Murder in the Mountains

by Kasey Caminiti | June 11, 2014 8:54 am

[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[1] 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[2], 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.” [3]

By the time Nancy was in high school in the early ’70s, Aspen had begun to usher in an era Hunter Thompson described as a “wild and incredible dope orgy.” The movie stars came not long after. “Nancy was right in the middle of that scene,” Clayton remembers. “I mean, if you could see all the people that rode in that red Porsche with her, everyone from Steve Martin to the Dalai Lama.”

They often ended up at Thompson’s place, where he sometimes wandered around stark naked, hopped up on mescaline, shooting his .44 magnum at targets he’d set up around his property. Aspen was in the midst of a great battle, he would say—his cigarette holder jabbed in the side of his mouth—that pitted the “subdividers, ski pimps and land developers” against the hippies who “still valued a good place to live.”

Nancy cheered when the mayor cut down highway billboards, but realized, like Thompson and all the other environmentalists, that you could only hold back change for so long. By the early ’80s, the trickle of movie stars, as Conover wrote, had “swelled into a flood,” and the billionaires who would raze trees to erect massive homes weren’t too far behind.

Aspen was increasingly becoming a place that consisted of two worlds: the cosmopolitan small town that was tasteful and refined, with great thinkers, environmentalists and a world-class opera house, and the town as it existed to outsiders, “a place for pleasure and escape…a Never-Never Land,” as Conover put it. While all locals were influenced by both worlds to some extent, no one occupied them quite to the extent Nancy did.

“There was a certain overlap between outside wealth and glamour and the old, privileged Aspen, and Nancy loved that space,” Conover says. “She really embodied what Aspen was in that era.” But as Aspen changed, so did Nancy. Clayton could see it happening. “When I knew her, she was just a small-town girl,” he remembers. “She loved horses, she loved to ski, she was a tomboy. And then all those people, Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, they took her out of there and introduced her to the world.”

At the same time, Nancy felt deeply uncomfortable with what Aspen was becoming, and often opposed her father’s development of Buttermilk Mountain, even joining committees to stop the project. While she remained especially close with her dad, and in love with her hometown, she began searching for the untrammeled and raw experiences in nature she had experienced as a child. She traveled to Nepal and Indonesia, and when she had her only child, Juliana, in 1986, she took the baby with her wherever she went. They lived off and on in an abandoned sugar mill in Hawaii and spent months at a time in Bali and Thailand.

“At times it was hard for me,” Juliana says now. “It was like, ‘Why do I have to eat this weird food, and why am I up till one-thirty in the morning at this art show? Why are we in this weird country? I just want to be with my friends at school.’ But it was also awesome. The things that once made me embarrassed I now look back on with so much gratitude.”

Once, for example, Nancy and Juliana were in St. Tropez when Nancy saw a man on the deck of an 80-foot-long mahogany sailboat.

“Hey,” she called out. “Is that your sailboat?”

When the man said it was, Nancy didn’t skip a beat. “Can my daughter and I come with you?”

“And I was like, ‘Mom, ‘cmon!’ I was so embarrassed,” Juliana says. “But now I look back and think, man, I spent like two days on the most beautiful sailboat ever. I just think, if more people were like that, imagine the experiences we’d have.”

Nancy Pfister with daughter Juliana

Nancy Pfister with daughter Juliana

Paul Andersen, a writer for the Aspen Times, told the story of meeting Nancy in a recent column for the paper. He had just moved to town. It was the off-season and the pedestrian mall was empty “except for this strangely appealing woman. She came sauntering toward me,” Andersen wrote, “casually eating with chopsticks from a Chinese carry-out carton. I was drawn to her… Soon we were standing a foot apart, face-to-face, just looking at each other. What I noticed most was her eyes—mesmerizing and mischievous, like cat-eye marbles.”

Without a word, Nancy scooped up a clump of rice with her chopsticks and pushed it toward him. “I opened my mouth,” he wrote, “accepted the morsel and knew I had arrived.”

Andersen immediately fell in love with the beguiling aura Nancy possessed. Many men did—polo players, ski racers, movie stars. But Nancy never settled down, and as the years passed, friends who had once idolized her free spirit began to question some of her choices, clucking at her long absences from home and the months she’d spend away from Juliana, who stayed with family and friends while she was gone. Nancy told Juliana that she never intended to marry her father, a handsome polo player from Argentina. He was simply a baby donor, she said, someone to fill a role. This didn’t sit well in Aspen, which despite its claims of open-mindedness, can actually be quite conservative and bound by convention.

As she got older, gossip followed her. She was promiscuous, some said. Unfit to be a mother. No Pants Nance became a cruel nickname around town. Why couldn’t she be more like her two sisters, who had married and lead quiet and respectable lives? “People can become very judgmental,” Clayton says. “And I think they were jealous. For one thing, most people can’t just jump on a plane and fly wherever they want. And it bugged people that she never settled down.”

Instead, she lived a chaotic life, continually on the run. She’d call Clayton out of the blue from Stade Roland Garros, where she was watching the French Open, and hand the phone to Roman Polanski, or from Africa, where she was with Anjelica Huston. Over time, the circle of friends who could just travel with her on a moment’s notice became smaller and smaller. Friends got married, others got jobs, but Nancy remained unencumbered, free to do whatever she wanted. She began to travel alone more often. When she came back to Aspen, many of her old friends were not all that available, so she began taking on new ones that, sources say, seemed seedy, even dangerous.

NEXT: “I was very fond of her. But I also kept her at an arm’s distance.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”

Endnotes:
  1. private jets: http://dujour.com/article/netjets-private-planes
  2. Aspen: http://dujour.com/city/aspen/
  3. NEXT: “She really embodied what Aspen was in that era.” : http://dujour.com/news/nancy-pfister-aspen-murder/2/
  4. NEXT: “I was very fond of her. But I also kept her at an arm’s distance.”: http://dujour.com/news/nancy-pfister-aspen-murder/3/
  5. NEXT: “Oh, we’re the criminals in room 210.”: http://dujour.com/news/nancy-pfister-aspen-murder/4/

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