Murder in Aspen

A New Age spirit with an Old World bank account, Nancy Pfister often told people, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” To her friends in the small Colorado ski community of Aspen [population: 6,600], those words also aptly described the ski-mountain heiress, who loved to party, travel and cultivate friendships up and down the social ladder. “She didn’t care if you were a busboy or a movie star,” says author Michael Cleverly, a longtime friend. A former girlfriend of actor Michael Douglas’s, Pfister, 57, counted Jack Nicholson, Woody Harrelson and Goldie Hawn among her friends. “Kate [Hudson] was kind of a big sister to me when I was really little,” says Juliana Pfister, 28, Nancy’s only child. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson “babysat me a bunch of times.” Gregarious and adventurous, says Cleverly, “Nancy knew how to have fun better than anyone I have ever known.”

So shock ran deep when police, responding to a 911 call, found Pfister on Feb. 26 dead in a locked closet in her home. Her family and friends’ sorrow turned to horror five days later when police arrested a retired anesthesiologist, William Styler III, 65, and his wife, Nancy, 62, on suspicion of first-degree murder. Days earlier Pfister, who’d rented her house to the Stylers in late fall so she could head off to Australia, had evicted the couple for failing to uphold their end of the rental agreement. Now being held without bail in the Pitkin County Jail, the Stylers, who have not entered a plea, will next appear in court on March 17. “None of the family members wants to talk right now,” says a family spokeswoman. Local authorities, meanwhile, are holding details of the case so close that even the simplest questions remain unanswered: Did the actual killing take place in Pfister’s house? What was the murder weapon? Are there more suspects? “We want to cast a net as wide as we can,” County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told reporters. “The hard work is just starting.”

But the tragic ending for Pfister, whose father helped found Aspen’s Buttermilk ski resort, seems particularly shocking to those who knew her as the life of the party—indeed, usually the one throwing the party. “She loved champagne,” says Juliana. “She didn’t drink bad champagne.” Though Nancy “was not reasonable in all her dealings,” says a friend, her eccentricities – like unexpectedly joining a table, ordering expensive champagne, then taking off before the check arrived – enchanted more than they annoyed. “She carried a light,” says Juliana.

What’s publicly known about Pfister’s relationship with the Stylers is what she posted on Facebook on Jan. 24. “The people that were supposedly taking care of my house are not doing what they said they would do,” she wrote, adding they’d failed to take care of her dog and to pay either the rent or the utilities. “She had to get back to attend to the tenant situation,” says Cleverly. “She was supremely pissed off about it.” Returning to Colorado on Feb. 22, Pfister had a moving crew remove the Stylers’ possessions that same day. When a few days passed and nobody heard from the normally voluble Pfister, a friend went round to her house. Unable to open a locked closet, that friend phoned 911. “It’s such a small community,” says another friend. “People are really freaked out.”

Those who know the Stylers are a bit freaked out too. “They were good people,” says Povy Atchison, a photographer who befriended the couple around 1997 while shooting their water gardens in Greenwood Village, an upper-middle-class suburb of Denver, for various publications. “They were really inseparable, really loved each other.” Back then, the Stylers lived in a two-story home with a three-car garage that housed their Jaguar and Mercedes SUV. Together, they cultivated several acres of botanic gardens that included ponds for their massive lilies. Nancy Styler, whom Atchison describes as a “cross between Dolly Parton and Zsa Zsa Gabor,” often invited neighborhood kids over to enjoy the gardens with their son Will, 28. William, known as Trey to his friends, “was just a super nice, warm man,” says Atchison.

Then the Stylers’ lives took a sharp downturn. In the early 1990s, Nancy, who worked as a doctor’s assistant, found herself dealing with chronic fibroadenomas and had a double mastectomy. And beginning around 2005, Trey, who suffered from what one former friend calls “a chronic pain condition,” had to stop working and go on disability. Physical ailments proved only the start of their travails. A lawsuit filed by Trey cost him more than $600,000. During subsequent litigation to retrieve that money, says Paul Gordon, his attorney from that period, “he talked about being suicidal.”

In Aspen, meanwhile, friends are mourning the death of the woman they thought of as local royalty. The middle of three daughters born to Art Pfister and Betty, a former WWII Airforce pilot, Pfister attended local schools, then went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Instead of getting a job, she settled into the life of a global traveler, touching down on six continents and countless islands, among them Jamaica, where she befriended the Marley family. “She really loved seeing other cultures,” says Juliana, a textiles and metals artist. “She was just an adventuress.” All along the way, Pfister kept journals and developed a keen devotion to organic food, homeopathic medicine and acupuncture.

She also acquired a desire to have a child, and picked Ashley Kent Carrithers, a former Argentinean polo player, for the honors. Though the pair never married, they remained lifelong friends. To expand the family, she designated godparents for Juliana all over the world. “She was a mother in a really free-spirited way,” says Anita Thompson, wife of author Hunter. “She didn’t do it like anyone I’ve ever known.” Now Juliana is trying to grasp life without her mom. “I feel robbed,” she says. “This is just a huge lesson: Never take anyone for granted.”

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