Just how rare are homicides in Pitkin County?
Before last week’s news of the murder of Nancy Pfister, you’d have to go back to Oct. 25, 2001, when Andrew Kachik shot and killed Thomasville resident Vincent Thomas in the tiny community of Meredith, some 20 miles from Basalt up the Frying Pan Road. Kachik didn’t get too far — authorities arrested him within 30 minutes by setting up a roadblock on Frying Pan Road.
A Pitkin County jury would later convict Kachik, now 40, of first-degree murder, and on Nov. 5, 2002, the late Judge J.E. DeVilbiss would sentence him to life behind bars without parole.
Further back, there was the 1976 death of Spider Sabich, which led to the criminally negligent homicide conviction of his lover Claudine Longet, who was better known for her acting, crooning and good looks before turning a gun on the ski racer. Longet reportedly served 30 days in this made-for-the-tabloids case, marred by shoddy police work, in which her defense portrayed the killing as an accidental shooting.
In 1983, Keith Porter, in a reported coke-fueled rage, turned an assault rifle on Michael Hernstadt. Porter got 11 years on a second-degree murder charge. The next year, what appeared to be another drug-related murder would transpire — Steve Grabow stepped into a Jeep planted with a pipe bomb. He would die an hour after the bomb was detonated by remote control. The case remains unsolved.
Since 1976, there has been a handful of murder cases in Pitkin County, which also includes the unsolved mystery of the so-called Lenado Man, and the 2001 conviction of Kelly Garcia for shaking a baby to death. And since at least 1997, Pitkin County has seen two murder-suicides.
Then last week came the news of the brutal slaying of Pfister, an Aspen native. Aspen undoubtedly is a safe haven, but when a murder such as Pfister’s makes the headlines, the chilling effect is indisputable, the gossip unstoppable.
By Monday afternoon, authorities had arrested William F. Styler III, 65, and Nancy Christine Styler, 62, at the Aspenalt Lodge in Basalt.
Before Monday’s arrests, over the weekend we had reporters in Aspen and Basalt seeking any possible breaks in the case, if not news of an arrest. Deadlines were pushed back and our Sunday press run was delayed.
Meanwhile, each passing day ushered in a surge of small-town tongue-wagging surrounding the death of Pfister, a well-known woman from a prominent Aspen family. And there’s no doubting that the pressure had mounted — at least before Monday’s arrests — on the investigators charged with pursuing this case.
What we conveniently forget, however, is that not all homicides are created equally, and, practicably speaking, solved within 30 minutes, as was the case in the Kachik arrest. Some arrests don’t come for days, months or even decades, if one is made at all.
But this is an age when we want today’s answers yesterday. And for us, the Sheriff’s Office had seemed like the Fort Knox of information before Monday’s arrests. As frustrating as it was to get the smallest detail about the Pfister murder, it was important for us to recognize that law enforcement was grappling with what appears to be a case rich in complexity and horrifically violent in nature, and any slight botch could come at the expense of a conviction.
It’s also convenient to make a rush toward judgment and forget that the Styler couple is entitled to the best defense possible. For sure, there will be those calling for their heads on a platter, with no knowledge of any details of the case. That the husband and wife are suspects isn’t a question; their guilt or innocence, however, eventually will play out in the courtroom.
For now, though, the arrests should at least calm the flames of gossip and speculation, and help settle down a media and public hungry for instant answers. We are, after all, at the mercy of the court.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.