For nearly four decades Eileen Franklin, 88, has been tormented because she did not know who shot her 21-year-old daughter and left her to die in a Colorado snowstorm.
Annette Kay Schnee was shot in the back Jan. 6, 1982.
“When holidays come up and family get-togethers, you think about it. You get up in the morning and you think about it. There’s not a day I don’t get up and not think about it,” Franklin, of Port Richey, Florida, said Tuesday.
In February, she got news that she thought she might never hear: Police had arrested Alan Lee Phillips, 70, in the slaying.
He’s also accused in the killing of Barbara Jo Oberholtzer, who was also last seen alive Jan. 6, 1982. In addition to murder charges, Phillips, a retired mechanic and father of three, faces kidnapping and assault charges.
Park County Sheriff’s Office said that though they were not together, Oberholtzer, who was 29, and Schnee “were last seen hitchhiking outside of the town of Breckenridge.”
Both women were shot, the sheriff’s office said.
Oberholzer’s body was found on the summit of Hoosier Pass the day after her disappearance, but it took investigators six months to locate Schnee’s body in a “rural area” in Park County, officials said.
Attorneys representing Phillips did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Authorities said the decades-old homicides were cracked with the help of a forensic genealogist who used databases to connect DNA collected in the case to Phillips. Investigators were able to pinpoint Phillips to a location near where the women disappeared because he was rescued from the Guanella Pass in the Colorado mountains the night Schnee and Oberholtzer were last seen.
His rescue, which came after he flashed an SOS distress symbol that was seen by a Colorado sheriff on a commercial flight, garnered national headlines, said Det. Sgt. Wendy Kipple of the Park County Sheriff’s Office.
Dave Montoya was a fire chief in Clear Creek County when he was alerted of a stranded pickup on Guanella Pass decades ago.
“We ended up picking up the guy straight out of hell,” Montoya told NBC affiliate KUSA of Denver this week.
Phillips’ arrest marked “the biggest case of my career,” Kipple said. She credited former investigators who chased leads and found evidence, noting several agencies took up the cases throughout the decades. The case file consists of 52, 4-inch binders, Kipple said.
“It was a stroke of timing and good luck,” she said Tuesday. “I’m working this case in a time we have technical resources and advances in technology.”
Kipple said the genealogist, using databases that investigators could legally access, poured over more than 12,000 people and paired the DNA police collected in the case to Phillips.
“The forensic genealogy injected more excitement and new life into the case. We had pretty much exhausted every avenue and investigative lead up to that point,” Kipple said. “Then work began of verifying whether or not he, was in fact, our suspect and had the most likely means and opportunity to commit the crimes.”
A motive in the slayings is unknown, Kipple said, adding that she’s relieved to be able to provide some solace for the families of Schnee and Oberholzer.
Franklin said the arrest has comforted her and provided some closure.
“You think, ‘I’m 88. Maybe I won’t ever find out before I pass this earth,’” she said. “At least I know they have a suspect in jail.”
Franklin said her daughter was “funny,” “happy-go-lucky” and hoped to be a flight attendant.
She thanks investigators for never giving up on her daughter.
“I give them credit. They tried hard,” Franklin said.
Cindy French, 50, of Trinity, Florida, was 11 when her sister was killed. She often thinks about her older sister’s last moments and how she was abandoned in freezing temperatures.
She’s saddened that her daughters lost out on having an aunt or cousins to grow up with.
“That was taken away from us,” French said. “We never got to see her grow up. I got a sister I never really got to know, except when I was little.”
French expects to attend Phillips’ trial. Her message to him: “You had 39 years of freedom, and hopefully, now, it will be taken away from you. Thirty-nine years of freedom too long.”
Phillips is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Sept. 13, according to the Colorado Judicial Court.
Oberholzer’s family could not be reached for comment.