Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols ruled Monday that the case file of former Nancy Pfister murder suspect Katherine Carpenter will be permanently sealed.
Carpenter, 56, a longtime employee of Alpine Bank, was arrested March 14 at her employee-housing residence in Aspen and charged with first-degree murder in connection with Pfister’s death. When former Denver-area anesthesiologist William Styler, 66, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in state prison on June 20, Carpenter was set free. She spent 96 days in custody.
Her Glenwood Springs defense attorney Greg Greer said the sealing of the file paves the way for Carpenter, who is now listed in court documents as a Carbondale resident, to move on with her life.
“She’s day-to-day,” Greer said. “She’s trying to keep a good attitude. She lost everything — her job, her employee housing; even her car was repossessed while she was in jail. She has nothing.”
William Styler — who with his wife, Nancy, had been renting Pfister’s West Buttermilk Road home during the winter while Pfister was vacationing abroad — claimed to authorities that he acted alone by hitting Pfister in the head with a hammer as she slept on the night of Feb. 24. Nancy Styler, arrested with her husband on first-degree murder charges on March 3, was released from jail a few days before Styler’s guilty plea and sentencing. William Styler’s plea agreement with the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the court carries a stipulation that Nancy Styler can never be prosecuted in the Pfister homicide.
Carpenter was a longtime friend and personal assistant to Pfister and collected rent money from tenants such as the Stylers on Pfister’s behalf. She found the body of Pfister, who was 57, on Feb. 26 in a closet at Pfister’s home and phoned 911, setting into motion the homicide investigation led by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
Following Carpenter’s June 20 release, Greer filed a petition asking the court to seal all records associated with Carpenter and the allegations against her.
Nichols agreed to seal Carpenter’s file permanently — the state of Colorado does not actually expunge criminal records — but documents in William Styler’s case file that suggest Carpenter’s involvement in the murder will remain public record.
Prosecutor Andrea Bryan said that the sealing only pertains to records of official action, such as affidavits in support of the warrant for Carpenter’s arrest, the District Attorney’s official charging documents and other items in her court file. It doesn’t pertain to evidence gathered in her case, such as recordings of Sheriff’s Office interviews.
Court records relating to Carpenter but contained in other files will remain unsealed “as long as it’s not a report officially documenting her arrest,” Bryan said. “Everything else is subject to disclosure.”
Essentially, the judge’s order allows Carpenter to say to potential employers — she was fired from her banking job — that she never was arrested in connection with Pfister’s death, Bryan said.
“The judge didn’t really have much choice here because if someone’s case gets completely dismissed, that’s pretty much automatic,” Bryan said with regard to sealing an individual’s criminal court file.
Greer said that getting the judge to seal the file is the only way Carpenter obtains a “de facto expungement.”
“It essentially gives the same benefit of what other states and the federal government call expungement,” he said.
On behalf of several media outlets, a Denver attorney who specializes in the First Amendment filed an intervention to Greer’s petition arguing that the sealing issue was moot because the court previously unsealed documents in the William Styler case file that contained information pointing to Carpenter’s possible role and suggesting reasons for her arrest.
Nichols said Monday, “Mr. Greer is aware that the Styler files and the search-warrant file in particular contains everything really that’s in Ms. Carpenter’s file. I haven’t gone through it item by item, but that’s kind of my impression.”
Based on affidavits in support of Styler’s arrest, Carpenter’s statements 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.
But she told investigator Brad Gibson that she hadn’t seen them that day at the Pfister residence, the affidavit says. Carpenter’s mother also told a Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent that her daughter said she saw Pfister’s body wrapped in sheets, yet Carpenter didn’t mention that during an interview with the same CBI agent.
Also, within 24 hours of seeing Pfister’s body, Carpenter took $6,000 in cash and two items of jewelry from Pfister’s safe-deposit box at Alpine Bank in Aspen, the affidavit said. Carpenter allegedly 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.
Minutes after Carpenter was set free, DiSalvo and District Attorney Sherry Caloia told reporters outside the courthouse that they were continuing to investigate her on a potential theft charge. A few weeks later, Caloia said there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue a theft case against Carpenter.
Greer said Carpenter is attempting to heal, physically and psychologically, from the ordeal. Eventually she will seek another job, he said.
“This (sealing) is a big step to being able to do that,” he said. “She can fill out an employment application with the benefits of what the sealing statute gives her.
“This has been a huge trauma for her. This is not just the trauma of getting arrested. Nancy Pfister was her friend. And she found her friend and called 911, and then suddenly she was in custody for 96 days.”