As the homicide investigation into the death of Aspen native and socialite Nancy Pfister enters its second week on Wednesday, questions persist about an incident described by Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo as “a big, big deal for our small community.”
DiSalvo offered that remark at a news conference Tuesday, the day Front Range couple William Francis Styler III, 65, and his wife, Nancy Christine Styler, 62, appeared in Pitkin County District Court after being arrested the previous evening at the Aspenalt Lodge in Basalt.
Relatives of Pfister, 57, have declined interview requests from The Aspen Times, but the victim’s 29-year-old daughter, Juliana, asked ABC News the very question that has many locals baffled.
“How could someone just be so angry that they got kicked out of a house?” she said. “There’s got to be something more. It’s hard to understand that.”
Authorities won’t say that a landlord-tenant dispute was the impetus for the killing, but they have confirmed that the Stylers lived in Pfister’s rental home, located off of West Buttermilk Road.
Buttermilk has a strong Pfister influence and presence. Nancy Pfister’s father, Art Pfister, teamed with neighbor Friedl Pfiefer to open Buttermilk ski area in 1958. Art Pfister eventually would sell his share of the mountain to Aspen Skiing Co., and his ranch later would be developed into the Maroon Creek Club, which has a residential area that includes Pfister Drive near Tiehack. On the western side of Buttermilk is the location of Nancy Pfister’s home, which the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office says has an actual worth at $1.98 million. The home’s owner is identified as NMP Residence Trust, with an address of 601 E. Hyman Ave., the location of Aspen law firm Garfield & Hecht, which handles much of the Pfister family’s legal affairs.
In late November, the Styler couple moved into the home. But a Facebook post from Pfister dated Feb. 3 says that her tenants weren’t paying rent and the home would be available “around” Feb. 22. Four days later, on Feb. 26, a woman found Pfister’s body in a closet and called 911. Initially, Pfister’s body was in such a state that authorities could not immediately confirm it was her.
While the Stylers are in the custody of Pitkin County Jail without bond, DiSalvo has said that his department isn’t ruling out other suspects. At a news conference Tuesday, the sheriff said a “wide net” is being cast.
On March 2, the last full day the Styler couple would spend at the Aspenalt Lodge, Garfield and Pitkin county deputies removed contents from an Alpine Bank employee-housing unit at the Christiana Lodge in Aspen. That unit was rented out by the same woman who discovered Pfister’s body, who also was Pfister’s assistant and oversaw the financial matters for her rental home.
A fall from prominence
The Stylers once led what appeared to be a robust life. William Styler was an anesthesiologist, and his wife founded Victoria Conservancy, which provided water lilies for gardens around the world.
But clues of William Styler’s struggles are revealed in court documents, including a letter dated Dec. 22, 2009, that he wrote to the state’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. The letter was part of his ongoing yet futile effort to collect on an $810,000 court-ordered judgment from his former lawyer, John Powell.
“I am Dr. William F. Styler, III, D.O., a physician who practiced anesthesiology in the Denver area from 1981 until 2001, when a neurological disability forced me to retire from the active practice of anesthesiology,” he wrote. Styler also noted that he resigned from Colorado Anesthesia Consultants, after working there for 19 months starting in 1990, “amid a dispute about my proper compensation. Negotiations were not fruitful, and this long legal odyssey began.”
Denver attorney Paul Gordon, who represented Styler in his malpractice suit against Powell, said Styler, over the past few years, had shown signs of being emotionally defeated by the legal fight.
“(The arrest) was just the awful next step in what has been a difficult story for him the last 10 years or so,” Gordon said Friday.
Gordon said that Styler’s legal-malpractice case was almost unprecedented, at least in legal experience. He said Styler’s legal bills stemmed from Powell representing him in a case against Colorado Anesthesia Consultants. Styler lost the case, in which he had contended he hadn’t received compensation for software he had developed. His legal bills ended up being more than $600,000.
“The Stylers paid every penny of that $600,000,” Gordon said. “It’s an extraordinary amount of money, perhaps the largest I’ve seen paid by an individual or corporation. But he never got to the point where he said, ‘I’m not going to pay my bill.’ He was being a responsible citizen, but this particular lawyer was taking him to the woodshed and beating the crap out of him.”
Gordon said he also noticed William Styler was wearing out physically. The last time he saw him was within the past 12 months, probably closer to six, Gordon said.
“He was a very frail man,” Gordon recalled. “The last time I talked to him, he looked like he was in his late 80s. When you shook his hand, you could tell he was frail. I’m adamant, at least that time I saw him, that he didn’t have physical ability to drag a body and stuff it into a closet. He just couldn’t have done that.”
When authorities arrested William Styler on Monday, he walked out of his Aspenalt unit in pajamas and under the escort of two deputies. The next day, a deputy rolled him into courtroom in a wheelchair.
The Stylers’ financial picture is not clear, but Pfister most recently was asking for $4,000 a month for her rental home. Tenant responsibilities included watching her Labradoodle, Gabe.
At Tuesday’s court hearing, both Stylers were given pro bono attorneys. One was public defender Sarah Steele, the other a court-appointed lawyer, Beth Krulewitch, who has a practice in Aspen. At the hearing, Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols said both of the defendants would have to file paperwork to see if they qualified for court-appointed attorneys because of their income.
Krulewitch said Friday she has received official notification that she can represent Nancy Styler.
The Stylers’ most recent address was in Castle Rock. They have a son who attends the University of Colorado. A representative for the family said there would be no statement issued Friday.