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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?

Trey Styler, Nancy Styler and Kathy Carpenter were arrested for Pfister's murder

Trey Styler, Nancy Styler and Kathy Carpenter were arrested for Pfister’s murder

How Nancy spent her final days is unclear. When she got home she called her friend Billy Clayton. He was glad she was home. He often worried about her when she was traveling abroad alone. But now that she was in Aspen, he told her, he could sleep well knowing she was safe.

Three days later, Nancy was murdered in her home. While police haven’t released the exact details of the crime, a source close to the investigation says Nancy was bludgeoned to death with a hammer. The blows occurred on her bed, after which someone dragged her 12 feet across the floor and put her in a closet. A mattress was then flipped over her to hide the body.

For several days after Nancy’s body was discovered, police kept Carpenter, who had reported the murder, under surveillance, as well as the Stylers, the tenants. Shortly after Nancy’s body was discovered, the couple fled to Basalt, 20 miles north of Aspen, checking in to a rundown motel. They stayed there for about a week, as the police watched their every move. Nancy Styler often came in to the hotel lobby to collect the local paper, a clerk at the front desk says. She was particularly interested in stories about the murder of Nancy Pfister, saying that she was collecting them for a scrapbook.

“She was very flippant about it,” the clerk says. “She would say, ‘Oh, we’re the criminals in room 210.’ ”

On March 3, police knocked on the weathered door of the motel room. Nancy Styler was quickly cuffed. Her husband took much longer. When he emerged into the light from the dark motel room, he was wearing a turquoise-colored bathrobe, his thin frame shivering.

Carpenter was arrested several days later. Friends who had known her for 20 years at the bank expressed shock; when I visited and asked to speak to someone who knew her well, the color drained from the bank manager’s face at the mere mention of Carpenter’s name. She took me upstairs to meet the bank president, who politely told me he couldn’t speak about the case. “We’re really rooting for her, hoping she’s innocent of these charges.”

Friends of the Stylers were equally shocked, expressing skepticism that Trey Styler was even strong enough to overtake Nancy.

“It’s just going to take a very extraordinary piece of evidence to convince me that they did what they’ve been accused of doing,” says Paul Gordon, who represented the Stylers in a contentious lawsuit some years before. “[Trey Styler] is not even physically capable. If he’s 5’7”, I’d be surprised, and if you shake his hand, it’s an old man’s hand. What you hear so far is that she was beaten to death and stuffed in a closet. I will chew off my right foot before I believe that Trey Styler could do that.”

Police have not revealed a suspected motive and declined several requests for comment, as did several attorneys for the Stylers and Kathy Carpenter. Some speculate Nancy was killed for her money. Others wonder if it was drug related. But neither of those motives add up, says a source close to the Stylers.

“I want you to think about the facts of the case,” says one of their attorneys, who requests anonymity. “What would the motive of the Stylers be? There wasn’t a lot of money there.” Contrary to press reports that the Stylers hadn’t been paying rent, one of their attorneys says they were, but Carpenter had been keeping the money to herself. “This was a crime of passion; this wasn’t something that was well thought-out,” the attorney says, suggesting that there was more to Nancy’s relationship with Carpenter than has been reported.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the theory that Carpenter and Nancy might have been lovers. When I brought this up with Billy Clayton and Juliana they said they’d both considered the rumor but quickly dismissed it. “My mom liked men,” Juliana says flatly. “She wasn’t a lesbian.” But Clayton thinks it might be possible that Carpenter had developed an obsessive infatuation with Nancy that, intertwined with petty jealousies and class envy, could have morphed into something more.

“Kathy would sometimes get really upset about something Nancy had said to her,” he says. “Nancy was a no-bullshit kind of person, and Kathy would say, kind of pissed off, ‘Nobody talks to me like that,’ like Nancy talked down to her. But Nancy was just real honest with everyone. She didn’t mean it that way.” Juliana, meanwhile, sees no point on ferreting out a motive. While she plans to attend the trial for the three defendants, which could begin this fall, she has little to say about them, only that, “They have families too, who are also hurt and shocked.”

If there is a lesson to learn from this, friends say, perhaps it is that Nancy was too open, too fearless and too trusting. In the end, the very qualities that made Nancy so unique are what killed her. Juliana doesn’t buy this theory, either. “I think it’s the opposite,” she says. “I think more people should live like her.”

In the weeks after the murder, Nancy’s friends flew in from all over the world to pay their respects. They held her memorial in the ballroom at the Hotel Jerome, a place that represented old Aspen as much as Nancy did. There have of course been murders in Aspen before—a ski racer killed by his French lover in the ’70s, a drug dealer killed by a car bomb in 1985—but this murder somehow felt different. It wasn’t just that Aspen had lost one of its most familiar faces, it had lost a piece of its soul.

“Nancy was Aspen,” Conover says. “She couldn’t have come from any other place, at any other time. It got me thinking about when they first discovered the Galápagos Islands, and found those sea turtles and seals that had no fear of man. There was an innocence to them, and she carried that same openness to the world.”

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