Clark, Wyo., struggles to cope with triple homicide

2013-05-22T16:30:00Z 2014-08-25T07:35:19Z Clark, Wyo., struggles to cope with triple homicideBy BENJAMIN STORROW Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette

CLARK, Wyo. — Jerry Ruth spent more than 20 years on the Baltimore County, Md., police force before retiring to Wyoming in 2008. He and his wife bought a piece of land in Clark and built a home. Ruth found work as a contractor and joined the volunteer fire department.

He figured his policing days were over.

On March 2, Ruth started his day with a trip to Powell to buy ice for a baby shower. His wife had planned the event to help an expecting young couple in Clark get a head start on parenthood. More than 50 people were expected to turn out at the Clark recreation center.

“We tried to load them up with as many diapers as we could get,” Ruth said.

Ruth was driving home from the market when he got a text: firefighters in Clark were responding to an incident on Big View Road. The text didn’t say what had happened, only that emergency personnel were preparing a staging area.

Ruth surmised it was serious and steered his car in the direction of the home. He arrived at the residence to find a swarm of emergency responders. The garage door to the home was open, and through it, he could see shell casings and a crumpled figure on the floor.

The man was one of two people shot dead at the home. Inside, paramedics tried to save a 40-year-old woman. She later died.

With the police yet to arrive and emergency personnel covering the scene, he started interviewing neighbors milling about.

The neighbors saw a white Ford Taurus pull up to the house and two skinny white boys emerge. Minutes later the Taurus and a black Audi SUV belonging to the homeowner sped away. That account was soon relayed to police and a description of the suspects and their cars broadcast over police channels in Wyoming and Montana.

Ruth left for the baby shower, thinking his job was done. But as he approached the intersection with a larger paved road leading to Wyoming Highway 120, Ruth spotted two cars matching the witnesses’ descriptions. He called 911 and followed.

“I never thought about it much,” he said recently. “It was very natural. I am still more of a policeman than I am a fireman.”

The suspects stopped at the intersection with 120, the driver of the Taurus getting out and into the Audi. A state highway patrolman parked near the intersection saw the cars and drove his vehicle out into the intersection, blocking it. Ruth, some 200 yards back, angled his Toyota 4-Runner across the street, to block any escape. Then he prepared for a shootout.

It never came. The patrolman ordered both suspects out of the car and onto the ground. The pair complied but appeared detached from the situation.

“They were going through the steps but with no emotion, like going through a school play,” Ruth said.

A loss of security

Stephen Hammer, 18, and Tanner Vanpelt, 19, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Park County District Court. The men are charged with 11 felony counts each, including murder. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

Until recently, crime was something that happened somewhere else. Park County did not have a homicide between 2001 and 2012, when a Cody man fatally stabbed his wife with a screwdriver, according to statistics compiled in the Division of Criminal Investigation’s annual uniform crime reports.

The murders have had a chilling effect on life here. At Edelweiss, the local watering hole that doubles as a general store, the talk recently was of a shattered sense of security. Residents are now locking their doors; they never did before.

“Guarantee if they weren’t packing before, they are now,” said Darren Torczon, a volunteer firefighter in Clark.

One man expressed a longing for the “old days,” when the perpetrators of a crime would be promptly hung.

Clark is not an incorporated town. There is a school that goes to sixth grade, but most students attend neighboring Powell for middle and high school. The community does not have a town government or police department.

Slightly more than 300 people live here. Residents pride themselves as self-sufficient, but they are nonetheless tight-knit.

The victims had not lived in Clark long, but they were well-known in the community. Ildiko Freitas moved to Clark with her husband, John, an oil worker, from California about six years ago, according to published reports. Her parents, Janos and Hildegard Volgyesi, followed four years later. The family immigrated to the United States from Germany.

Torczon met Freitas as a teenager, when his grandfather built the young couple’s home.

“It’s been different,” he said, reflecting on life in Clark since the killing. Janos, 69, was an expert mechanic. The old man fixed tractors, motorcycles and, on one occasion, Torczon’s grandfather’s van. He knew Hildegard less, but said she was a “damn good cook.” She was 70.

Of the three, Torczon knew Ildiko best. Freitas, 40, worked as a nurse at West Park Hospital between 2008 and 2012. She and her husband, who was away at the time of the killing, bought a house in Loveland, Colo., recently. They were planning on moving there soon.

“She’d give her shirt off her back for you,” Torczon said. “If you were ever sad, she’d try to cheer you up.”

'He was a good kid'

When Linda Downer saw Vanpelt’s picture in the paper, she initially did not recognize the boy who played with her grandson as a high school freshman. She found it hard to believe that same boy might break into her store, steal 10 guns and use one of them to commit murder.

“He was a good kid,” Downer said. “There were no violent tendencies.”

Vanpelt and Hammer showed police where they hid the two weapons used in the murders, according to the affidavit filed in the case. Both weapons were linked to a Feb. 26 robbery of Downer’s store, Cody Sports and Pawn, in which the shop’s window and display case were smashed and 10 firearms taken.

That the two suspected killers are local boys only deepens the sense of tragedy here. Hammer lived in Clark for a time and attended Cody High School as a freshman before moving to California when his parents divorced, according to published reports. He recently moved back to the area.

Vanpelt graduated from Cody High School last year. Students and teachers liked him. In his yearbook photo, Vanpelt is seen with his arms crossed, a wide smile upon his face. The general attitude among students has been one of disbelief, said Assistant Principal Jeremiah Johnston.

“It’s kind of one of those ‘wow’ things,” Johnston said. “It’s hard to talk about because it’s not one of those (things) we see.”

Vanpelt’s high school girlfriend told the Cody Enterprise that he started using meth after graduation, an account repeated by residents in numerous interviews with the Star-Tribune.

Scott Stewart, the Park County sheriff, declined comment for this story, but told the Enterprise that Hammer knew Freitas when he lived in Clark.

The men's attorneys also declined comment.

In interviews with investigators, both men confessed to the crime. Hammer said “he was sorry for shooting ‘that lady’” and said investigators “probably already knew that they used the guns stolen from the Cody gun store last week,” according to the affidavit.

He said the boys went to Freitas' house to steal a car because they wanted to escape to Denver after the gun thefts.

Vanpelt told investigators that he and Freitas argued over her Audi and that he shot her in the head. When asked by police if that was the plan, Vanpelt answered, “They had not planned it to go down that way,” the affidavit said.

Another traumatic event

Jerry Ruth was on a hike four years ago when he was mauled by a grizzly bear. The bear grabbed him by the face and shook him, causing him to pass out. When he came to, he retrieved his pistol and shot the bear dead. People at the time were shocked that such an incident could occur in Clark. Some started carrying guns to take out the trash.

People are again carrying guns to take out the trash, he said.

“I think it’s turned on the light for a lot of people that this sort of thing can happen anywhere,” Ruth said. “We were all taken off guard by this.”

Two months later, the killings remain very much on the minds of people here, Downer said. People regularly discuss murders, and Downer is frequently asked if the guns stolen from her store have been returned. They haven’t.

Then there is the debate over what should happen to Hammer and Vanpelt. Some believe they should get the death penalty. Others think they should get life in prison. Whether the men are guilty isn't debated.

“Part of the community wants vengeance,” Downer said. “Others say they are so young, it’s already a tragedy for everyone.”

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