CODY, Wyo. (AP) — Two teens charged in a triple homicide in a small Wyoming town told investigators they stole a trove of handguns from a gun store and days later planned to flee the state by stealing an SUV, leading to the slayings of its owner and her elderly parents.
Stephen Hammer, 19, and Tanner Vanpelt, 18, both of Cody, made their first court appearance Tuesday in a case that has rattled residents of the small town of Clark near the Wyoming-Montana border.
Friends of the suspects said the pair in recent months had become increasingly involved with drugs including methamphetamine.
Each is charged with 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 judge also appointed public defenders for the defendants.
Vanpelt and Hammer said little during the hearing beyond answering the judge's questions.
Neither showed much emotion as they were led away in shackles by Park County Sheriff's deputies from a courtroom packed with people, including family and friends of both the victims and suspects. A preliminary hearing in the case was set for March 13.
Guns are generally accepted as part of everyday life in this part of northwest Wyoming, where hunting is a popular pastime. A museum dedicated to firearms is located a few blocks from the courthouse where Hammer and Vanpelt stood before the judge.
Yet murders are rare, and the fatal shootings in Clark stood out both for their brutal nature and the young age of the defendants.
"I know people change, but boy what a drastic change. He was just such a good kid," said Clark resident Jennifer Bays, referring to Hammer. She said she lived next door to Hammer's family for several years before the defendant's mother and stepfather divorced and the family moved from Clark.
Hammer and Vanpelt were arrested after neighbors described two men entering the house Saturday where the victim's bodies were found.
The 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 also 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.
"I asked Vanpelt for clarification and asked, 'You shot him in the back?' Vanpelt replied that yes, he had shot him in the back twice, that he wasn't going to just shoot him in the legs," Lt. Dave Patterson said in a court affidavit.
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 that led to the shootings. Residents of Clark said Hammer used to live with his family in town, just a few miles from the slaying scene, but moved away several years ago.
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."
The defendants' attorneys declined to comment following Tuesday's hearing.
Residents said it's the first violent killings they can recall in decades in the rural community of Clark, located along the Clarks Fork River east of Yellowstone National Park. Its roughly 300 residents live in an 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 lived 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. Bays said Hammer was exceedingly polite and well-behaved as a youngster, spending so much time with her two children that "he was like a third kid to us."
Cody teens who said they know the suspects said they had lived in recent months 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 Cody apartment with the suspects, said that 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."