Cold case closed: 1982 murder of two hitchhikers, last seen in Breckenridge, ends with conviction

Alan Lee Phillips, 71, of Dumont, was found guilty on Thursday, September 15, of the 1982 murder of two hitchhikers.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation / Courtesy Photo

More than 40 years after two women disappeared near Breckenridge, the man suspected of murdering the pair of hitchhikers was found guilty Thursday by a Park County jury.

Modern forensic genealogy techniques reopened the case after it had been cold for nearly four decades since the women were last seen on January 6, 1982. The investigation led to the arrest and conviction of Alan Lee Phillips, 71, of Dumont.

Phillips was arrested in February 2021 on two counts of the following charges: kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, and deliberative murder.

Alan Lee Phillips was found guilty of first degree murder for the murders of Annette Schnee, 21, and Barbara Oberholtzer, 29. The two were reportedly hitchhiking separately from Breckenridge. Both were shot.

Oberholtz’s body was found on January 7, 1982, near the top of Hoosier Pass with a single zipper around her left wrist and a bullet hole in her chest. Her backpack, a bloodied glove and tissue were found discarded 7 miles north of Fairplay.

Just a few miles away — but six months later — Schnee was found face down in Park County’s Sacramento Creek with a gunshot wound to her back. Connecting both: a pair of orange socks. A former Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent said during the preliminary hearing that Schnee was wearing one, and the second sock was found near Oberholtz’s body.

Investigators followed what they could, but the case went cold. Investigators had only two 5-inch folders of information in 1989, seven years after the case began.

Clues were still coming in when Wendy Kipple joined the 11th Judicial District’s Attorney Office as the lead investigator. Kipple now works with the Park County Sheriff’s Office and the Summit County Coroner’s Office.

“We knew it was going to get on DNA,” Kipple said Friday.

So DNA was sent to United Data Connect forensic genealogy service in Denver for sequencing and possible genealogy matches, a process used this year to identify a John Doe who died in 2012. United Data Connect yielded two possible matches. January 2021: Philips and his brother.

Kipple said the brother had been eliminated as a suspect, so all the attention went to Philips.

Law enforcement officers monitored Phillips for nearly two months. During that time, they looked for covert DNA, Kipple said, meaning discarded napkins, food scraps and any bits of trash that could carry Phillips’s DNA. Researchers found what they were looking for in the form of a Sonic fast food bag. The DNA in saliva found from that Sonic bag in 2021 matched the DNA from the blood found in 1982 from Oberholtz’s glove, Kipple said.

Phillips was arrested on February 24, 2021 during a traffic stop. He was working as a half-retired mechanic in Clear Creek County at the time, living in Dumont, less than 20 miles from where the bodies were found, according to previous Summit Daily News reporting.

On the night of the murders, Phillips spotted commercial aircraft with the headlights on his truck. A blizzard had struck and he was stranded in a snowdrift at the top of Guanella Pass, Kipple said.

Jefferson County Sheriff saw Phillips by accident from a commercial flight while Phillips flashed “SOS” with his headlights, Kipple told me. The flight crew was notified through a chain of organizations to the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office, according to Kipple. Phillips was rescued from Guanella Pass that night.

Investigators eventually concluded that Phillips threw evidence of the murders out the window of his truck, Kipple said, explaining why Oberholtz’s belongings were found by the side of the road.

Phillips didn’t become a suspect in the case until 2005, when an anonymous tip listed him as a suspect, but investigators found no connection at the time, Kipple says, possibly because they didn’t conduct a thorough investigation.

Early DNA tests failed to point to Phillips as a suspect during the early years of the case. At the time, a DNA match could only be found if the suspect had committed a crime and then had his DNA stored in a national database.

Phillips was also found with a cut over his eye. A cut that allegedly came from Oberholtz in her last fight with Phillips. According to Kipple, Oberholtz always carried a “big copper hook” with her when she hitchhiked to defend herself.

The case ended, 40 years after it started, with 62 folders of information, Kipple said. Much more than the two it started with.

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