersects Highway 9, looking for a good place to fish. Glancing down, he saw the body of a woman face down in the creek. Annette Schnee had been found.
She had been shot once in the back with a hollowpoint bullet fired from a large caliber handgun--a .38, maybe a .357. The angle of the bullet, which was never recovered, suggested that she had escaped, or been let go, and had reached the creek when the killer shot her from the road above.
Cold weather and cold water had helped preserve the body for autopsy. There was no evidence that Annette had been raped, but then again, as one detective would later say, "She had been in the water for a long time." What's more, it also looked like Annette's clothes had been off and that she'd dressed again in a hurry. One foot was wearing a long, blue wool sock; its mate was stuffed in the pocket of Annette's hooded sweatshirt. On the other foot was an orange, ankle-high wool sock.
Its mate was back in the evidence locker of the Summit County sheriff's office, along with the other items gathered on top of Hoosier Pass where Bobby Jo Oberholtzer's body had been found six months earlier.
The orange sock confirmed what everyone had already guessed: Bobby Jo and Annette had met the same monster on that cold January night.
Luther was thinking that the best way out of this jam was to plead insanity. Psychiatrists for both the prosecution and defense visited him. Luther, they said, could trace his rage to his upbringing by his mother. Mary's hair had looked very much like his mother's, one said. Dr. John Macdonald, a noted forensic psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, noted that several things about Mary reminded Luther of his mother, "especially when she began screaming." But for all his repressed anger, the experts said, Luther was sane and knew right from wrong.
Once the insanity defense was ruled out, Luther immediately agreed to a plea bargain. He pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual assault, and the other charges were dropped. On September 1, 1982, he was sentenced to fourteen years in the Colorado prison system.
Morales was disappointed that the prosecution hadn't insisted on Luther pleading guilty to attempted murder. Never would be too soon to let this monster out of prison. He knew in his heart that someday he would hear the name of Thomas Edward Luther again--and it would be in connection with a woman in trouble.
On January 6, 1992, Detective Richard Eaton of the Summit County Sheriff's Office stood beside Sacramento Creek. He was standing in the spot where the body of Annette Schnee had been found by a boy on a fishing excursion. It was a beautiful, if lonely, place to die.
Around him bustled the film crew of Unsolved Mysteries, which he had contacted late in 1991 in the hopes that a segment on the deaths of Annette and Bobby Jo might generate some new information. He had promised their families that he wouldn't stop until he brought the killer, or killers, to justice.
Eaton looked at his watch and cleared his throat. "In a couple of hours, it will have been ten years since Annette Schnee was last seen alive," he announced. The crew members stopped what they were doing and stood quietly as though paying respect to the dead.
The detective had been working the Oberholtzer/Schnee cases since 1984, a year after he arrived in Summit County. A Navy veteran who'd served aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War, he had drifted into law enforcement, working in small towns like Loveland and Berthoud before opting for more excitement with a sheriff's department. Not particularly tall and saddled with a pot belly, he looked more like a postman than a homicide detective. But looks were deceiving. Over the years Eaton had proved to have the tenacity of a bulldog and the instincts of Sherlock Holmes. Especially when it came to these cases.
The files on the two murders had been passed around a lot before they landed on his desk. Both the Summit and Park County sheriff's departments had worked on the cases, but their efforts had ground to a halt.
When he began looking at the files, the first thing that struck Eaton was how disorganized the investigations had been. The files were a mess; bits and pieces of notes and reports lay all over. But somewhere in all that paperwork he came across the names of not only potential witnesses but possible suspects, including one Thomas Edward Luther, who'd pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman in Silverthorne. From what Eaton could tell from the reports, Luther had been interviewed in connection with the two murders, but nothing had come of it. Figuring his predecessors had done their job, he turned his attention elsewhere.
In particular, he was interested in Jeff Oberholtzer, Bobby Jo's husband, who had been the primary suspect. For one thing, Oberholtzer had denied knowing Annette Schnee--but a witness had seen her in his truck one day over in Breckenridge. That little bit of disinformation had drawn the attention of the police like flies to roadkill. After being shown a picture of Annette, though, Oberholtzer had said he didn't recognize the name but knew the face: He'd picked her up hitchhiking one day in Blue River and had given her a ride to Frisco. Lucky for him, he recalled the incident before a hiker found Annette's backpack--with Jeff's business card in her wallet--in September 1982.
Still, Oberholtzer seemed the most likely suspect. Eaton worked to make a case against him, only to discover that police investigators had never talked with a man who could vouch for Oberholtzer's alibi. Bobby Jo's widower had lived under a cloud for two years; frustrated by the police's efforts, he had even tried investigating on his own. Now Eaton invited him to lunch to tell him the good news. "Technically, you're still a suspect until I have the guy who did it," the detective said. "But for all intents and purposes, you're in the clear."
Oberholtzer had looked at him with tears in his eyes. "Now," he said, "can you look for the guy who did it?"
As he investigated their murders, Eaton had come to know the two women like friends. They were good people who had done nothing to deserve their fate. Wrong time. Wrong place. He got especially close to Annette's family back in Iowa and had even visited them. One night, Annette's mother had asked to see the photos of her daughter's body. The remains had arrived in a sealed coffin, she said, and not seeing her daughter had left her empty. Eaton hesitated. "They're pretty bad," he said. But she insisted. "Tell you what," he offered, "I'll show you the pictures of the other girl. Then, if you still want, I'll show you Annette." Mrs. Schnee nodded. She looked at the photos of Bobby Jo, the pretty, laughing blond woman and the one with her dead face frozen in despair. "I still want to see my daughter," she said. Eaton showed her the pictures. When she finished looking at them, she blinked back the tears. "Thank you," she said, and that was all.
Annette's family had come out for the filming of the Unsolved Mysteries segment. The day after Eaton noted the anniversary of Annette's disappearance, everyone was gathered at the top of Hoosier Pass waiting to shoot a scene involving Bobby Jo.
To get the camera angles and lighting right, the director had the actress playing Bobby Jo lie down in the snow where the body had been found. It took 45 minutes to get everything just so, by which time the actress was shivering and turning blue from cold. The director told her to go warm up.
Annette Schnee's mother was the first to reach the girl with a blanket. Eaton watched, his throat growing tight. When the actress returned to film the scene, she was wearing the warm winter boots of Mrs. Schnee.
Cher Elder was in love. She'd met her boyfriend, Byron Powers, at a party a few months before when he'd intervened after a man harassed her. Byron was kind of wild, with an outlaw feel about him, but he seemed nice. Cher was only twenty years old, a pretty girl without a whole lot of experience around men.
Born in Glenwood Springs, she'd actually graduated from Purdy High School in Purdy, Missouri, a small town of poultry farmers and factory workers. It was while in Purdy that Cher got what should have been, in a world free from monsters, her fifteen minutes of fame.
Back then Purdy was making national, even international, headlines for its century-old ban on school dances and the battle being waged between town youths and the religious prudes who ran the school board. In September 1989, Cher and several of her high school friends were gathered at the local Hamburger Heaven when a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch caught up to them and asked about the controversy.
"I don't know what the big deal is," said Cher, a seventeen-year-old senior at the time. "You can't get pregnant by dancing." Six months later, Newsday ran its own story about the dance ban, complete with a photograph of Cher and her friends discussing their upcoming, private senior prom.
By March 1993, Cher had moved to Colorado with her family and was working as a waitress at the Holiday Inn in Golden. But she had plans for bigger things: On April 1 she would start business college. She was so excited that on Saturday, March 27, she laid out all her schoolbooks and supplies like a kindergartner getting ready for that first day.
That night she went to Bryon's house and found him with another woman, Gina. She got angry. And when Bryon and the woman left with friends to go drink at a Lakewood bar, Cher remained behind with her anger and an old cellmate of Byron's stepfather, Jerald "Skip" Eerebout.
A man named Thomas Edward Luther.
Luther was a good listener and not bad-looking for an old man of 35. He was well-groomed, his brown hair touched with gray after ten years in the joint. He hadn't been out long, just since January 5.
Luther offered to drive Cher to Central City to visit her friend who worked in a casino, maybe do a little partying to forget the pain Byron had caused. She accepted.
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!
At the casino, they gambled and socialized. Drank a few beers. Everyone thought they were just a couple of friends out having a good time. The cameras that, unknown to Luther, run continuously in the casinos to catch cheaters caught the two of them together. That film provides the last image of Cher. Laughing and pulling the handle of the slot machines, she had no idea she was about to make the newspapers again.
After the two closed the place, they got back in Luther's car. And they drove off into the night.
Two days later, Cher Elder's father discovered her neatly arranged school supplies and reported her missing to the Lakewood police on March 31.
end of part 2