One year later, Nancy Pfister murder case felt in Aspen
Shortly after 6 p.m. on this date last year, authorities fielded a telephone call that would ignite frenzies in Aspen’s legal and social arenas and a firestorm of national media attention.
The caller was Katherine Carpenter. She’d found her friend, Nancy Pfister, in a unrecognizable state. Pfister’s body was in her West Buttermilk Road residence’s walk-in closet, where authorities would later say she’d been for two days.
“I can’t believe the year went by that quickly,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said.
DiSalvo was one of Pfister’s friends. Many people were. Pfister, who was 57 at the time of her death, hailed from a prominent Aspen family. Her father, Art, was a co-founder of Buttermilk ski area. Her mother, Betty, was a member of Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, during World War II.
On Tuesday, some of Pfister’s family members and closest friends privately gathered near Pinecreek Cookhouse to pay homage to the Aspen native.
It was a much grander scale event a few weeks after her death, when a crowd filled the Hotel Jerome ballroom to celebrate the life of a woman who had grown a reputation as a socialite through her ties to Aspen’s party and celebrity crowd.
“Obviously, Nancy was a high-profile person,” Beth Krulewitch said. “She was somebody that was part of the Aspen celebrity culture. It was the perfect storm.”
An Aspen lawyer, Krulewitch defended one of the three suspects, Nancy Styler, fingered for the homicide.
Styler, along with her husband, William, and Carpenter, became local household names. The trio of suspects were charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
Major networks zoomed in on Aspen, as did tabloid magazines and newspapers.
“I think the national media stories were just silly,” DiSalvo said. “But you put ‘Aspen,’ ‘money’ and ‘socialite’ together, and it looks like a pretty juicy story if you’re living in New Hampshire. But we didn’t see it that way here.”
Even so, those close to the case were tight-lipped. Other than the charging documents against the suspects, law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys wouldn’t publicly discuss the case except in the Pitkin County District Courtroom. Arrest affidavits were sealed, putting the gossip machine into overdrive. Adding to the case’s mystique was that homicide cases are few and far between in Pitkin County.
Some records were eventually released, but only after William Styler confessed June 20 to acting alone when he used a hammer to bludgeon Pfister to death. Styler and his wife had been tenants of Pfister’s, which led to a disagreement about rent. After Pfister returned to Aspen from Australia to evict the couple, William Styler committed the murder. Carpenter, a personal assistant to Pfister, also became a suspect, in part, because of what authorities said were inconsistent accounts she gave to investigators.
Carpenter remains living in the Roaring Fork Valley, while Nancy Styler has moved out of state, filed for divorce and is trying get a new start on life, Krulewitch said.
“She’s an exceedingly strong person, and she’s surrounded herself with family and friends who’ve been supportive throughout,” Krulewitch said. “If she’s not divorced yet, she’s certainly in the process. And she’s changed her name back to her maiden name. She was all over the Internet, and she still is.”
Krulewitch successfully lobbied the court to seal the files on Nancy Styler’s murder case.
“Sealing the case won’t take care of everything, but it gives her a legal way to put it behind her,” she said.
William Styler, 66, is incarcerated at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, which is part of the Department of Corrections. He’s serving a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder.
DiSalvo said it’s fortunate there wasn’t a trial, and he feels satisfied with the outcome of the case.
“I think there’s a blessing because there wasn’t a trial,” he said. “That’s probably the thing I’m the most grateful for. I think it would have been hard on friends and family of Nancy to see and hear that evidence that frankly, I don’t think anybody should have to see.”
A trial would have set off a media frenzy, Krulewitch said.
“Aspen is a small town that has a high profile, and with those two combos, you have people that are fascinated,” she said. “Outside of the courthouse, it would have been a three-ring circus. But I don’t think Judge (Gail) Nichols would have allowed a three-ring circus to penetrate the courtroom.”
Yet despite the hype, headlines and gossip that surrounded the case, both DiSalvo and Krulewitch noted that Pfister’s death took a toll on a number of people.
“I miss Nancy and a lot of friends really miss Nancy,” DiSalvo said. “And we struggle with the fact that she’s not here.”
“I wish healing on everyone that was touched by this case in any way,” Krulewitch said. “And it also shattered the Styler family in ways that nobody could really understand.”
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