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Updated: Saturday, 17 Nov 2012, 10:33 AM MST
Published : Wednesday, 11 Jul 2012, 10:01 PM MDT
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - It was a hot summer morning in August 1994, and the road ahead was as deserted as the barren, scrubby terrain it cut through.
As Ladrón Peak receded behind them, the two men inside the cash-stuffed cargo van had no idea they were heading directly into the pages of a bloody piece of Old West history.
When it was over, one of them would be dead, two children would be fatherless and two merciless bandits would see their carefully laid plan thwarted by a senior citizen with a six-shooter.
“It’s always bothered me,” said John Schum, a retired FBI agent who investigated the case. “I’ve always thought about this because the victim left behind two kids and a young wife. Because he was killed in such a ruthless manner.
"It was such a cold-blooded ambush.”
Because it involved a Wells Fargo vehicle transporting money, the ambush echoed the 1800s when stage coaches--often operated by Wells Fargo--plied the American West moving precious cargo across vast, wide-open country.
A century later, on Aug. 25, 1994, two Wells Fargo guards riding in a van this time instead of a stagecoach were carrying around $100,000 cash as they traveled their regular route between outlying banks west of Albuquerque.
But on this day, the two men were particularly vulnerable because their armored car was in the shop and they were driving an ordinary Ford panel van rented locally. At the wheel was Jeff Oelcher, 28, a volunteer firefighter from Rio Rancho, while Chuck Mills, 68, was riding shotgun.
It was about 10:30 a.m. on State Road 6 when the van reached approximately the midway point between Los Lunas and Interstate 40. Parked alongside the road at a dirt pullout up ahead was a dark-colored or brown pickup truck possibly with dual rear wheels with its bed shaded by a silver or white camper shell.
The pickup’s tailgate was down.
"And the shooter was laying in the bed of the pickup with an assault-type rifle,” Schum told KRQE News 13. “Just waiting.”
About 200 yards from the pull-out, the first shots rang out killing Oelcher instantly, Schum said. The van skidded to a stop by the side of the road and began taking heavy fire.
Initial reports indicated the van absorbed at least 40 high-powered rifle rounds likely fired from a .223-caliber rifle.
Mills was armed with a revolver and began blasting back through the van’s windshield at the assailants.
“He was ducking down behind the dashboard, and up and down,” Schum said. “And, as he’s taking fire, and he’s taking a lot of fire, a lot of rounds coming at him from the assault rifle.
"And he would just pop up and put some more rounds through his windshield back at the people who are ambushing him.”
Mills squeezed off six shots and then was able to reload the revolver and fire off six more.
Schum said he thinks that was enough to make the bandits reconsider their plan. They took off without ever approaching the van and without any of the money.
“This is a little bit of the Wild West out here,” Schum said. “This is pretty brutal.”
Attempts to find Chuck Mills were unsuccessful.
Schum said that during a 32-year career with the FBI, some cases stick with him more than others. The Oelcher case is one of them.
Oelcher left behind two children--Raelynn, then 3, and Scott, then 2--and their mother, April Lowe.
“He was a fantastic guy,” Lowe said in a recent interview with News 13. “(He was) wonderful with his kids, and I would have loved to see what he could have done with them.”
Today those kids born 10 months apart are both 20 years old and still live in the Rio Rancho area.
“When he came home from work, that’s how we used to do "Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home," and we just tackled him,” Raelynn Dunton said. “So that’s about all I remember.”
Scott Oelcher is the spitting image of a father he does not remember.
“I think about him every single day,” Scott Oelcher said. “I think about how different my life would be, what kind of person I’d be if he was still there.”
He said the way his father died haunts him.
“(The) first question would be why?,” Scott Oelcher said. “I mean, why’d he have to die? Why’d you have to kill him? You know, I grew up without a real, stable father because of this.”
Schum said he initially suspected the attempted robbery might have been an inside job. However, he found no evidence to support that.
He said that back then Wells Fargo frequently used rental vans and that employees were disgruntled enough about the practice to have mentioned it around town.
And despite a meticulous investigation and a cash reward offered by Wells Fargo, the now-retired Schum never solved the case. In the end, there were no solid leads, no suspects, no nothing.
The two men described as Indian or Hispanic and their dark-colored pickup simply vanished.
“This stayed at the forefront of one that bothered me because he was a young guy just starting out in life,” Schum said. “He was a good guy.”
Now the FBI is hoping for a break. Perhaps someone out there heard something once from an ex-boyfriend
or a family member, something that could crack this case wide open.
“We’re hoping that they can think about this and maybe now it’s time to come forward,” Schum said.
They’re not the only ones.
“It’s years since this happened,” Scott Oelcher said. “And I would like some closure actually.”
The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the men who killed Jeff Oelcher. Tips can be called in to a 24-hour FBI hotline at (505) 889-1300 (24 hours) or by filling out an electronic reporting form on the FBI website .
The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the men who killed Jeff Oelcher.
Anyone with information should call (505) 889-1400 (24 hours) or fill out an electronic reporting form at tips.fbi.gov.