CLARK, Wyo. — The wide-open sagebrush flats along the Montana-Wyoming border make it easy to spot strangers passing along the bumpy dirt roads that crisscross the small, sparsely populated town of Clark. So it was perhaps no surprise when authorities announced a quick arrest following the triple slaying of a woman and her parents dead.
Yet even with a pair of teenage suspects in custody, residents said they remain on edge. The violence has dispelled any notion they were somehow shielded from the world’s problems in their rural enclave tucked against the Beartooth Mountains.
“Something like this just doesn’t happen here,” said Clark resident Robert Bushman. “We’re all pretty shaken up.”
The two teens charged in the killings Saturday told investigators they stole a trove of handguns from a gun store in Cody last week, and had planned to flee the state by stealing an SUV from a house in Clark, leading to the shooting deaths of the its occupants.
Stephen Hammer, 19, and Tanner Vanpelt, 18, both of Cody, made their first court appearance Tuesday. Each faces 11 felony counts, including premeditated murder, use of a deadly weapon, conspiracy and murder in the course of a robbery. Some of the charges could carry the death penalty.
Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters ordered Hammer and Vanpelt held without bond, at the urging of prosecutors who noted the severity of the charges. The defendants were appointed public defenders who declined to comment after the hearing.
Neither showed much emotion as they were led away in shackles by Park County sheriff’s deputies from a courtroom packed with the family and friends of both the victims and suspects.
Guns are generally accepted as part of everyday life in this part of northwest Wyoming, where hunting is a popular pastime and grizzly bears roam the forests. A museum dedicated to firearms is located a few blocks from the courthouse where Hammer and Vanpelt stood before the judge, and a hotel in Cody stages Old West-style shootout re-enactments during the summer months.
Yet murders are rare, and the slayings in Clark stood out both for their brutal nature and the young age of the defendants.
Friends of the suspects said the pair in recent months had become increasingly involved with drugs including methamphetamine.
Clark resident Jennifer Bays, who lived next to Hammer’s family before his mother and stepfather divorced and moved away, said he was polite and well-behaved as a youngster. He spent so much time with her two children that “he was like a third kid to us,” she said.
“I know people change, but boy what a drastic change. He was just such a good kid,” she said.
Hammer and Vanpelt were arrested after neighbors described two men entering the house where the victim’s bodies were found. Neighbors saw two vehicles speeding away, including an Audi SUV belonging to Ildiko Freitas, 40, who owned the house with her husband, who was away.
Freitas and her parents, Janos Volgyesi, 69, and Hildegard Volgyesi, 70, were found dead inside the house.
Court documents say that after being arrested, Hammer told investigators they used two 9 mm handguns stolen by the pair last week from a Cody gun store and went to the house to steal the Audi and escape to Denver.
Vanpelt and Freitas got into an argument, which escalated into shooting her once in the head, according to the documents.
Authorities say Hammer then went into the basement after hearing something there and shot a woman he encountered — Freitas’ mother, Hildegard Volgyesi. Vanpelt told authorities he went downstairs and shot the woman twice because it appeared she was still moving.
Vanpelt told investigators that as he was taking the SUV, he encountered Freitas’ father, Janos Volgyesi, in the garage. As the elderly man turned to walk away, Vanpelt shot him twice in the back, according to the documents.
Hammer told investigators he was “sorry for shooting ‘that lady,’” according to the documents. Vanpelt said “they had not planned it to go down this way.”
After their arrest, Hammer and Vanpelt led investigators to an irrigation pipe several miles from the shooting scene where they had hidden the two 9 mm handguns allegedly used in the slayings.
A search of a Cody apartment where they’d been living turned up eight more handguns and twelve boxes of ammunition that Vanpelt allegedly had hidden under a mattress.
Those weapons were reported stolen Feb. 26 from Cody Sports and Pawn, according to a search warrant. The warrant said the two teens admitted to the burglary.
It was unclear how they knew about the SUV in Clark, or whether they had any prior contact with its owner. Residents said Hammer used to live a few miles from the slaying scene, but moved away several years ago.
Residents said it’s the first violent killings they can recall in decades in the rural community, located along the Clarks Fork River east of Yellowstone National Park. About 300 residents live in the area dominated by farming and ranch land, broken up by the occasional oil and gas well.
Freitas grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., and attended the University of Wyoming before moving to Clark with her husband about seven years ago. Her parents were living in a separate residence on the property, according to neighbors.
A Cody school official described Vanpelt as a “typical kid” who was never a discipline problem.
Cody teens who know the suspects said they recently lived in an apartment that housed as many as seven people, and had become heavy users of drugs including methamphetamine, marijuana and prescription pills.
Jordan Roof, who lived in the apartment with the suspects, said despite the suspects’ drug use, he never saw any evidence of violence.
“Tanner was a very good kid until just a couple months ago,” Roof said. “It sucks. All this over a car.”