Last Friday saw a strange turn in the case of what happened to Aspen native Nancy Pfister. One of the three defendants pled guilty in court and was sentenced. Murder charges were dropped against the third and last defendant, but she wasn’t completely cleared, and attorneys raised questions about what they say were major mistakes in the investigation.
For three months, the defendants sat in jail, denied bond. Then last week, one of them, William Styler, admitted he was the killer. District Attorney Sherry Caloia.
“He basically confessed that he alone did the crime and covered it up.”
An agreement with prosecutors allowed William Styler to plead to a lesser charge of 2nd murder. It means the former anesthesiologist acted in the heat of passion and did not plan the killing. Prosecutors dropped murder charges against Styler’s wife, Nancy, and the last defendant, Kathy Carpenter. And with that, the Nancy Pfister murder case was over.
Then the questions began.
Carpenter’s attorneys say law enforcement officers made a mistake, virtually at the start of the investigation, that meant she was wrongfully jailed. Greg Greer and Kathleen Lord told reporters Carpenter was not involved in the murder. Greg Greer.
“When I first met with Kathy Carpenter, she said well, I flunked the 911 call. And I said people don’t flunk 911 calls. Well it turns out people do flunk 911 calls!”
Greer says Carpenter was arrested largely because of a transcription error in her 911 call. That’s when Carpenter reported she had found Pfister’s body. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation transcribed what she said and a single word was incorrect. The new word, say the attorneys, implied to investigators that Carpenter knew details about the murder.
“That was their sole basis for focusing on her. And really saying that she saw things she couldn’t have seen with the story she was telling.”
Greer confirmed error by comparing a recording of the call with the written transcript. He noted the Denver CBI agent who made the mistake included a note with the transcript, too.
Greer: [Paraphrasing the note from the agent:] “ ‘After me listening to this 911 call, Kathy Carpenter is guilty.’
Greer and Lord believe that bias and the transcription mistake snowballed throughout the investigation. They argue questioning was often unfair, up to twelve hours at a time. CBI and District Attorney interrogators allegedly pressured Carpenter against getting get an attorney, encouraging her to confess instead.
On Monday, June 23rd, a spokeswoman for the CBI responded to those concerns with this comment: "It would be inappropriate for the CBI to comment on this issue. Please direct any inquiries regarding this case to District Attorney Sherry Caloia of the 9th Judicial District." District Attorney Caloia, whose investigator played a role in the questioning, maintains it was competent and fair. She also says there was more to Carpenter's case than one word in the 911 call transcript.
Caloia: “The statements made by Kathy Carpenter, were things that she said over and over again in her investigation. So the mis-transcription is there, but it was a very minor piece to this whole matter.”
After Friday’s hearing, officials held a press conference outside the courthouse, as revelers from the Food and Wine Classic wandered over to check out the action. Prosecutors and law enforcement were asked, did they rely on Styler’s confession alone to understand what happened? District Attorney Caloia.
“When you look at the documents, you will see that we did have circumstantial evidence against Mrs. Styler, Mr. Styler and Ms. Carpenter.”
Then there was Mr. Styler’s guilty plea and lesser second degree murder charge. He and Pfister had been angry at each other about money… but Pfister was sleeping when she was killed. Did Styler plan the murder beforehand?
“Well, you could certainly come to that conclusion. As I said, that plea was a negotiated plea, and often times there is a dispute as to the facts that would support that.”
Another question came about Mr. Styler’s ability to work alone. He had shown up to hearings in a wheelchair, claiming he has a medical condition that makes him weak. So, was he really strong enough to kill—and then hide… Nancy Pfister’s body? Caloia said yes. The District Attorney's office also put out a press release explaining the plea deal and sentencing, which you can read here.
After the sentencing, Styler had given this statement through Public Defender, Tina Fang.
“The Prosecution’s cases against all three defendants were weak. The prosecution presumed Mrs. Styler was involved solely because she is married to Dr. Styler, and such presumption was untrue. Dr. Styler is deeply saddened for the pain and suffering of the entire Pfister family, and also for his wife, who had nothing to do with this. He accepts sole responsibility for the death of Nancy Pfister. He hopes that the privacy of all involved, including the Pfister family, will be respected."
Pfister’s family doubts Styler’s sincerity, and asked Judge James Boyd for a longer sentence. They also objected to Styler being placed in a medical facility. In the end, the court stuck with the 20 year term, noting that considering Styler’s age, it amounts to a life sentence. It also did not guarantee a medical prison.
We asked a long time defense attorney whether it’s common for multiple people to be charged with a crime, only to have one person confess to all of it. Dan Recht practices law in Denver.
“It doesn’t happen that often, and the prosecution makes every attempt to confirm that it’s true, because they don’t want people taking the fall for other guilty people.”
Aspen can now reflect on the high profile case. Murder is rare here and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told reporters Friday he is satisfied with the outcome. Still, he said:
“Ms. Carpenter’s case is still under investigation as far as my office is concerned, and as you all know, I don’t discuss cases that are under investigation.”
District Attorney Sherry Caloia confirmed her office is involved.
“The charges could be reinstated if we get more evidence. And I’m not saying that it will be, I’m saying that there’s a possibility out there.”
Caloia’s talking murder charges, the same ones just dropped. More will likely come to light when and if additional case documents are released in the coming weeks.