Wrongful death suit filed in Nancy Pfister murder
January 31, 2016
A lawsuit alleges that William Styler III made up his confession in the murder of Nancy Pfister in order to clear his then-wife from being prosecuted for the same crime.
Nancy Masson-Styler is targeted with a wrongful death lawsuit filed Wednesday by Juliana Pfister, whose mother was murdered in February 2014.
The suit also accuses Masson-Styler of profiting off Nancy Pfister's death with a book deal and a $1 million life-insurance payment she collected after Styler committed suicide in his prison cell last August.
"I truly don't believe Juliana is financially motivated at all in this action," said Aspen attorney David Bovino, who filed the complaint in Pitkin County District Court. "This is in memory of her mother, to hold someone who she believes is responsible for her mother's murder and to make her accountable because it didn't happen through the criminal justice system."
Pfister, 30, was unavailable for comment Thursday.
The lawsuit marks the latest development in one of Aspen's highest profile crime stories in decades. Pfister, 57, hailed from a prominent Aspen family and led an active social life. Her father, Art, was a cofounder of Buttermilk ski area. Her mother, Betty, was a member of Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.
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William Styler, once an anesthesiologist on the Front Range, and his wife moved to Aspen in late 2013. The couple leased Pfister's Buttermilk home, but disputes over rent payments emerged, prompting Pfister to return Aspen from Australia to evict the couple.
On Feb. 26, 2014, Pfister's personal assistant Kathy Carpenter found her body stuffed in a locked bedroom closet at her home. Authorities concluded Pfister had been beaten to death with a hammer while she was asleep.
An investigation by the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation led to the arrest of the Styler couple at the Aspenalt Lodge in Basalt on March 3, 2014. Carpenter was arrested on the same charges — first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder — on March 14.
But when Styler confessed on June 12, 2014, that he acted alone, authorities cleared Masson-Styler and Carpenter.
Masson-Styler was incarcerated for 107 days before she was set free, while District Judge James Boyd sentenced William Styler to a 20-year prison sentence for second-degree murder.
"The case was dismissed against her because there was insufficient evidence that she was involved," said Aspen attorney Beth Krulewitch, who represented Masson-Styler in the homicide case. She added: "I was so strident in terms of anger about her arrest and detention because there was really no evidence linking her, other than the fact she was married to him."
Soon after her release, Masson-Styler filed for divorce.
On Aug. 6, 2015, prison authorities found William Styler, 67, dead from an apparent hanging at the Arrowhead Correctional Center, where he was serving his punishment.
Criminal vs. civil
Legal standards for prevailing in a wrongful death lawsuit are lower than those in a criminal trial, which requires proving the transgression was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.
Bovino will be tasked with showing a preponderance of the evidence points to Masson-Styler's guilt.
A similar scenario played out in the case of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. A civil trial, prompted by the Brown and Goldman families, resulted in Simpson being found liable for their deaths to the tune of $33.5 million.
"It's a lower threshold," Bovino said. "And we believe when all of the evidence comes out, we are going to be able to prove that Nancy Styler was involved."
The eight-page complaint rehashes details of the murder that included the blunt-force trauma to Pfister's head from the hammer and "an axe plunged into her chest."
Inside the closet, Pfister's body was discovered wrapped from the neck down in a heavy-duty trash bag. Her necked was wrapped with electrical extension cord, her head shrouded in kitchen trash bags, the suit says.
The suit also delves into the argument that William Styler could not have acted alone.
"A responding sheriff attested based on personal observation of the crime scene and law enforcement experience that it would be difficult for one person acting alone to place a dead body into a trash bag," the suit says.
The book, bankruptcy and $1 million windfall
Masson-Styler's attempt to set the record straight is outlined in her book "Guilt by Matrimony: A Memoir of Love, Madness, and the Murder of Nancy Pfister," which was released Nov. 17. She coauthored the book with writer Daleen Berry.
The novel, the suit alleges, "openly disparages and defames the woman (Masson-Styler) murdered." The book refers to Pfister as the "sleepy town's most outrageous socialite," among other unflattering descriptions.
"Nancy Styler has purposefully and knowingly marred the reputation and memory of Nancy Pfister, as well as the entire Pfister family's name and legacy in the Aspen community," the suit says.
Before the book's release, Masson-Styler filed for personal bankruptcy protection in Massachusetts on July 10, nearly one month before William Styler committed suicide.
But her financial struggles were eased because she was the beneficiary of her ex-husband's $1 million life-insurance policy, which was the result of a suicide that came after "William Styler falsified his confession in an effort to exonerate his wife and protect her from being criminally prosecuted in the murder of Nancy Pfister," the suit alleges.
Masson-Styler's bankruptcy attorney, who had not seen the lawsuit, said it's possible his client could be protected from paying damages to Juliana Pfister if she prevails in the civil action.
"It ultimately could depend on what the amount of the judgment is, if there is one," said attorney Robert Simonian of Fall River, Massachusetts.
Masson-Styler did not return a message left on her cellphone Thursday. She currently lives in Acushnet, Massacusetts, according to court documents.
Bovino said, "You can't put a dollar value on one's relationship with her mother. We'll leave that for a jury to decide what's appropriate, but there's no amount of money in the world that will bring back Juliana's mother."