Nancy Pfister was well-known in her Aspen community. As a wealthy ski resort heiress, she partied with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, rubbed shoulders with Jack Nicholson, and even enjoyed a short-lived engagement to Michael Douglas. But in February 2014, 57-year-old Pfister's life was cut abruptly short when she was found beaten to death in her own closet. Kathy Davenport, Pfister's close friend who had stumbled upon the scene, reported the incident to the police—and was the first to turn investigators onto Pfister's tenants, the Stylers.
Once renowned botanists, Trey and Nancy Styler had seen their life crumble in the wake of Trey's diagnosis with a debilitating neurological disease. His resignation from his position as chief of staff at a Denver hospital, combined with two expensive lawsuits, depleted the Stylers' bank accounts and sense of hope. Still, his wife stuck by his side, and the pair managed to find an affordable chalet in the Colorado ski town of Buttermilk. Feeling more confident, they began developing a new business venture—a medical spa in the mountains.
Enter Nancy Pfister, their larger-than-life landlord and potential investor (the latter of which never came to fruition). The Stylers began renting her home while she vacationed in Australia, though the distance did not shield them from her erratic behaviors. Pfister partied hard and drank excessively. She made outrageous accusations and demands—demands that, according to Nancy Styler, she and her husband generously met. But tensions reached an all-time high when the Stylers, unhappy that Pfister hadn't made necessary home repairs, refused to pay rent. Cowed by the threat of legal action, the couple moved out in February 2014.
Pfister was murdered shortly thereafter, and the crime scene left behind—a concealed blood stain on the mattress, the body’s hiding place—indicated that it was a two-person job. Meanwhile, the Stylers had already decamped to a motel, where a hammer and the key to Pfister’s closet were found nearby. Such incriminating evidence not only led to Nancy and Trey’s arrest, but corroborated the suspicion that Kathy Davenport was their accomplice. She, too, was slapped with murder charges.
Both women were exonerated when Trey, in a last-minute confession, took full blame for the crime. But while the court concluded that Nancy Styler was uninvolved, the public wasn’t so convinced: How could an extremely ill man in his late 60s manage such an attack? Nancy's collection of $1 million in life insurance after her husband's suicide was another strike against her claims of innocence. In 2016, Pfister’s daughter filed a wrongful-death suit against Nancy Styler, though the women eventually reached a settlement.
Today, some people still believe that Trey Styler couldn't have slayed Pfister without help. As for his wife, she aims to dispel any lingering doubts with her true crime book, Guilt by Matrimony. Released to much controversy in 2015, the book tells Nancy’s side of the story, recounting her tumultuous stay at Pfister’s chalet, the biased homicide investigation, and her own arrest. The following excerpt is Nancy’s take on the day Kathy Davenport found Pfister’s wrapped and beaten body...But is this the testimony of a wrongfully accused woman, or of a killer trying to cover her tracks?
Read on for an excerpt of Guilt by Matrimony, and then download the book.
Since that day, Kathy Carpenter’s 911 call has been broadcast around the world. But on Wednesday, February 26, 2014, only the killer or killers knew what awaited Kathy when she went to check on Pfister and Gabe.
When Kathy didn’t hear back from Patti saying she’d found Pfister, she knew she had to go there straight from work. Better than anyone else, she knew Pfister’s normal routines, and she hoped to spot clues that would tell her something about what was going on, such as whether Pfister had left with another person, been attacked, gotten drunk, or overdosed. Kathy stopped there. She knew if she continued, she’d end up unable to breathe.
Kathy parked in Pfister’s driveway and went inside just before 5 p.m. What she noticed first was the smell: if it was coming from Gabe, he had eaten something rotten. But then Kathy realized—the closer she got to the bedroom, the stronger the stench. Worried, Kathy called her mother. She didn’t want to feel all alone in the house, so they talked while Kathy did a walk-through, looking all around for answers. By the time she hung up ten minutes later, Kathy knew something was very wrong. She immediately called Patti.
Kathy sounded breathless. “Something’s wrong. Gabe is out of water and things don’t look right.”
“What do you mean,” Patti asked, “‘things don’t look right’?”
“I’ve looked, but I can’t find the sheets anywhere—the sheets that were on Nancy’s bed when I left here Monday morning,” Kathy said. “But the bed’s made, and that’s not like her to make her own bed. And all her pills are gone, but the purse she carried them in is still here.” Kathy made an odd sound like a moan. “If she went somewhere, she would have used that bag for her pills. She always did. And there’s a weird smell in the room.”
Patti was confused. “What kind of smell? Like a cleaning smell?”
“No, like—, I don’t know, just a weird smell, and the key’s gone from the closet,” Kathy said. “It’s always in the door and it was there Monday. I’m, I’m starting to get nervous.”
“Then get out. Get out right now.”
“I have another key at home,” Kathy said.
The big closet in the master bedroom had been a source of contention between Pfister and her past tenants, since she always insisted on keeping it locked. But this time, Pfister told Nancy Styler she could put her clothing on a portable rack and store it in the master closet. Then she changed her mind at the last minute, telling Nancy she couldn’t; Nancy could only use the smaller bedroom closet, but she would have to first move Pfister’s belongings from there and into the master closet. She told Nancy to put the portable rack in the bedroom, rather than the closet.
Pfister left the key with Kathy for that purpose, and also in case the Stylers needed to store anything else of Pfister’s, to make room for their own belongings. But Kathy lost the key the day she and Nancy stored Pfister’s liquor and artwork away. Both women searched but couldn’t find the key, so the closet door remained unlocked—until Kathy called a locksmith to change the locks.
The Stylers didn’t care one way or another. After the problems with Pfister began, they were glad that Kathy, Nancy, and a friend of her’s from Denver had locked up their landlord’s valuable artwork inside the closet right after she left.
During late October, Pfister had asked the Stylers to do several things for her during her absence. Among them, Trey was to write a book about her life, using the personal journals and files she said he would find on her computer, and Nancy was to obtain appraisals for and sell Pfister’s artwork, antique dishware, and other valuables. When Nancy and her sister Cindy later talked, Cindy advised against it. “Please tell me you’re not going to do that. That just sounds crazy!” Cindy said.
Listening to her older sister, Cindy realized Nancy was again failing to show discernment, as she often did when dealing with people and life situations. Some people would call that naïveté, but Cindy affectionately calls Nancy a “shit magnet.” That’s her way of saying Nancy “loves people and a good story. She sees the good in everyone (and) is too trusting.” Cindy attributes this quality to their mother, Tess.
“We were raised by a woman who truly made us feel like we could do anything,” Cindy said. “Because of this, I think Nancy believes everyone is capable of greatness and thinks she can cheer them on. She’s a rescue ranger.”
Which explains why Nancy’s bio in her high school yearbook said, “she makes the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.”
Even over the telephone line, Nancy could hear the worry as it traveled all the way from Boston, where Nancy’s family lived.
“I don’t know. I guess because I gave her my word, I should do it,” Nancy replied. “You don’t know this woman. She won’t do anything for herself, except cook. She wants everyone else to be at her beck and call.”
“But Nancy took Cindy’s advice and decided, like everything else Pfister had asked of her, that it wasn’t worth the risk.
Nancy wanted the closet locked—and told Kathy to take the keys with her.
“I’m not going to use that closet,” Nancy said. “There’s too much liability there, especially given how she’s been acting lately. No, thank you! I’ll do with what little closet space I already have.”
Until that Wednesday, Kathy hadn’t had a reason to even worry about the key. Now, though, she did—and worried she was—because when she left Pfister’s home Monday morning, the key had been there. Right in the lock, where Pfister herself left it, as she always did, after returning from her trips. Why isn’t it there now?
With a start, Kathy realized Patti was on the other end of the line. “Kathy? Kathy!” she said. “Why don’t you go get it, then come back and call me when you get there?”
“I’m getting really scared.” Kathy suddenly gasped. “What if, what if they did something to her?”
Patti was beginning to feel a pang of worry that no one had found Pfister, either, but she couldn’t fathom why Kathy should be so upset. “Look, I really think you’re overreacting. Nancy’s fine and so are you.”
Kathy said Patti was probably right, and she would go get the other closet key. The minute they hung up, at 5:37 p.m., Patti texted her cousin, Bob Braudis. He was tight with Pfister, so perhaps he knew something. “Hey cuz, you have any idea where Nancy might be? She hasn’t been heard from since Monday morning and she left Gabe alone in the house.”
Kathy left to retrieve the spare closet key, but called her mother again, hoping it would help her calm down. She told her how worried she was, and then hung up, calling her close friend, Susan Waskow. But Susan didn’t answer. By then, Kathy was back at Pfister’s house, so she tried to steel herself from being overly anxious as she made her way back to Pfister’s bedroom. Suddenly, as she was bent over looking at the neatly made bed, Kathy saw a small smear of something on the headboard. She immediately called Sarah, her AA sponsor, as she walked a few short feet to the closet. It was 6:02 p.m.
Kathy inserted the key into the lock and Sarah picked up just as Kathy screamed. A strong stench poured out of the closet, hitting Kathy full in the face. She was gasping and crying and trying to talk, but all Sarah could make out was, “Nancy . . . dead . . . Wrapped up . . . closet . . . ,” before Sarah broke in, cutting Kathy off.”
“What is wrong, Kathy?”
But Kathy was too horrified to tell her. “What if they come back?” she finally managed to say, her voice almost a wail.
Apparently, Kathy hung up on Sarah without realizing it as she fled the house, so rattled she nearly forgot to take Gabe. Jumping into her car, she locked all the doors and then shoved the gear shifter into reverse, before flooring the accelerator and tearing down the driveway. She didn’t know how fast she was going, or even which direction she was headed, when she finally thought to call 911.
Kathy’s nearly eight-minute minute call came from a woman so frantic, so hysterical, she at times sounded like a wounded animal. Even the dispatcher couldn’t make out her broken, stuttered words.
“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God,” Kathy cried.
A female dispatcher replied, “What is the address of the emergency? What is the address of the emergency?”
“1833 West Buttermilk Road,” Kathy said, barely coherent.
“Is that a house, business, or apartment?”
Kathy was still wailing, but her voice dropped as if she couldn’t get enough air into her lungs to speak. “It’s a house. It’s Nancy Pfister’s house. My friend—.”
The dispatcher asked why Kathy called 911. “Ma’am, tell me exactly what happened.”
And that was when Kathy Carpenter—who had just found her best friend wrapped up inside a bedroom closet—lost it.
“My friend had, my friend had—,” she said, pausing to draw a ragged breath. “I found my friend in the closet—she’s dead!” The last word came out as a long, anguished cry, born of such intense pain it was evident in every syllable.
“Ma’am, tell me exactly what happened,” the dispatcher tried again.
In one long rush of air, Kathy’s words came out so quickly they were difficult to hear. “My friend, Nancy Pfister, came back from Australia and she had some people living there and she pissed them off and made threats to them about owing money and,” Kathy continued, with phrases like “she was missing” and “I went to get the dog,” until her words trailed off.
“Ma’am, I need you to tell me what happened.”
“I can’t. My friend is in the closet dead,” Kathy said, her voice raising several decibels, clearly in anguish.
Meanwhile, when Patti Stranahan didn’t hear back from Kathy or Bob, her own worry intensified. “I’m getting worried, George,” Patti told her husband. She dialed Kathy’s number, but it went straight to voice mail.
A few seconds later, Bob answered Patti’s text, and she had to steady herself with one hand when she read it. “Oh, my God! George!” Patti screamed. “Nancy’s dead.” She could only think of Pfister’s daughter, Juliana. How would they break the news to their goddaughter?
Patti immediately called Bob, who repeated what was in his text message. Bob was at a social function at Sheriff Joe DiSalvo’s house, along with several other people, when the 911 call came over DiSalvo’s police scanner. He told Patti that Pfister’s body had been found, and she had apparently committed suicide. (Braudis later told police he thought that because of the way the transmission came over the radio.)
But to Patti it made no sense.
“The closet door was locked when Kathy called me, so how could it have been suicide?” she asked the retired sheriff.
Want to keep reading? Download Guilt by Matrimony today.
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Featured photo of Nancy Styler (left) and Nancy Pfister (right): Crime Watch Daily / YouTube