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Tiny town stung by murders

Mar 10, 2013 - By Matthew Brown, The Associated Press

CLARK -- 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 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.

Yet, even with a pair of teenage suspects in custody, residents said they remain on edge. The violence has dispelled any notion that they were somehow shielded from the world's problems in their rural enclave tucked against the Beartooth Mountains.

"We're lulled into a false sense of security in a way," said Jerry Ruth, a volunteer fire fighter in Clark who moved to Wyoming after retiring as a Maryland policeman five years ago. "We're all thinking we're in a little piece of heaven out here and nothing's going on."

The shootings took place at the end of a road surrounded by ranchland and scattered houses, several miles from a state highway that connects the town's roughly 300 residents to the broader world.

Stephen Hammer, 19, and Tanner Vanpelt, 18, told investigators they stole a trove of handguns from a gun store in Cody last week. They hoped to flee to Denver to sell the weapons, authorities said Wednesday.

The pair took a roommate's car and drove 35 miles north to Clark, to steal an Audi SUV for the trip to Colorado, according to court documents and Park County Sheriff Scott Steward.

The vehicle was owned by a woman who was friends with Hammer's family, Steward said.

The teens allegedly told authorities that after Ildiko Freitas, 40, argued against giving them the vehicle, they shot and killed her and her parents, Janos Volgyesi, 69, and Hildegard Volgyesi, 70.

Steward credited neighborly vigilance with the quick arrests in the case, just a few miles from the crime scene.

Two neighbors who found the victims' dog on the loose called authorities after discovering the bodies when they went to return the animal.

Ruth had responded to the shooting with the fire department and was leaving the scene when he spotted the Audi. "It kind of sticks out in a cowboy town," he said.

He started trailing the vehicle, calling in his location to 911 as it headed toward the highway, and minutes later the suspects were apprehended by the Wyoming Highway Patrol at the edge of Clark.

"The tragedy is for the victims' family, but it's a tragedy in the community of Clark, too, because it's so tight-knit," Steward said. "No doubt some of the EMTs and some of the firemen knew these people."

The teens face 11 felony counts each, including murder charges that could carry the death penalty.

After Hammer and Vanpelt were ordered held without bond Tuesday, family members of the victims in the courtroom embraced and later gathered at the house where the killings took place.

John Freitas, Ildiko's husband, who works in oil and gas drilling, was away at the time of the shootings.

The Volgyesi's son, Thomas, said earlier this week that his parents kept to themselves but "were absolutely loving and the most caring people you would ever meet."

"They had enormous hearts," Thomas Volgyesi said. "They watched over my sister and John."

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 6,000-piece museum dedicated to firearms is located a few blocks from the courthouse where Hammer and Vanpelt stood before the judge.

A hotel just a few blocks the other way stages Old West-style shootout re-enactments during the summer months.

Yet, murders are rare here, and the slayings stood out both for their brutal nature and the young age of the defendants. Steward said that in his 22 years in Park County, the only killings he's dealt with in the rural areas of the county were two murder-suicides, both in the 1990s.

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