She was training a once-wild mustang. She raised birds from egg to flight. She had a daughter.
On the night of Jan. 6, 1982, her life was taken.
Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer, a Racine native born Barbara Burns, was trying to hitchhike home from a bar to her home in Alma, Colo. She never made it home. She was 29.
After 39 years, Colorado law enforcement — spurred on by an obsessed, retired detective who refused to give up and thought he would die before the case was solved — say they have found the man who killed Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer in what had been known as the "Rocky Mountain Cold Case."
The suspect is Alan Lee Phillips, a 70-year-old, semi-retired mechanic who never left Colorado after he allegedly ended two lives there.
Family shocked by news
Oberholtzer was a 1971 Park High School graduate who still has family members living locally.
On Monday, Lisa Laudenbach — a cousin of Oberholtzer’s who still lives in Racine — said she was at her mom’s when an aunt called. Her mom looked shocked while on the phone.
“They found Bobbie’s killer,” Laudenbach’s mom said, shocked.
“Wow,” was all Laudenbach could say in reply.
“A kind soul, she never hurt anybody … She just didn’t deserve this,” Oberholtzer’s sister, Laurie Merlo, who lives in Sturtevant, told The Journal Times on Wednesday.
Two women, two socks, one killer
Jan. 6, 1982, was supposed to be a good day for Oberholtzer. She had been promoted at work and was going out for drinks with coworkers. Her husband offered to pick her up from the bar but she declined, choosing to hitchhike as she often did; especially in that small mountain community, hitchhiking was common in the early ‘80s.
By midnight, her husband was worried since she hadn’t come home. A missing-persons report was filed before sunrise. In the morning, a rancher found her driver’s license along a highway. Oberholtzer’s backpack was found nearby by her husband. Then her gloves, covered in blood, were found.
Following the trail of clues, investigators were led to a parking area near Hoosier Pass, a route through the Rocky Mountains at 11,000 feet above sea level along the Continental Divide.
Her body was found there. She had been shot twice in the back.
It appeared she had escaped from her attacker and was running away when the fatal shots were fired. She was left for dead.
The body of another hitchhiking young blonde woman who went missing the same day, 21-year-old Annette Schnee, wouldn’t be found for another six months. Her body was discovered on July 3, about 10 miles south of where Oberholtzer was found. She, too, had been shot.
The women didn’t know each other, but their deaths were linked by the unlikeliest of clues: a distinctive orange sock being found at each murder site.
Without any witnesses or modern technology, the cases went cold.
The alleged killer has been found by a more predictable clue: DNA evidence.
End of a journey
Last year, retired Denver homicide detective Charlie McCormick got in touch with United Data Connect, a company that performs forensic genetic genealogy analysis, i.e., the process of law enforcement officers analyzing DNA belonging to an unknown suspect and cross-referencing that DNA with thousands of samples in databases to identify suspects’ relatives, and thus find the suspect themselves.
Phillips was identified. He still lived only about 35 miles away from where the murders occurred, in a neighboring county.
He has been charged with two counts of kidnapping, two counts of assault and two counts of homicide.
Law enforcement reportedly surveilled him for weeks before attempting a traffic stop on Feb. 24. Park County (Colo.) Sheriff Tom McGraw said during a Wednesday news conference at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in Lakewood, Colo., that Phillips didn’t resist arrest even after finding out he was being charged with murder.
Phillips didn’t make any statements, either.
“We were working day in and day out on this case,” said District Attorney Linda Stanley, who was sworn in on Jan. 12, as investigators were already hot on Phillips' trail. Officials are investigating if the 70-year-old is connected to any other cold cases; they have not revealed how they obtained his DNA.
In July 2020, Det. McCormick told a Denver TV news station: "I have no problem working it to the bitter end … you can't walk away from it, or I can't. Haven't wanted to. Tomorrow's another day, and you got stuff to do, and you see what might happen."
Added Mitch Morrissey, a retired district attorney who co-founded United Data Connect: “If you read the facts of this case, and you think about these two young, beautiful women that you’ve seen pictures of lying in the snow after being shot in the darkness by themselves, dying, basically freezing to death, it would make you not give up, like Charlie didn’t, and make you want to answer the question of who would do such a horrible thing to somebody.”
United Data Connect has helped solve numerous cold cases, several of which have links to Wisconsin: Its work helped convict three Wisconsin men in separate grisly cases of rape and sexual assault.
But forensic genetic genealogy analysis, which costs thousands of dollars per case, related to the killings of Schnee and Oberholtzer didn’t begin until the trails had been cold for decades.
Two years ago, Merlo traveled with Oberholtzer’s daughter to Colorado to be part of an episode of “On the Case with Paula Zahn,” a crime program produced by the Investigation Discovery channel. Being part of that program, Merlo told The Journal Times on Wednesday, brought “a little more hope that DNA testing would be finally used to find out what happened.”
During Wednesday’s news conference, a prepared statement from Oberholtzer’s daughter was read. “I have lived with a monster in my mind since I was 11 years old,” she said.
Investigators credited periodic media coverage from local news outlets and national crime documentary programs for keeping the fire burning in the case. McGraw said during Wednesday’s news conference that investigators are still looking for more information related to the killings.
A statement from Oberholtzer’s widower, Jeff Oberholtzer, concluded: “Phillips is finally in the hands of the judicial system. May justice be served.”
McCormick, who started investigating the murders in 1989, said that now the case may be nearing a courtroom conclusion, “I’ve been trying to define my emotions and it’s been very hard to do. It’s like a new beginning. I never thought I’d see the day, frankly …
“It’s been a long haul. It was a case that just kept going because it kept going. There’s always something to do, that as a good investigator or as a professional investigator you couldn’t ignore you had to work on it.
"Day after day after day for 32 years, bingo, it’s solved — or at least there’s an arrest.”