Escalating tensions over money between Nancy Pfister and her tenants, William and Nancy Styler, precipitated the grisly murder of the well-known Aspen socialite.
Those and other details of the case emerged Friday when Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols ordered the unsealing of the arrest-warrant affidavit for William Styler, who confessed on June 20 that he acted alone when he used a hammer to kill Pfister in her sleep at her West Buttermilk home.
As part of a plea deal, Styler, 66, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. In turn, prosecutors dropped first-degree-murder charges against his wife, Nancy, 62, on June 18, and the third suspect, Katherine Carpenter, 56, on June 20.
Nichols’ unsealing of the affidavit and search-warrant findings comes after Aspen’s two daily newspapers filed legal briefs earlier this month arguing for the release of William Styler’s arrest-warrant affidavit.
Pfister was killed in late February, but details had been scant about the case because key information, contained in the affidavits, had been sealed. The case had attracted national attention, in part because Pfister, 57, hailed from a prominent Aspen family. Her father, Art, was a co-founder of Buttermilk Ski Area, which opened in 1958. During World War II her mother, Betty, was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASP. Her father died in 2008 and her mother in 2011.
Nancy Pfister, who had two sisters and a daughter, spent time in Aspen and overseas, and she would rent out her house, located at 1833 W. Buttermilk Road, during the winter seasons.
THE STYLERS’ FINANCIAL WOES
Pfister’s rental agreement was cemented in October with the Styler couple, who had moved to the Aspen area from the Front Range, where William Styler had been an anesthesiologist and Nancy Styler founded the Victoria Conservancy botanical gardens in Denver.
The affidavit for William Styler’s arrest, however, shows that the couple had major financial problems — their credit scores were so low that on Feb. 18, Alpine Bank rejected his loan application seeking $25,000 to $50,000. Styler had told a loan officer that he needed the money to pay his first and last months’ rent at Pfister’s home and start a spa at the Hotel Jerome, the affidavit says.
When William Styler learned he had been rejected for the loan, he told Alpine Bank’s Aspen branch president that if something were to happen to Pfister, “it would be best for all involved,” the affidavit says. Styler also told the president that if Styler committed suicide, his wife would be able to live off of his $1 million insurance policy.
That same day, Styler tried to sell one of his wife’s rings to a downtown Aspen jeweler. Styler didn’t like the jeweler’s offer and, likewise, threatened to kill himself, the affidavit says.
The Stylers moved into Pfister’s house on Nov. 22, but the landlord-tenant relationship quickly soured. Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office investigator Brad Gibson, who wrote the arrest affidavit for William Styler, based his findings on interviews with sheriff’s deputies, polygraph examiners, Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents, the Styler couple, Carpenter and others.
Carpenter, a friend and assistant of Pfister’s for seven years, would later relay to Gibson that there had been constant discord between Pfister and the Styler couple.
Pfister had traveled to Australia for the winter but became increasingly agitated because the couple had stopped paying their $4,000 in monthly rent as well as utilities, Carpenter told authorities. The Stylers also had used one of her credit cards and were driving Pfister’s car.
On Dec. 12, Pfister emailed William Styler to complain: “Nancy (Styler) charged almost $670 to my card, no cash for the rest of our agreements, expect to hear from my lawyer! U guys have a lot of nerve to move in with no payments, making me upset, I have other people to take care of Gabe (Pfister’s dog), better get a moving truck and return to Denver.”
The emails continued, including one from William Styler to Pfister on Feb. 17: “You keep repeating your allegation that Nancy (Styler) never repaid you for the clothes bought with your card. This is false. You were repaid in excess between the money paid to the caterer on your behalf the more than $1000 spent buying your special champagne (which was never intended to be a “gift” to you.) ... Be careful what you ask for — you may get more than you expect.”
Frustrated and angry, Pfister returned to Aspen on Feb. 21, abandoning her arrangements to come back in May, the affidavit says. Pfister had informed the Stylers that they were being evicted, demanding that they pay her between $13,000 and $14,000 before they could reclaim their possessions from her home.
Carpenter told authorities that the Stylers were angry with Pfister and that Nancy Styler had told her multiple times that she wanted to kill Pfister.
Carpenter told authorities she last saw Pfister on Feb. 24. But as recently as Feb. 21, Nancy Styler contacted Carpenter to say she hadn’t seen Pfister, even speculating that Pfister might have killed herself.
Over the next few days, Nancy Styler’s calls to Carpenter increased in frequency, Carpenter told Gibson. At one point, Nancy Styler told Carpenter they had been to Pfister’s house to retrieve their possessions, and she had noticed a foul smell at the residence. And on Feb. 26, the Stylers called Carpenter to say they would be back later that evening to collect some trash bags they had left in front of Pfister’s home.
Carpenter, however, would get to Pfister’s home first, the affidavit says. At approximately 5:45 p.m., she went to Pfister’s walk-in closet, which was locked. Typically the key was in the door. This time, it wasn’t, she told Gibson. Carpenter said she then went to her Aspen residence to get a spare key and returned to Pfister’s place.
“Carpenter unlocked the closet and found the body,” the affidavit says. Carpenter called 911 in what Gibson described as an “emotional, distraught and difficult to understand at times” state.
Meanwhile, starting at 7:56 that night, Nancy Styler “made a flurry of 13 calls to 6 people,” a search warrant says. The recipients included Carpenter as well as Carpenter’s mother.
The Stylers, who had gone to the Buttermilk home that night to collect the trash bags they had told Carpenter they would get, were spooked away when they saw all of the police vehicles.
Later than night, sheriff’s deputies located the Stylers’ Jaguar in front of the Aspenalt Lodge in Basalt.
The next day, authorities executed a search warrant on the Stylers’ Aspenalt unit, where they saw William Styler lying under the covers in a bed. William Styler appeared to be in a decaying physical state, telling investigators that he suffered from medical conditions similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Both Stylers were handcuffed and taken to the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen for interrogation.
At a later interrogation, on Feb. 28, Gibson said, “While speaking with me, Nancy Styler said she felt shocked that the police wanted to talk with her about the body found in the house she and her husband were renting. Nancy Styler said she did not have anything to do with the body.”
That same day, a town of Basalt facilities manager, during a routine check of bear-proofed trash bins in town, found items belonging to Pfister in one of the bins. He did so by seeing Pfister’s name on a prescription drug bottle and later found a bloodstained hammer in a small white trash bag, which was contained within a larger bag with some of Pfister’s contents.
Later that day, Pfister’s handyman visited the Stylers at the Aspenalt.
“Nancy Styler said she really hated Pfister,” making the handyman uncomfortable and prompting him to leave, the affidavit says.
Also that day, a CBI investigator searched the Stylers’ Jaguar, finding reddish-brown stains on the driver’s side in both the front and back of the car, and cleaning supplies in the trunk, according to the affidavit.
CBI polygraph tests, given to William Styler and Carpenter on Feb. 27 and Feb. 28, respectively, at the Pitkin County Courthouse, showed both of them denying any involvement in the death. The administrator of the tests said she believed both Styler and Carpenter were being deceptive.
Suspicions about Carpenter
Carpenter’s accounts of the night in question appeared to be inconsistent in the eyes of investigators. She once told a deputy and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, a good friend of Pfister’s, that she saw the Styler couple on Feb. 26 at Styler’s home. She told Gibson that she hadn’t seen them that day at the Pfister residence, the affidavit says. Carpenter’s mother also told a CBI agent that her daughter said she saw Pfister’s body wrapped in sheets, yet Kathy Carpenter didn’t mention that during an interview with the same CBI agent.
Within 24 hours of seeing Pfister’s body, Carpenter took $6,000 in cash and jewelry from Pfister’s safe-deposit box at Alpine Bank in Aspen, where Carpenter had worked. Carpenter had used the money to pay for her son’s plane ticket back home, along with some of the funds going to his college tuition. Carpenter also indicated that she wanted to give the jewelry to Pfister’s daughter, Juliana. Authorities say Carpenter had tried to cover it up, and after she was set free from the Pitkin County Jail on June 20, prosecutors said they were considering charging her with theft.
Earlier this week, District Attorney Sherry Caloia said she wouldn’t levy theft charges against Carpenter, who had spent 96 days in jail since her March 14 arrest, 11 days after the Styler couple were taken into custody.
A big job
In the affidavit, Gibson said that when he and other investigators went to Pfister’s home the night her body was discovered, “Inside the walk-in closet we saw what appeared to be a body covered in at least one towel, at least one blanket and possibly at least one sheet. It was difficult to determine how the body was positioned.”
Authorities also saw the neck area covered by a towel, and “wrapped around the towel and the neck was a yellow, heavy-duty electrical extension cord.”
From the shoulders down, the body was wrapped in a heavy-duty plastic trash bag, while the head was covered in two white plastic kitchen bags, the affidavit says.
“I know how difficult it can be to move a dead body with four grown men,” Gibson wrote.
He added: “While one person may be able to drag a body across a bedroom carpet, based on my experience with dead bodies, even dragging a dead body a very short distance is extremely difficult. With all those factors, I believed it unlikely for only one person to have been involved in moving, binding and packaging a body.”
Carpenter’s attorneys contend that her arrest records should be sealed and that the damage to her life has been enough because she is innocent. A hearing is set for Aug. 11. Carpenter no longer works at Alpine Bank and resides in Carbondale. Numerous community members have spoken out on her behalf, saying she never should have been arrested in the first place.
“Be careful what you ask for — you may get more than you expect.”
In email to Nancy Pfister