FACING THE MONSTER
Photos by Heather Weiser
part 1 of 3
The little girl forced herself to remain still as death. Otherwise he, the thing that waited in the dark of her bedroom, would pounce.
She lay in the exact middle of the mattress, beyond reach of any hands coming from under the bed, and tried to control her racing heart. Before going to bed, she'd made sure to close the closet door and remove any item that might cast a shadow in which a monster could hide.
Seven years old, she had always been afraid of the dark--no matter how many times her mother told her there was no such thing as monsters.
Now she knew one was out there again. "Mommy! Mommy!" she screamed.
As always, her mother came--to turn on the lights and vanquish the shadows. To keep the monsters at bay.
"Shhhh, Heather," Mrs. Smith said softly. "There's no such thing as monsters."
She was wrong.
Twenty years later Mrs. Smith's daughter, Heather, was looking at the face of a real, live monster in the newspaper. What's more, she was positive that he was her monster. He even had a name: Thomas Edward Luther.
It was March 1995. Heather was sitting in her psychiatrist's office, clutching the newspaper, fixated on that face. Nearly two years had passed since she had been savagely and repeatedly stabbed by a stranger outside her home in Washington Park. Left to die on the dark street as falling sleet made ripples on the wet pavement. Ripples tinted pink with her blood.
By all accounts, Heather Smith should have died that night. Everyone thought she would. The paramedics. The doctors. Her family. The police who opened the case as a homicide. But Heather lived, walking--an act nothing short of a miracle--into a Denver police station nine days after the attack to describe in detail for a sketch artist the face of the man who had tried to kill her.
Two years later she was still trying to heal emotionally. That's why she was in her psychiatrist's office. The doctor had handed her the newspaper and asked, "Have you seen this?"
It was a story about Thomas Luther, a man in a West Virginia jail for raping and beating a female hitchhiker. The paper noted that Luther had also raped and nearly beaten to death a woman in Summit County, Colorado, and had served ten years for that crime. Now he had been indicted for the murder of Cher Elder, a young woman from Golden, who had gone with him to a casino in Central City back in March 1993. A couple of weeks before Heather was attacked.
No doubt about it--the man was a monster, suspected of other murders. Heather turned the page--and there was the photograph of Luther. Fear rose in her like a teapot boiling over. Angry, whistling fear. Her right hand crept to the back of her neck and the scar there. "It's him," she said softly. "It's him."
On January 6, 1982, the temperature in Breckenridge hovered around twenty degrees below zero. It was the sort of cold that made it hurt to breathe as Barbara "Bobby Jo" Oberholtzer waited to catch a ride home from her job at a realty office in the ski town.
Bobby Jo and her husband, Jeff, lived in Alma, twenty miles to the south off Highway 9 on the other side of Hoosier Pass. Most days, Bobby Jo, a popular woman who had lived in the area for fifteen years, got rides from friends. When she couldn't find one, she hitchhiked. That made Jeff nervous, but he needed their old truck for his work as an appliance repairman. So he fashioned a heavy brass key ring that Bobby Jo could use to wallop any attacker. She kept it clipped to the top of her backpack and promised to be careful. That satisfied Jeff. Although his wife was only 5'3" and 110 pounds, she could fight like a wildcat when cornered. A beautiful woman with blond, shoulder-length hair, she had just turned thirty that past Christmas.
January 6 began as a good day for Bobby Jo. Her boss told her she was getting a raise and a promotion. The two friends who were supposed to give her a ride home decided that was cause for celebration and persuaded her to join them for a drink at a local bar. One drink turned into several. When it looked like the party could go on all night, Bobby Jo decided to push on alone. At 7:45 p.m., she called Jeff to let him know she would be hitchhiking home. Bundling up, she headed for the Minute Mart parking lot on the edge of town, which locals used as a pick-up spot for hitchhikers going south.
Shortly before 8 p.m., a friend driving down the highway spotted Bobby Jo and pulled over. Bobby Jo opened the passenger door and leaned in to warm up. Her friend said he was only going as far as Blue River, a scattering of cabins and ski chalets a few miles up the road, but she was welcome to a ride. Bobby Jo shook her head. She didn't want to get stranded on that lonely stretch of the highway on such a cold night. She closed the door and the driver pulled away, unaware that that would be the last time anyone saw Bobby Jo alive.
Anyone other than her killer.
Bobby Jo was not the monster's only victim that night. Three hours before she left the bar, another woman disappeared. Annette Kay Schnee was last seen walking out of a Breckenridge pharmacy about 4:30 p.m. The 22-year-old had lived in the area only about eighteen months, but already she was accepted by the tight-knit community of locals as one of their own, in part because she was willing to try almost any crazy stunt.
Like Bobby Jo, Annette was a petite woman--all of 5'1" and 110 pounds. But unlike the older woman, as her sister would later tell investigators, she did her fighting with her sharp wit. A popular girl in high school back in Sioux City, Iowa, she hadn't quite decided what to do with her life when she graduated. So she left her parents and two sisters and moved to Breckenridge to ski and have a little fun. She didn't have a car, so she hitchhiked from the house she rented in Blue River to her full-time job at the Holiday Inn in Frisco and her part-time gig as a Breckenridge bartender.
In fact, she was supposed to work at the bar that night. But Annette hadn't been feeling well and first went to the doctor in Frisco, who wrote a prescription. Friends gave her a ride as far as the outskirts of Breckenridge. It was cold, but Annette was dressed for the weather and wearing two pairs of wool socks, long ones that covered her calves, as well as ankle-high ones.
Soon after her friends dropped her off, Annette walked into the pharmacy with another young woman, pretty, but with dirty dark brown, shoulder-length hair.
The store clerk would later tell police that the two women acted like friends, not strangers. While they waited for Annette's prescription to be filled, they wandered through the aisles, commenting on various items. At the register, Annette turned to her companion and asked, "Didn't you want some cigarettes?" The other woman grabbed a pack of Marlboros, which Annette paid for along with her drugs.
Then the two women walked out of the store and into the fast-approaching winter night.
Bobby Jo never made it home. Annette failed to report for work that night and then again the next day. Search parties of friends, neighbors and police officers combed the area, starting with the places where the two women had last been seen.
About 3 p.m. on January 7, her friends found Bobby Jo's body just on the other side of 11,000-foot-high Hoosier Pass, which separates Summit County from Park County. Rushing to the scene, investigators from both counties tried to piece together the clues. They saw that a vehicle had pulled into the small parking area at the summit of the pass, where there had been a struggle. Investigators found Bobby Jo's key ring lying in the snow; her pack was nowhere to be seen. Bobby Jo had somehow gotten away from her assailant, running 200 yards alongside the highway toward a line of trees, a place to hide. She almost made it.
Investigators would later theorize that Bobby Jo's attacker, probably in his vehicle, cut her off as she reached the top of a pile of snow left by snowplows. As she turned to run down the embankment, she was shot in the chest, then shot again. She had stumbled toward the trees, into deep snow, then had turned back toward the highway.
Mortally wounded, Bobby Jo did not give up the fight. Bleeding profusely, she struggled to crawl up the face of the steep embankment. It was impossible. She turned over onto her back and slid to the bottom, where she died, her face frozen in a look of despair that would forever haunt those whose job it became to catch her killer.
A large caliber, hollow-point bullet jacket was found in her body. There was no evidence that she had been raped or beaten; one of her wrists was bound with a nylon cord, as if her attacker had been trying to subdue her when she fled. Her backpack and its contents, including her driver's license, were later found scattered along Highway 285 between Fairplay and Denver, more than twenty miles from the crime scene.
At the Hoosier Pass summit, there was little enough evidence...the key ring, a few articles of clothing. Almost as an afterthought, a police officer picked up an orange, ankle-high wool sock; it didn't match anything worn by Bobby Jo. Still, it was placed with the other evidence.
Investigators found no clues as to Annette Schnee's whereabouts. She was simply gone, her bartender's outfit neatly laid out at home. The only connection police could make between the two women was that both had been heading in the same direction, south on Highway 9, within a few hours of each other.
The murdered woman and the missing one threw Summit County, and particularly Breckenridge, into a frenzy. People demanded that the police catch their killer--most figured Annette's body would turn up sooner or later--now. Neighbors began reporting neighbors for odd behavior. Strangers were eyed with distrust.
Deputy Joe Morales didn't like what was happening to his town. He'd been coming to Breckenridge since he was a kid and had dreamed of moving up from Denver after he got out of the Marine Corps. In 1981 he got his chance, when a job opened up in the sheriff's department. The country cousin to more urbane ski towns like Vail and Aspen, Breckenridge was still the sort of place where folks didn't feel the need to lock their doors.
Until this. Two women taken for no discernible reason; one of them gunned down and left to die a miserable death in the snow. It was beyond understanding. But one thing Morales knew for sure. He hated whoever had done it.
Five weeks after Bobby Jo and Annette disappeared, at 2:15 a.m. on February 13, 1982, the big Trailways bus pulled into the parking lot of the laundromat that served as the Frisco bus depot. The driver was in a hurry as he unloaded the five passengers--a family of four and a 23-year-old woman--who were getting off before he continued on to California. He was already running 35 minutes behind schedule.
The driver handed the young woman, Mary, as she'll be called here, the duffel bag she'd packed for the ski vacation that had brought her to the mountains. A mere 5'3", she wasn't much bigger than her bag.
Mary looked around for the friends who were supposed to meet her. They'd come up earlier from Denver, but she'd had to remain behind to finish her night job, catching the last bus out of town. Now her friends were nowhere in sight.
"There's a police station two blocks that way," the driver said, pointing down the main street. "Or you can stay in the laundromat." As the bus pulled away, Mary searched her purse for the number of the Silverthorne condominium where she was supposed to be staying. But in her haste to get out of town, she'd forgotten the scrap of paper she'd written it on. She shivered in the frigid air.
Despite the "open" sign in the window, the laundromat was locked. Mary was trying to decide whether to walk to the police station or call a taxi when a pickup truck swung into the parking lot. The driver rolled down his window. "Anybody need a ride?" he asked, quickly explaining that he was a driver for Summit County Taxi Service. He was off-duty, he said, but considering the weather, he would be happy to give a lift to Mary and the family, who were still fussing over their luggage.
"No thanks, we live here and can walk," the father said, and the family trudged off through the squeaking snow.
Mary frowned. If she were in Denver, no way would she have accepted a ride from a stranger. But this was the mountains, where people watched out for one another. Her would-be benefactor looked nice enough, handsome even, with curly brown hair, blue eyes that seemed unusually bright, and a nice smile. He was smiling as he said, "My name's Tom. Come on, hop in. I'll take you where you want to go."
Thomas Edward Luther gave the young woman what he considered one of his most winning smiles. He'd been watching from his truck as the "sweet young thing" got off the bus. Bus depots were always a good place to find women in need of a ride, he would later confide to his fellow jail inmates. But he had more than a ride in mind.
Born June 23, 1957, in the tiny burg of Harwick, Vermont, where his only police run-in involved a 1972 case of criminal mischief, Luther arrived in Colorado sometime around 1978. Since then he'd made an honest living as a carpenter, and now a taxi driver, in Fort Collins, Leadville and then Summit County. (He would later brag that he actually made most of his money as a thief and a drug dealer.) In the summer of 1981 he had moved into a trailer in Frisco with Laurie Wagner, a 31-year-old woman with dark, shoulder-length hair who had been a reserve officer in the town's police department until she fell "very, very much in love" with Luther and quit.
Luther considered himself something of a ladies' man. He could sweet-talk any of them and would later brag, "They drop their defenses and I have them at my mercy." As he watched Mary from his pickup, she reminded him of his mother, the way she wore her dark, shoulder-length hair... "Come on, hop in," he coaxed. Mary tossed her duffel bag on top of some wood in the bed of the truck, opened the passenger door and got in. She explained that she was trying to find her friends who were staying at a condominium in Silverthorne owned by one of the girl's parents. She told him the name of the owner.
"I'm pretty sure I know someone over in Silverthorne by that name," he said. Mary had a vague notion of where the condominium was located and thought she'd be able to find the place with her rescuer's help.
They arrived in Silverthorne and began searching for the condominium, chatting as they looked. After a while, though, it became clear Mary was lost. "Why don't you just take me to a police station, and I'll try to find them from there," she said.
But Luther just kept driving through the dark, saying he had one more place to check. One more street. He turned into a neighborhood of widely spaced homes surrounded by deep snow. The street dead-ended in a pile of drifts. Mary, growing nervous, asked again to be taken to a police station. "I don't think the house is down there," she said, pointing to the winter wasteland beyond the drifts.
Luther nodded and swung the truck around. But he drove only a little way before he pulled over again. "I don't think we're going to find your friends," he said matter-of-factly. "But this is as good a place as any...Take off your clothes."
Mary lunged for the door handle. Suddenly, her head exploded with light and pain as Luther punched her in the left side of her face. He grabbed her hair and slammed her head into the door, then shoved her onto the floor of the truck.
"Take off your clothes, bitch!" he snarled. The smile was gone.
"Please," Mary begged. "Just take my money and let me go."
"Shut up!" he yelled, punching her again. "And take off your clothes."
"I can't move..."
"Shut up or I'll kill you!" he warned. Reaching down, he ripped off her ski vest. Shaking and whimpering, Mary made another desperate grab for the door, but he hit her again, knocking her back. She started to cry.
"Shut up, bitch!" Luther demanded as he pulled up her shirt, asking if her boyfriend did the same and whether she liked it. When she didn't answer, he shoved her against the door and demanded that she remove her pants.
In terror, wanting only to somehow survive, Mary complied. She screamed and grabbed his arm as he shoved his entire hand inside her. "Let go," he ordered, and hit her in her already bloody face. Unzipping his pants, he tried unsuccessfully to masturbate. He ordered her to help but still could not get an erection.
"I asked if he had done this before," Mary would later write in her account of the attack. "He said yes, several times. That's when he picked up the hammer...I thought he was going to hit me with it."
Luther had grabbed a wooden-handled carpenter's hammer. Mary saw it and cried out, "I'm going to die. I know I'm going to die." He punched her again and pushed her back; then he rammed the handle of the hammer into her body, raping her. Mary braced herself--her blood-smeared head against the passenger window, her bloody left hand pressed against the back window--and tried not to scream, aware that her screaming only made him angrier. But he shoved the hammer harder and she cried out. Luther struck her in the eye with his fist.
"My eye," she cried. "My eye is gone."
"No, it isn't, bitch. Shut up!"
Luther continued raping her with the hammer. Every time he pushed, she screamed and grabbed at his arm, only to be punched. The torment seemed to last forever. She urged herself not to pass out...God only knew what would happen if she did.
Then Luther removed the hammer. "Turn around," he said. Believing that he was about to kill her, Mary fought back.
"I didn't want to die," she later recalled. "I wanted to get out. I remembered reading something about defending yourself and poked my thumbs into his eyes."
That enraged Luther all the more and he began beating her with his fists and the hammer. He grabbed her by the back of her hair and slammed her head into the windshield hard enough to crack the glass. All the while, Mary kept repeating to herself: Don't pass out. Don't pass out.
Finally Luther grabbed her by the throat and began choking her. In a last-ditch effort to save her life, Mary reached up and ripped at Luther's face with her nails. He screamed with rage and beat her until the fight left her. Then he picked up the hammer he had dropped and ordered her to turn around. Resigned to death, Mary complied, preferring not to see the hammer as it made its killing arc toward her head. But Luther had saved a final act of terror: He shoved the handle into her again, this time raping her anally. Mary found new strength to scream.
At any moment she expected him to remove the hammer and end her life. He finally stopped, and she waited for the death blow. But there was nothing. Fearfully, she looked around. Luther was again attempting to masturbate. And again, he ordered her to help, but as she fumbled at him with her bloody hands, he grew frustrated and shoved her away.
"Can I put my clothes on?" she asked. "Go ahead," he mumbled.
"Can I get out?"
"No," he said, "I want to take you somewhere."
Something in his tone told her that wherever somewhere was, she didn't want to go. "Can I open a window?" she asked, and began to reach for the door. His answer was a fist to her face.
Luther started the truck and drove only a few feet before stopping again. His hands came up to grip his head as he started to mumble, locked in an internal struggle as he rubbed his head with blood-covered hands.
"Can I go?" she asked, flinching against the blow she expected.
"Yes, go," he yelled. "Take everything..." But Mary was already out the door, reaching into the truck's bed to remove her duffel bag. She ran. Her left eye was swollen shut, and she could hardly see through the blood that poured over her right. Slipping. Falling. Rising. She left a trail of bright red blood as she staggered through the hip-deep snow that lay between her and the nearest dark house. At any moment she expected to feel the hand of her attacker dragging her back. Monsters lurked in every shadow.
Mary reached the house, but it was empty. She abandoned her duffel bag and set off for another house she could barely see across the road, only to pull up in terror when she noticed a truck in the driveway. Cautiously, she approached and looked in the back: No wood; it wasn't his truck.
She reached the front door but couldn't raise her hand to knock. She tried the door handle. It gave to the pressure.
"Help me!" she screamed, collapsing into the dark house. "Please, someone help me!" Lights came on as she fell to the floor.
end of part 1
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.