William F. Styler admitted in Pitkin County District Court on Friday morning that he killed Aspen native Nancy Pfister. He received a 20-year prison sentence through a plea agreement with the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Styler, 66, a former Denver anesthesiologist, admitted to authorities on June 12 that he acted alone in the murder, District Attorney Sherry Caloia said after Friday’s court hearing. Styler used a hammer to strike Pfister’s head while she was sleeping on the night of Feb. 24, Assistant District Attorney Scott Turner said in court.
Styler, who previously faced first-degree murder charges, said little during the proceeding.
“I plead guilty, your honor,” he said, acknowledging that he knew he was giving up his right to a jury trial and a separate sentencing hearing.
Pfister’s relatives asked Chief District Judge James Boyd to impose the maximum sentence of 32 years for the second-degree murder/heat of passion charge to which Styler pleaded guilty. But Boyd went along with prosecutors’ recommendation of 20 years in a Department of Corrections prison with medical facilities. Styler has attended every court hearing since his March 3 arrest in a wheelchair for an unspecified health condition.
First-degree murder charges against his wife, Nancy Styler, 62, and former Aspen bank teller Katherine Carpenter, 56, have been dismissed. Nancy Styler was arrested on the same day as her husband, while Carpenter was arrested on March 14.
The Stylers’ connection to Pfister: They had rented her home while she was out of the country on vacation for a few months. Carpenter was said to be a longtime friend and personal assistant of Pfister’s who collected rent money from tenants. All three suspects had been held in custody in separate jails, without bond, since their arrests. Nancy Styler was set free Tuesday, while Carpenter was released Friday following a brief court appearance.
Defense attorneys for the Stylers and Carpenter told reporters outside the courthouse that the evidence was highly circumstantial and characterized the prosecutors’ cases against Nancy Styler and Carpenter as extremely weak. Caloia said the evidence against William Styler was strong.
“We do believe that this is a good and just resolution to these cases and hope that Nancy Pfister’s family can find peace in knowing what happened, knowing that Nancy Pfister’s killer is in prison, and avoiding potentially years of litigation for which the result is always uncertain,” a statement from Caloia’s office reads.
Due to William Styler’s age and medical condition, “we believe this will be a life sentence for him,” the statement adds.
Caloia also addressed the dropping of charges against Nancy Styler and Carpenter in her statement. Nancy Styler’s charges were dismissed with prejudice, meaning they cannot be brought back into play. However, Carpenter’s charges were dismissed without prejudice. Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said an investigation into Carpenter’s possible role in the homicide remains open indefinitely.
“In light of (William Styler’s) confession and statement that he alone was responsible for the death and subsequent hiding of the body, we dismissed the case against his wife Nancy Styler,” Caloia’s statement said. “With this new evidence, it became clear that we would not be able to establish that Mrs. Styler played any role in the death of Nancy Pfister.
“After careful review of the evidence against Ms. Carpenter and in light of the statements of William Styler, we realized that the evidence we have to prove her involvement is also inadequate to proceed to trial. Therefore, we dismissed the charges against Katherine Carpenter today.”
After a trip to Australia, Pfister returned in late February to her West Buttermilk Road mountainside home the Stylers had rented. Authorities found her body — wrapped in sheets, according to Caloia — in a closet at the house on Feb. 26. She was 57 at the time of her death.
On a Facebook post, Pfister had complained that the Stylers had not been paying rent. Public defender Tina Fang, who represents William Styler, said that reports alleging the Stylers failed to pay Pfister are untrue.
But Caloia said that William Styler and Pfister had been arguing in the days prior to the murder and suggested that his motive may have involved financial reasons.
“William Styler and Nancy Pfister were involved in a dispute about the rental of Nancy Pfister’s home and monies that she thought the Stylers owed her,” Caloia’s statement said.
Law enforcement affidavits in support of the March arrest warrants remained under seal as of Friday afternoon. District Judge Gail Nichols had ruled previously that the affidavits would be unsealed following a preliminary hearing set to start next week. Because of the new developments, the proceeding has been canceled.
In court, one of Pfister’s sisters, Christina, and Nancy’s daughter, Juliana, expressed their displeasure with the plea bargain. Still, they thanked the Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office for the hard work that went into the investigation and prosecution.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Juliana Pfister said of the second-degree murder charge and the 20-year sentence. “I don’t think it’s fair at all.”
Juliana Pfister was critical of the media, in particular for labeling her mother in some news reports as a “socialite.” Nancy Pfister was a “philanthropist,” she said.
She also asked Boyd to give William Styler the maximum allowable prison time under the law.
Christina Pfister, addressing the court via speakerphone, described her family’s ordeal as “frustrating” and “harrowing.”
“I truly believe that we will never know all of the true facts,” she said. “But as a Christian woman, it is not my job to be a judge and jury of these people. ‘Vengeance is mine’ is the Scripture that comes to mind. People always get their judgment in the end.”
Christina Pfister said the recommendation that William Styler be sent to a medical facility within the state prison system was a surprise to her. She added that she saw him walking about without a wheelchair not long before her sister’s death.
“A very comfortable medical sentence for Mr. Styler is not in my best interests,” she said. “Mr. Styler is in fine shape to do hard time.”
Turner said that many factors are weighed when prosecutors work with defendants to reach a plea arrangement. He said he personally has dealt with two dozen homicide cases and that the Pfister murder was as difficult as any.
He said he understands that some people might believe the disposition is inappropriate. But prosecutors are sometimes limited in what they can achieve, Turner suggested, adding that William Styler assisted the District Attorney’s Office by confessing to the crime.
“There will never be a consensus among all of the parties” that the 20-year sentence is just, Turner said.
DiSalvo, outside the courthouse, said he remains convinced that the evidence in early March was strong enough to make the arrests. He said as far as his office is concerned, the investigation of Carpenter is open.
“Just because Mr. Styler told us it’s true doesn’t mean it’s true,” he said. “We need to corroborate the things he said; that’s what a good investigator would do. Believing a man who just admitted to a homicide is not the prudent thing to do.”
William Styler will remain in the Pitkin County Jail until a place for him is found in the state prison system, DiSalvo said.
“Believe me, this is no Club Fed. This is still in the state Department of Corrections. Medical services will be available. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a light or easy ride for him. This will be hard time; this will be real time,” the sheriff said.
DiSalvo said he believes his department presented a solid case to the District Attorney’s Office and Nichols, who signed the arrest warrants.
“What makes a plea bargain is a strong case,” he said. “We did a righteous investigation. We covered a lot of bases and didn’t leave a lot of doors open for a defense attorney to walk through.”
DiSalvo added that he hopes the community feels the way he does about the plea agreement.
“This would have been a two-year ordeal for all of us: me, the family and the whole community, and I think it would have taken a big toll (on many people). I think it’s a good resolution, and I learned early on in my law enforcement career not to get too invested in these things because it will tear you up inside. I’m asking members of the community to take it day by day.
“Today we have a guilty plea with a sentence of a person who I truly believe killed Nancy. Whether or not there were accomplices, the investigation will continue to bear that out.”