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Murder in the Mountains

When a member of one of Aspen’s oldest and most influential families, Nancy Pfister, was found beaten to death and stuffed in a closet—the town’s first murder in 30 years—residents were stunned. As the tenant of Pfister’s house is sentenced for 20 years for the horrific crime, friends and neighbors wonder: Had there been warning signs all along?

[Editor’s Note: On June 20, William “Trey” Styler, 66, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Nancy Pfister. Charges against his wife, Nancy Styler, have been dropped. The couple had been renting Pfister’s Aspen château. Katherine Carpenter, Pfister’s former assistant, is still being investigated for her involvement in the homicide.]

It was late February in Aspen, and Nancy Pfister was home. As the small plane taxied across the tarmac, she began gathering up her things. Nancy had seen this airport more times than she could count. She was always flying somewhere—Bali, Saint Tropez, the Valley of the Gods in India—but sooner or later, something always pulled her back home to the mountains of Colorado.

She had arrived at a relatively quiet time, which locals like her preferred. During Christmas and New Year’s, dozens of private jets crowded the airport, carrying celebrities, hedge fund managers, the occasional Saudi prince. In a few weeks, spring breakers would arrive, looking for a last chance to ski before the roads turned to mud and the snow turned slushy and gray.

Pfister came from one of the most prominent families in Aspen, the developers of Buttermilk Mountain. She had grown up riding horses on the trails behind the family compound, hiking to mountain lakes in search of rare flowers and fly-fishing with her mother on Woods Lake. With high cheekbones, a long, slender neck and the willowy figure of a runway model, she was beautiful. She had a big laugh and a fearlessness that over the years attracted everyone from the late Hunter S. Thompson to Michael Douglas, whom she had briefly dated. A bit of a wild child, she had once been at the center of Aspen’s party scene, when cocaine was plentiful and cops, who were often at the same parties, looked the other way. To many people, Nancy defined the Aspen of a certain era.

Friends say Nancy grew up a tomboy; she continued to love the outdoors

Friends say Nancy grew up a tomboy; she continued to love the outdoors

But that Aspen was gone, and now Nancy spent most of her time elsewhere. She loved seeing her family and friends, but she had no plans to stay long. In fact, she was annoyed that she was back at all. She’d spent the winter with friends in Australia, but the tenants in the house she owned and rented out in Aspen hadn’t been paying, forcing her to cut her trip short. She planned to stay in Aspen a few weeks, take care of business and return to Australia, perhaps for good.

Waiting for her when she deplaned was her personal assistant, a woman named Kathy Carpenter who had the same casual style as Nancy, with free-flowing, dark hair and pretty brown eyes. Like Nancy, she was easy to talk to. Anyone passing by that night might think the two were close friends. But while Nancy treated Carpenter as an equal, they came from very different social classes. Nancy had never held a traditional job; the money she’d inherited had allowed her to go wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Carpenter, on the other hand, came from down valley, where the service workers who ran the ski lifts and bused tables could afford to live. For 20 years, she had worked at Alpine Bank, which provided her housing off Main Street. It was the only way someone on Carpenter’s salary could live in Aspen.

As they drove up Buttermilk Mountain, the road winding through the towering forest, the headlights of the snowcats grooming trails on Ajax Mountain cut through the darkness. If Nancy were to roll down her window, she could smell the scent of the pine trees studding the snowy hills, the smoke from the big fireplaces of her neighbors. It was a smell that told her she was home, and safe. For all its changes, Aspen was still a small town, the sort of place where you could sleep with your window open, or leave your car door unlocked. Nothing bad ever happened here.

But within the week, Nancy Pfister would be dead, bludgeoned to death and stuffed into a closet, the woman at the wheel suspected of playing a role in her murder.

 

In the winter of 1988, the journalist Ted Conover arrived in Aspen to write a book about how the town had transformed itself into a city for the very wealthy and celebrities. He was attending a lecture about Rilke at the Aspen Community Center, when a stylish woman started making eye contact with him. Something about her distracted him. As he later wrote, “She wore a long skirt, a white oxford shirt and a sweater vest,” and seemed to exude a vibe that was both bohemian and moneyed. While the lecturer went on about Rilke’s mother, it seemed like this woman had taken control of the event with the power of her presence alone.

“She looked well-heeled, unapologetic, somehow even proprietary over the proceedings,” Conover wrote in the book Whiteout, the seminal history of modern Aspen. As soon as the lecture was over, the woman, who turned out to be Nancy Pfister, turned to Conover.

“Are you doing anything for the next hour?” she asked.

Conover fumbled for a reply. “Have we met?” he wanted to ask, but instead agreed to hop in Nancy’s Porsche, and they headed to Woody Creek to meet the gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, the godfather of Nancy’s daughter.

As they drove, Conover got the general outlines of Pfister’s life, and he would fill in the rest of the blanks later—her parents owned land on Buttermilk Mountain, which they would eventually turn into a ski resort, and were part of an extended clan of families who more or less ran the town. Her mother, one of the first American women to fly warplanes, also flew helicopters and loved all forms of skiing, including backcountry. Her dad wore a big white cowboy hat and ran cattle on the Lazy Chair Ranch, where Nancy had grown up.

The encounter was typical of the way Nancy introduced herself to people, brash and unabashed. Billy Clayton, a lifelong friend, said he first met Nancy when she was 12 years old. He kept horses at Nancy’s father’s ranch, and he immediately took to the girl as if she were his little sister. “Even at a young age, she had this sense that she could do anything. She was fearless. And that was really infectious,” Clayton recalls. “They always gave me the wild horses to work with, and in a way, that’s what Nancy was like, those horses.”

Nancy came of age at a time when Aspen was undergoing dramatic change. The Aspen of her childhood was a place without gated communities or even paved roads. Cassandra Denver, the ex-wife of the late singer John Denver, remembers Nancy taking her on ski races across hidden meadows at midnight and summer hikes up to ice-cold mountain lakes in search of wild mushrooms. “She was just so much fun,” Denver says. “One of the most free-spirited people I’ve ever been around.”

NEXT: “She really embodied what Aspen was in that era.” 

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