It was almost midnight and snowing heavily when the rescuers reached Alan Lee Phillips at the top of a high pass in the Rocky Mountains.
His pickup truck was stuck in a snowdrift, the temperature had dropped to nearly -30C and although he had managed to flash SOS with his headlights it was only by chance that a local sheriff happened to be peering out of the window on a flight to California as it passed overhead and spotted the desperate signal thousands of feet below.
The extraordinary rescue at Guanella Pass made national headlines in January 1982. Phillips, 30, was slightly intoxicated and had a large bruise on his face but otherwise fine. Dave Montoya, the local fire chief who saved him, wondered: “How in the heck did this guy get so lucky, for all the stuff to fall into place?”
Almost 40 years later, the survival tale has now taken a very dark twist: police in Colorado say that hours before his rescue the mechanic had shot and killed two young women who were hitchhiking nearby and whose murders had never been solved.
Annette Schnee, 22, and Barbara Oberholtzer, 29, both went missing from Breckenridge, Colorado, on January 6, 1982. Schnee was last seen at about 4.45 pm. Her body was found six months later face down in a stream, fully clothed but disheveled. She had been shot in the back.
Oberholtzer vanished after leaving work colleagues just before 8 pm. Her family found her body the next day on a snow embankment about 20ft from the road below another mountain pass, about ten miles from Breckenridge and 50 miles from Guanella Pass. She had been shot in the chest.
Charlie McCormick, a retired Denver murder detective, spent years investigating Schnee’s death, charging her family $1 a year for his services. He joined the district attorney’s task force as the investigation spread across the west of the US and even overseas.
Genetic genealogy finally led to a breakthrough. DNA from the crime scenes, considered against hundreds of family trees, was definitively linked to Phillips, now 70 and still living in the area. McCormick, 81, received a call earlier this year from the team’s lead genetics researcher to tell him the news. “She said, ‘We got him,” he told a local television station. “It was phenomenal, something I thought I would never see.”
In February police arrested Phillips during a traffic stop in Clear Creek County, a few miles from the site of the crimes. He was charged with the kidnapping, assault, and murder of both women. “After avoiding it for all these years, he’s now going to have to deal with it,” said McCormick.
Eileen Franklin, 88, Schnee's mother, said: “I thought maybe I'd be gone before I had closure to this case. I'm ready to go when it's my time now.”
Only much later did the authorities connect Phillips to the extraordinarily lucky mountain rescue.
Montoya, the fire chief who found Phillips, said that on the night that he got the call from the dispatcher that a stranded motorist had been spotted from an airplane he thought “it was the craziest thing I ever heard of”.
He got to Guenella Pass 15 minutes later and found Phillips. “Sure as heck, there he was in his little pickup, and he saw me and said, ‘Oh, God, I’m saved.’
“He said he got drunk and decided to drive home. And I said, ‘You came up over the pass?’ And he said, ‘Well, it seemed like a good idea.’”
Phillips explained the large bruise on his face by saying that he had climbed out of his truck to go to the toilet and while trying to get back in had been blinded by the snow and slammed his head into the corner of the truck.
A preliminary hearing for Phillips has been scheduled for September 13.
Montoya said: “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.”