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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?

One night in the summer of 2012, Nancy was up in Glenwood Springs, about an hour from Aspen. Locals joke that Aspen has both a Dior and a Louis Vuitton store just off Main Street, but if you want socks for your kids, you have to drive to Glenwood Springs, the nearest place with a Target. While Nancy came from money, she shopped at thrift stores and had no problem hanging out with lift operators or waiters, or drinking at a bar in downtown Glenwood Springs.

Her closest friends—Cassandra Denver, Billy Clayton, a few others—were either no longer in Aspen, or were too busy to spend time with her. It had become a common refrain in Nancy’s life now that she was in her fifties—everyone had grown up and settled down.

Clayton remembers her frustration at this. Last fall they were in Houston, talking about a real estate project Clayton and his business partner were getting off the ground in Costa Rica. “Let’s go down and see it,” Nancy said.

“Right now?” Clayton’s business partner asked.

“Sure, why not?” Nancy wondered.

“Well, I can’t just hop on a plane at the drop of a hat.”

“Oh,” Nancy said, disappointed. “I can.”

On that night in August of 2012, with none of her close friends around to party, Nancy was with Kathy Carpenter, who by then had been her personal assistant and banker for at least three years. Carpenter had become a fixture in Nancy’s life, almost like an extended part of the family. She took care of Nancy’s dogs and her house, and had even stayed with her at Nancy’s place in Maui.

After a night of drinking, they went outside to find Nancy’s car, but after wandering around with no luck, they returned to the bar and asked a server who had just gotten off work if she could help them. For more than an hour, the group walked around Glenwood Springs, looking for the car. The whole time, the server would later say, Carpenter berated Nancy, at times yelling at her, or mumbling insults under her breath. Carpenter was so drunk she was barely coherent. Eventually Nancy had someone call the police for her, telling them she was afraid of Carpenter and worried she might get violent.

To some of Aspen’s blue bloods, the incident was indicative of how far Nancy had fallen from grace. While her sisters were still invited to parties hosted by the glossy luxury magazines, editors left Nancy off the list, worried she might show up and drink too much. One longtime friend said that Nancy had become so enmeshed in New Age mysticism they could barely carry on a conversation “without it becoming cosmic and Peter Pan.” Says another friend, “I was very fond of her. But I also kept her at an arm’s distance.”

Nancy's Aspen house, where her body was found in a closet

Nancy’s Aspen house, where her body was found in a closet

Last November, Nancy was making preparations to leave Aspen for the winter, as was her custom. At a party at her house shortly before she left, she introduced friends to the couple that would rent her place while she was in Australia. They seemed like a good choice. William Styler was a retired anesthesiologist who had built his career in the Denver metropolitan area. A short man with a bird-like frame and a white, professorial beard, he was soft-spoken and polite. His wife, Nancy, seemed the type who would love to claim an Aspen address. A friend would later describe her to the Aspen Daily News as a combination of Dolly Parton and I Dream of Jeannie—with a fake tan, long French nails and gold lamé shoes. Her Denver area home had an air of new money to it, with fake waterfalls, white leather couches and lavender carpets. They were more Vegas than Aspen. “There was an element that these people were living in their own world,” their friend told the paper.

The Stylers had once been rich, with an exquisite garden of Victoria water lilies in their backyard, but a business dispute had left them in financial trouble. To make matters worse, William Styler, known as Trey to his friends, had been laid low by an illness, forcing him, at times, to get around in a wheelchair. One friend said the couple seemed beaten down by life.

Aspen had long been a place for reinvention, and perhaps that is why the Stylers came there. Nancy’s closest friends still aren’t sure how she met them.

After the Stylers agreed to rent her house for the winter, Nancy took off for Australia. Over the next few months, she seemed unconcerned with how things were going back home. An Australian newspaper later reported that while in Sydney she struck up a friendship with a man who had fixed the television in her hotel room, spending Christmas with his family and making plans to go skiing together in Aspen. For the man, the whirlwind friendship was unlike any other he had in his life, but for Nancy it was typical.

She was making plans with Billy Clayton to start a business together, but she also talked about moving to Australia permanently. And then her plans abruptly changed. In early February, she reportedly told friends she had to return to Aspen earlier than expected because her tenants weren’t paying rent. But that seemed like a strange move. Why couldn’t Kathy take care of the dispute? And why did she have to return from Australia to resolve it?

One possibility is that money was actually tight for Nancy, and without the $4,000 rent check, she couldn’t afford to stay in Australia. A few days before she left, she reunited with her lifelong friend Janie Bennett, who also lived in Aspen but happened to be in Australia visiting her father. They met up for dinner at a yacht club on the Sydney harbor. While it bothered some back in Aspen that Nancy had never conformed to social norms, Bennett found it reassuring that her friend hadn’t changed. To her, Nancy seemed the same girl who had attracted so many celebrities 20 years before—vivacious, glamorous and full of interesting ideas.

At one point in the dinner, Nancy turned to Bennett and said, “I’m leaving tomorrow and I don’t want to go.” She looked out at the water, which was on fire with the sun setting above the harbor.

“Well, then why are you going?” Bennett asked.

“I have these tenants I have to deal with,” Nancy said.

And with that, the conversation at the table resumed, and they didn’t talk more about it.

NEXT: “Oh, we’re the criminals in room 210.”

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