As Harold E. Bray peered out an airplane window over the Colorado mountains one night in January 1982, he noticed flashes of light on a darkened pass below: three short, three long, then three short again.
It was an “SOS,” Bray, a local sheriff, realized. He quickly alerted the captain.
When rescuers on the ground made their way up to the 10,000-foot mountain pass in subzero temperatures, they found Alan Lee Phillips, 30, stuck in a snowdrift. His astounding rescue tale made national headlines.
But now, almost four decades later, it appears Phillips wasn’t an innocent motorist trying to make his way home in bad weather. In fact, police say, hours earlier he’d killed two young women who were hitchhiking nearby.
Genetic genealogy using DNA found at the crime scenes led authorities in Park County, Colo., earlier this month to arrest Phillips, who is now 70. He was charged with the murder of the two women, along with kidnapping and assault.
“After avoiding it for all these years, he’s now going to have to deal with it,” Charlie McCormick, a former Denver homicide detective who spent years investigating the case, told KUSA, which first reported on the links between the 1982 rescue and the new murder charges.
The two victims both vanished on Jan. 6, 1982. Annette Schnee, 22, and Barbara Jo Oberholtzer, 29, were reported missing after apparently hitchhiking separately near Breckenridge, Colo., where they both worked.
Oberholtzer was last seen leaving after getting drinks with colleagues just before 8 p.m. The following day, her family found her lifeless body 10 miles south of Breckenridge on a snow embankment about 20 feet from a highway, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Police said she was shot in the chest and found on her back. They also found some of her belongings about 20 miles away.
Schnee was last seen that same day at about 4:45 p.m. A boy found her body six months later in Park County. According to CBI, she was discovered fully clothed, though disheveled, and face down in a stream with a gunshot wound to her back.
McCormick, the former Denver detective, obsessed over the case for decades. He was initially brought on in 1989 when Schnee’s family hired him as a private investigator. He charged the family only $1 a year. A decade later he volunteered to join the district attorney’s task force investigating the case, he told KUSA.
The case finally made a significant development with the help of genetic genealogy. But it took years to connect a family tree to a suspect.
Earlier this year, the team’s lead genetics researcher called McCormick with the news: The DNA had been definitively linked to Phillips.
“And she said, ‘We got him.’ It was phenomenal, something I thought I would never see,” McCormick told KUSA.
On March 3, police announced that they approached Phillips at a traffic stop and arrested the father of three, who lived in Dumont, Colo.
The development made national headlines and Phillips’s name and image flashed on local television. That was when Dave Montoya, a former fire chief in Clear Creek County, Colo., recognized the suspect as the man he had saved one snowy night decades earlier.
“We ended up picking up the guy straight out of hell,” Montoya told KUSA.
Montoya was working on Jan. 6, the night Phillips got stuck on top of Guanella Pass as snow piled down with temperatures dropping to 20 degrees below zero.
Montoya arrived on the scene just before midnight to find Phillips with a bruise on his face and slightly intoxicated. He told Montoya that he bumped his head on the truck after being slammed with heaps of snow.
“Sure as heck, there he was in his little pickup, and he saw me and said, ‘Oh, God, I’m saved,'” Montoya said.
He added, “I thought, how in the heck did this guy get so lucky, for all the stuff to fall into place?”
According to a United Press International report following the rescue, Phillips said he was driving home from a friend’s house in Bailey, Colo., when he got stuck.
Montoya, a former miner, recognized Phillips from the local mine, where Phillips worked as a mechanic. After he drove Phillips back to his trailer that night, Montoya never saw him again — at least until he saw his name connected to the deaths of Schnee and Oberholtzer.
“He got his mercy, he got saved, he got his life saved, he didn’t die up there, but he did bad things before that and he’s got to pay for them,” Montoya said.