Mental Illness and Police Incompetence Lead to Murder, Suicide, in Aspen
Years ago when I published The Deputy for West Virginia police officers, a question arose about what would be considered newsworthy. At the time, the board of directors chose to let me have the final say over editorial content. When a fellow officer was later charged with DUI, I chose to put that information into the periodical. It wasn’t to make the officer look bad; it was to show that the group was transparent. That it wasn’t going to hide bad behavior or look the other way when it happened. That the members would be in the spotlight if they did bad, the same as if they did good.
Transparency–we need more of that now. I believe most American police officers are of high-caliber character: they won’t intentionally break the law, nor tacitly condone fellow officers who do. That said, we have a national problem: police officers who believe a badge gives them the power to use needless violence against others, prestige that places them above the law, and a position that renders them untouchable by fellow officers on the “thin blue line.”
In 1993, West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis said an officer’s conduct is not just about transparency—it’s about appearances. Davis, then in private practice, was legal counsel for the West Virginia Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. During a board meeting I attended, she warned officers that their conduct better be spotless both in and out of uniform. Because people are watching.
Her comments occurred after a deputy sheriff in Kanawha County was fired for domestic violence. In the August 1993 issue of The Deputy, Davis said the fired deputy “inflicted minor injuries upon (his ex-girlfriend) and also damaged her vehicle,” when the woman repeatedly harassed his family.
This is a good time to consider Justice Davis’ words, in light of the recent incidents of excessive police violence—and officers who simply overstep their bounds or fudge the facts. It isn’t about race. It’s about doing the right thing, even when it’s not what you want to do.
My next book looks at a case of police incompetence that borders on criminal behavior. You won’t have heard about it, even though it’s been in the news repeatedly. Of course, the media got the story wrong. Hopefully next time, they’ll think twice about accepting as fact the statements they get from someone wearing a badge. Even if a person wearing a black robe has signed off on those statements.
This police misconduct may stem more from inexperience than malice, but the jury’s still out on that. I’ll let you readers decide. Regardless, people lost their freedom as a result, and lives were ruined. That’s not something that can be undone.
Two weeks ago, the man at the center of this case died. We had only met once. I spent eight hours with him inside Arrowhead Correctional Center in April, but I wish it had been longer. That I had known him longer. I wish I had met Dr. William “Trey” Styler before his depression changed him forever. In February 2014, not long after her body was found, Pitkin County police pegged Styler, his wife, and one other woman as the murdering trio who schemed to kill Aspen resident Nancy Pfister. They were arrested within days and spent more than three months in jail—until Trey Styler confessed.
Guilt by Matrimony: A Memoir of Love, Madness, and the Murder of Nancy Pfister was in its final stages when Styler hung himself in his jail cell on August 6, 2015. He was depressed and had been suicidal for years. His widow and I have slaved over this book, trying to be accurate and fair to both Styler and his victim. It’s been a balancing act of the most challenging kind. Two very sick people, both at risk, who ultimately harmed themselves far more than they hurt others.
I don’t write books about breezy topics that make for light reading. I write about real people with real problems; serious, even life-threatening problems. I’m fortunate that Trey’s widow, Nancy Styler, chose me to help write it–and then agreed to let me tell this story candidly. Of course, if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have written it.
This book isn’t what either of us thought it would be at the outset. After my trip to Aspen in April, it morphed into something entirely different. I won’t give away all the details—but I’ll tell you that Aspen is no stranger to suicide. Which should have boded well for Trey and his wife, as well as Pfister. Instead, the people in Pitkin County, Colorado, ignored it, leading to two needless deaths. Not just one. And now we have a new ending, one that will surprise you. Then again, the entire book should, because it’s a far cry from the malarkey that’s been written about this crime.
I’ve given my full support to “the thin blue line” since I began reporting on cops and courts in 1988. Much to my regret, this book also reveals some pretty bad police and prosecutorial incompetence. Guilt by Matrimony reveals how the two, mental illness and police incompetence, played out in Pfister’s murder. It’s an important book. I hope you read it.
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In November, I will have five books, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”