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Blithe Spirit

As friends and family recall, Aspen native Nancy Pfister embraced her life to the fullest; why would someone cut it short?

Nancy Pfister with her mother, Betty, at Betty’s 80th birthday party in 2001 

To some, the late Nancy Pfister was the soul of Aspen. Or at least a very large part of it.

She personified the fun-loving, open-armed, come-one-come-all spirit of a place—Aspen, say, circa 1980—that many here today yearn for. With her recent murder, another piece of that Aspen died along with her.

Behind her adventurous, and sometimes mischievous, smile was an unbridled optimism about life. And she willingly shared that spirit and hopefulness with all who came into her orbit, whether in Aspen or halfway across the world.

“She was a nonstop traveler. You couldn’t go long without her stopping and seeing someone she knew,” says longtime friend Billy Clayton. “She has been an ambassador for Aspen for more than 40 years. Wherever she goes, people always think of her as Aspen.”

Bonding with an elephant in India 

Nancy made homes in various places at various times throughout her life. Periodically she threatened to leave Aspen, once and for all. But she always found her way back home.

Tragically, Nancy’s most recent trip home would be her final one. In late February, she interrupted her extended stay in Australia’s Byron Bay and returned to Aspen to sort out a mess with the renters at her house on Buttermilk. Less than a week later, on Feb. 26, Nancy, 57, was found dead in a closet in her home. The cause of death: blunt force impact to her head.

Five days later, the renters, William Styler, 65, and his wife, Nancy Styler, 62, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. On March 14, Nancy’s longtime friend and personal property manager, Kathy Carpenter, 56, was also arrested under the same charge. Since then, the crime has been front and center in Aspen’s consciousness as the community copes with the shocking loss of a native daughter.

The fact that the files to the case remained sealed, under court order, during the investigation and early stages of the court proceedings added to the mystery of Nancy’s death. Everyone interviewed for this story wondered aloud: Why would the suspects, a somewhat infirm couple from Denver and decades-long friends, conspire to kill her? And to what end?

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo would only say that, while he does not expect more arrests, his department is continuing to investigate the murder, dedicating an investigator full time to it.

Like so many things associated with Aspen, the murder has drawn the world’s attention, presented through the by-now predictable truth- distorting lens of outside coverage. Nearly every headline, whether on abcnews.com or the New York Post’s Page Six, tags Nancy as a “socialite.” For the national and international media, Aspen has become as much the story as Nancy, if not more. Moreover, the use of anonymous sources to advance snippets of the story, and a focus on Nancy’s brief engagement to actor Michael Douglas, oversimplify her life. So who was the woman behind the headlines and the gossip? We need only look here, within our community, for the stories that tell us who she really was.

Nancy’s personality was so large that you couldn’t help but pay attention. Far from being a socialite, she was, in fact, like many Aspenites—a mother and a sister, a traveler and a philanthropist. She had a small family, a large and varied group of friends and a massive cadre of admirers.

“There was an intelligence, and a great passion in Nancy. That’s where her depth was,” says friend Janie Bennett. “A lot of people didn’t see that side of her, but, certainly, her close friends did.”

Notes Nancy’s daughter, Juliana Pfister, “She wasn’t a socialite. If anything, she was the opposite. She drove a Volkswagen Westfalia, never a Range Rover. She was very much into the environment and permaculture and gardening and spirituality and Buddhism and doing things her own way.” In doing those things, Nancy touched hundreds of people, from the Dalai Lama down to the last wine steward to pop a cork on a bottle of Champagne.

Nancy was born in Aspen July 4, 1956, the middle of three girls—between sisters Suzanne and Christina. Her parents were Art and Betty Pfister, two of Aspen’s biggest local personalities in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. They owned the Lazy Chair Ranch, which encompassed most of what are now Buttermilk, the Maroon Creek Club and high-end residential neighborhoods on either side of the ski area. Art was a rancher and businessman. Betty was one of the town’s most prominent women, as a helicopter pilot and early team member and supporter of Mountain Rescue Aspen.

“Think about what she grew up with,” says Leslie Thorpe, a lifelong friend. “Her mom had a helicopter in the driveway. We would ride around the corner into her driveway, and it would be parked there.”

Thorpe, who lived in what is now Snowmass Village, and Nancy became close friends at Aspen High School. They shared a love of horseback riding into the surrounding wilderness. “It was funny because she was really allergic to horses, and she would get into these sneezing fits,” Thorpe recalls. “She rode to get out in the mountains and have adventures—we went everywhere. Sometimes she would steal a great bottle of wine from her mom’s wine cellar for the ride on Mark, her horse.”

Nancy’s verve, and her willingness to take a chance on the moment or person in front of her, made an indelible impression on nearly everybody she met. She was the life of the party, a woman who changed the air of whatever moment you were in, whether you were ready for that to happen or not.

“There really was an unforgettable quality [about] her,” says John Bennett, Aspen’s former mayor and a longtime friend. “There was something about her that both men and women were absolutely fascinated by when they first met her.”

Brenna Mitchell, who was a few years behind Nancy in high school, described her as “a force. Nancy could put a spell on a man. It’s amazing. She wasn’t a girl’s girl.”

As for being a socialite? “She went out of her way not to be that person,” emphasizes Mitchell. As a young adult, Nancy ran with a hard- partying crowd that included Hunter S. Thompson. “She was big with Hunter Thompson and hung out with him very early on,” Mitchell says.

The aura of celebrity didn’t faze her. One evening, Thorpe recalls, a sports car pulled up, and the driver asked Nancy, who was standing outside a local gas station, for directions. She took one look at his car, jumped in and told him that if he wanted directions she wanted a ride in his cool car. And away they drove—Nancy and her new friend, actor Jack Nicholson.

Sometimes Nancy was the one at the wheel. Billy Clayton recalls seeing her zoom around town in her father’s red Porsche with all sorts of people, including comedian Steve Martin, tennis pro John McEnroe, even the Dalai Lama. “Last summer, Nancy and I were laughing about the time the Dalai Lama was riding in the car and the door opened next to him when she took a corner. She screamed, and he burst out laughing,” Clayton says.

“No matter who she was hanging out with or where she was, she could make friends with anybody—from the prince of Persia to the busboy at a restaurant,” says Juliana. “She just really loved making human connections.”

One way she made those connections was through travel, a constant source of adventure for her—and sometimes for gossip back home. One summer, more than three decades ago, Aspen was abuzz with word that Nancy was living in a cave in Hawaii. Actually, says Thorpe with a laugh, she was living in a sugar mill on a plantation owned by Reems Mitchell, a sculptor and close friend of the Pfister family.

In addition to Hawaii, Nancy lived in Thailand. And in the Caribbean. She traveled repeatedly to Nepal and India. Typically, she would travel during the winter and spring, returning to Aspen for the summer and fall. Most recently, she was spending time with friends in Australia.

“I didn’t see much of her because I had a working life, and she was often around the world,” says Janie Bennett, who moved to Aspen and eventually married John, after befriending Nancy on a cattle ranch in Australia. “When we connected, it was a fabulous thing.”

Nancy’s allergies and her wanderlust made the ranching life with which she grew up an unlikely fit for the long term. But sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s, she began studying under permaculture pioneer Bill Mollison.

Not one to sit still—Nancy never sat still—she became an early disciple of the sustainable agriculture movement and convinced educators at the Aspen Community School, as well as at schools in India and Nepal, to use gardens to teach and feed their students. Agriculture and education, in turn, became a philanthropic focus, as she helped build and bolster schools in both Nepal and India. “I was raised macrobiotic my whole life,” recalls Juliana, “which was great because now I understand food and nutrition. But it really sucked being a child and not being able to eat cookies or chocolate or anything.”

Nancy’s spirituality also centered around South Asia, and she developed a strong affinity for Buddhism. But it was more than that, says her daughter. Her desire to make the world a better place was deeply ingrained. That side came to light in the mid-1980s when she brought a 12-year-old Nepali boy named Hemlal to Aspen and enrolled him in the Community School.

Family was perhaps Nancy’s greatest challenge, and the source of some of her greatest lessons in life. When she became pregnant with Juliana, she told people she felt a soul knocking. It convinced her to have the child out of wedlock and raise her as a single mom.

More recently, Nancy and her younger sister made great strides in becoming closer. “What I think Nancy left wanting us to do is go and repair any relationship that needs fixing,” Christina says. “But I think the most beautiful gift she left us is Juliana.”

“My mom was my teacher,” says Juliana. “It’s very sad that she passed before we had the chance to go deeper into all the lessons that we had to learn from each other. It’s like being robbed, and it’s not fair for either of us."

Nancy’s large and eclectic group of friends, in Aspen and around the world, would undoubtedly echo those feelings. The pain of loss only increases as they wonder why someone would have wanted to quell this vibrant spirit. It is a question that will continue to haunt Aspen over the next several months as Nancy’s accused killers await trial.