By MATTHEW BROWNAssociated Press
CLARK, Wyo. (AP) - 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.
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.
"Something like this just doesn't happen here," said Clark resident Robert Bushman. "We're all pretty shaken up."
Stephen Hammer, 19, and Tanner Vanpelt, 18, told investigators they stole a trove of handguns from a gun store in Cody last week, planning to flee to Colorado to sell the weapons, authorities said Wednesday.
On Saturday, they took a roommate's car to Clark to steal an Audi SUV from a family friend of one of the defendants, according to court documents and Park County Sheriff Scott Steward.
The teens allegedly told authorities that after the family friend argued against giving them the vehicle, they shot and killed Ildiko Freitas, 40, Janos Volgyesi, 69, and Hildegard Volgyesi, 70.
Steward credited neighborly vigilance with the quick arrests in the case, which came just a few miles from the shooting scene.
Two neighbors who found the victims' dog on the loose discovered the bodies when they went to return the animal. And a member of the local volunteer fire department reportedly spotted the two suspects in separate vehicles barely an hour later, leading to their arrest by the Wyoming Highway Patrol before they'd gotten out 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 fire men knew these people."
The teens face 11 felony counts each, including premeditated murder, use of a deadly weapon, conspiracy and murder in the course of a robbery. The charges could carry the death penalty.
After Hammer and Vanpelt were ordered held without bond Tuesday, family members of the victims who were in the courtroom embraced and later gathered at the victims' house.
A member of the Freitas' family declined to comment, saying Ildiko Freitas was a "very private person." John Freitas, her husband, 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 museum dedicated to firearms is located a few blocks from the courthouse where Hammer and Vanpelt stood before the judge, and a hotel just a few blocks the other way stages Old West-style shootout re-enactments during the summer months.
Yet murders are rare, 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 outside the city of Cody, the county's other large town, Powell, were two murder-suicides, both in the 1990s.
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.
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.
Steward said he had no personal knowledge of hard-core drug use, but Vanpelt had in recent months had a run-in with law enforcement in Montana for marijuana possession.
"Tanner was a very good kid until just a couple months ago," said Jordan Roof, 19, who said he lived in the apartment with the suspects for about two months. "It sucks. All this over a car."
He added that he never saw any violence from Hammer or Vanpelt.
After being arrested, Hammer allegedly told investigators that when they went to the victims' house to steal the Audi, they brought two handguns they'd stolen last week from a Cody gun store.
Vanpelt and Freitas got into an argument as he rifled through the purse looking for the vehicle's keys, 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 Freitas' mother, Hildegard Volgyesi. Vanpelt told authorities he followed Hammer and shot the woman twice more because it appeared she was still moving.
Vanpelt then encountered Freitas' father, Janos Volgyesi, in the garage, and shot him twice in the back, according to the documents.
Hammer allegedly told investigators he was "sorry for shooting 'that lady." Vanpelt said "they had not planned it to go down this way."
The two 9 mm handguns allegedly used in the slayings were found in an irrigation pipe several miles from the shooting scene. A search of the Cody apartment where the suspects resided turned up eight handguns and twelve boxes of ammunition. A search warrant said Vanpelt and Hammer admitted to stealing the weapons Feb. 26 from Cody Sports and Pawn.
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