Thou shalt not kill. Few instances of the deadliest sin have occurred in our sacred valley, but the tragic few that did are infamous, casting shadows on the mountain utopia.
Sometimes the want of reading material can be deadly.
So it was on a Sunday evening in January of 1975, when Caryn Campbell decided to fetch a magazine from her room in Snowmass’ Wildwood Inn. She walked out of the well-lit lobby, down a hallway and into serial killer history. In February, her naked, frozen corpse was found 25 feet off Owl Creek Road—a passer-by had noticed the circling birds. It took a day to thaw out the body for autopsy. Campbell had been severely bludgeoned, though strangulation may have been the cause of death. After a month, it was impossible to say.
Six months later Ted Bundy was arrested in Utah. Caryn Campbell had been his first victim of the year.
What brought Campbell and Bundy together was pure chance, but it was also something more—because Aspen is something more. More than just a ski town, or a place for people to be rich together, Aspen is a dream, and the dream is this: Here is the place you can lead your best life. Often the dream comes true, and sometimes it goes horribly wrong. This is the story of four murders that prove the latter.
The Aspen Idea is the cornerstone of modern Aspen. On the night Campbell died it was a quarter century old. The brainchild of Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, the Aspen Idea emphasized the whole person—mind, body and spirit. It wasn’t enough just to do; there had to be purpose in service of the whole person. As Paepcke famously said, “It’s been said that the average American businessman is so busy with the urgent that he never has time for the important... He runs a good business, but he has a little bit of trouble deciding what are the important things in life, what he believes in and why he believes it.” In other words, you’re in Aspen for the what and the why.
So it was for Campbell and Bundy. Campbell, a nurse from Kalamazoo, Mich., had come to the valley with her fiancé, a doctor attending a medical conference. They planned to nurture mind, body and spirit through skiing, education and companionship. And Bundy—well, psychopaths nurture mind, body and spirit in ways we’d rather not contemplate. Bundy’s story did not end with his arrest. After being brought to Pitkin County in June of 1977, he escaped from the County Courthouse, intending to flee by foot to Crested Butte. Instead, he wandered around in the woods for six days, only to stumble back into Aspen, where he was recaptured. It seems Bundy had not sufficiently embraced Aspen, for any 30-year-old local could walk to Crested Butte in a matter of hours without getting lost. He escaped a second time from a jail in Garfield County and made his way to Florida, where, after killing many more young women, Bundy was convicted and sentenced to death by electric chair.
In the midst of the Bundy case an even more notorious murder took place, as this time the victim was famous. Blond, handsome and fast, ski racer Spider Sabich was the kind of man who appeared on the cover of GQ. If there were ever a golden boy of American skiing, Sabich was it. In the infamous, fog-shrouded Olympic slalom of 1968, he finished fifth, then joined the World Pro Skiing tour, which he won several times. Robert Redford used him as the model for his character in the film Downhill Racer. By 1971 Sabich and his brother were building a house in Starwood the way people used to build houses in Aspen: with their own hands. It was here Sabich would die.
In 1974, French actress Claudine Longet moved into Sabich’s home with her three children, fathered by singer Andy Williams, from whom Longet was legally separated. By 1976, the Sabich- Longet relationship had soured, as detailed by Sabich’s friends and a diary that Longet kept. Sabich asked her to move out by April 1. Then came the fateful day of March 21.
Sabich went to the hill, while Longet hit town, drinking wine at the glorified wooden shack that is now the Little Nell. Later in the day both went to a party at the home of ski legend Bob Beattie, though they arrived and left separately. Longet was then reported to be driving recklessly, especially as she barreled through the Starwood gate. Shortly thereafter, Sabich was dead.
What happened is the stuff of legend, memorialized in song by the Eagles and the Rolling Stones. Even Saturday Night Live satirized it. Longet shot Sabich—of that there is no disagreement. Longet claimed Sabich was teaching her how to use the gun when it accidentally went off. As Mick Jagger sang, “Now only Spider knows for sure/But he ain’t talkin’ about it anymore.” Some forensics: Sabich was shot almost from behind, as he was bending over the bathroom sink, likely preparing to shave; the shell casing showed that Longet had squeezed the trigger several times before the gun fired; she was at least six feet away when she shot the gun, quite a distance for a lesson. Still, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department mishandled the gun and the diary, which was not allowed into evidence. In the end, the jury found Longet guilty only of criminal negligence, and sentenced her to 30 days in the county jail. On top of that, Longet married one of her defense attorneys, Ron Austin. The Austins then pursued their Aspen Idea in Aspen, where they still live today.
Steven Grabow came to town in the early ’80s. That he dealt cocaine in large quantities was an open secret. He tipped well (as this writer can personally attest) and cultivated public approval. He skied every day in a different one-piece ski suit; he owned many cars and wanted you to know it. His Aspen Idea was gaudy—a fraud. Sure, he skied every day, but not well. Simply put, he missed the point. Writes Jay Cowan in his new book, Scandal Aspen, “Grabow played the game like some yuppiefied mobster auditioning for Miami Vice. He also spent a lot of time traveling back and forth from Miami.”
The feds noticed. In early 1984 they raided his home, where they found over a million dollars of cash, more than 200 one-piece ski suits and 40 pairs of gloves. This for a man with but one pair of hands. As his legal situation deteriorated, so did his reputation. He beat a local with his ski pole at the top of Bell Mountain, then tried to gouge out the man’s eye, all in an effort to collect a debt. Then, he allegedly attacked a German shepherd, again with a ski pole, in front of the original Shlomo’s. He was acquitted of that crime, but 10 days later the feds indicted him for cocaine trafficking and tax evasion.
It had been a good run, and Grabow saw no reason to stop. He refused to plea, insisting on a trial. He kept eating out, but he had to borrow cars, as the feds had confiscated his. So he was driving a friend’s car when he went to the Aspen Club to play tennis Dec. 8, 1985. After the game, he returned to the car; a bomb beneath his seat disemboweled him but left him alive to suffer. He died two hours later at the Aspen Valley Hospital.
No one has been charged with this murder. Cowan quotes current Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, “The bomb that did Grabow… used a projectile that was very focused. The feds said that someone could have been sitting in the seat next to Grabow and not even been injured.”
One wonders about that skilled bomber. Did he combine business with pleasure, as do so many who visit Aspen? One thing is certain: He left no trace but the bloody remains of a man who didn’t get it right.
So far all our victims came from somewhere else. Not Nancy Pfister, who was Aspen royalty. Born July Fourth of 1956, Pfister exerted her independence to the end. A no-holds-barred bon vivant, in her early years she was said to have dated Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas. By 2014 she was going away for the winter, so she rented her home to an older couple from Kansas, Trey and Nancy Styler. The Stylers had once been successful—Trey was a doctor—but they’d lost all their money and had come to Aspen to start over. The idea was to open a spa business—to profit, if you will, from the Aspen Idea. This idea turned sour almost immediately in the form of a landlord/ tenant dispute with Pfister. And then things got ugly.
Pfister came back to Aspen early and kicked the Stylers out of her house, though she illegally hung on to their spa equipment as leverage to get paid what she said she was owed. Pfister, it should be noted, had a temper. So, apparently, did the Stylers. On Feb. 26, 2014, Pfister’s skull was bashed in with a hammer while she slept. Then her body was wrapped up and locked in her closet. The mattress was also flipped to hide the blood.
In the end, Trey Styler confessed to the crime, claiming he acted alone. This was hard to believe, as Styler was infirm: He did his perp walk in a wheelchair. In his jailhouse interview he said, “I couldn’t beat up a kid.” And yet somehow he moved a body and flipped a mattress. Still, the district attorney accepted the plea, and Nancy Styler walked free. Likewise, with Kathy Carpenter, Pfister’s friend/unpaid personal assistant, who investigators felt had something to do with the crime, at least after the fact. The evidence for this was sketchy. Nancy Styler has moved and changed her name. Trey Styler killed himself in prison. Nancy Pfister’s daughter was then awarded most of the proceeds of Styler’s life insurance policy, not a penny of which will bring Pfister back.
It is worth noting that Pitkin County is one of the safest counties in America. Murders are rare, with just 11 in the past 40 years. We might conclude that while Aspen is a magical place, when you come here you bring yourself, with all the jealousy, greed and woes you’ve always had. Aspen doesn’t change you— it makes you more yourself.
So, while the Aspen Idea is alive and maybe even well, be careful or you, too, could get it wrong.