Former CHS students Tanner VanPelt and Stephen Hammer, both just 19, will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Meanwhile, family members of the three victims in the March 2 homicide in Clark say they’ve received a “life sentence” of grief after prematurely losing their loved ones.
On Tuesday morning the two murder defendants each pleaded guilty to three counts of first degree murder as part of a plea agreement with the state. Eight additional felony charges against each were dismissed.
District Judge Steven Cranfill sentenced VanPelt to three consecutive sentences of life without parole in the shooting deaths of Ildiko Freitas, 40, and her parents Janos, 69, and Hildegard Volgyesi, 70.
He sentenced Hammer to one term of life without parole in the shooting death of Hildegard and two terms of life for aiding and abetting in the deaths of Freitas and her father Janos.
Noting that the “court cannot bring back the victims of this senseless inhumanity, cannot provide answers for what happened and cannot erase what the community experienced,” Judge Cranfill said he accepted the plea agreements because family and law enforcement were in support of the life sentences.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” he told both teens during the hearing.
The courtroom was emotional as friends and family of the victims and defendants listened to a recounting of the life-changing events that occurred early Saturday, March 2.
Hammer and VanPelt met as students at CHS and maintained a friendship after Hammer moved with his family to California. Hammer returned to Cody in January looking for work in the oilfield.
Hammer was acquainted with Freitas as a family friend from time living in Clark as a child. Freitas and her parents were natives of Germany who’d immigrated to Southern California and later moved to Clark. At the time of their deaths, the three were planning a move to the Front Range of Colorado.
Attorneys for both teens described them as “good kids” who were caring, polite and respectful. Violent crime seemed out of character. But some time after Hammer arrived in town, friends said things changed for both boys who apparently used drugs together.
Asked by his attorney Nick Beduhn if he had purposefully and with premeditated malice shot to death Ildiko and her father Janos, VanPelt replied, “Yes.” He also admitted to shooting Hildegard.
With help from attorney David Serelsen of Cheyenne, Hammer elaborated on what happened that day.
Hammer affirmed that on March 2 he and VanPelt (18 at the time) went to see Freitas at her home at 38 Big View Road in Clark with the intent to take her Audi sedan. He affirmed they had brought handguns (stolen five days earlier from a downtown Cody gun store) to scare Freitas into giving up her car.
“Freitas met you in the doorway and invited you in,” Serelsen said. “You had a friendly conversation with her. VanPelt was with you.”
“Yes,” Hammer said.
At some point, the conversation turned to her car and their planned escape to Denver to avoid the gun theft investigation. When Ildiko did not cooperate, Hammer affirmed that VanPelt shot her and took her car keys.
Serelsen said Hammer then took out the handgun he had brought and ran downstairs to check on a noise. There, he repeatedly shot Hildegard.
“You fired all of the bullets in your gun and struck her fives times,” Serelsen said, adding he had reviewed the evidence with Hammer. “You agree two of your shots were fatal.”
“Yes,” Hammer said.
“That lady you shot was my mother who was always laughing and kind,” Ildiko’s brother Thomas Volgyesi told the court later during a victim impact statement. “She was a 70-year-old woman and no threat to you. Yet you gunned her down like you were playing a video game.”
Court records state VanPelt fired additional shots at Hildegard. VanPelt also shot and killed Janos in the garage. He told police he didn’t want to shoot Janos in the knees and instead aimed for his back.
“That statement proves you (VanPelt) are out to kill and that you are a monster,” Thomas added during his statement to the court.
“On March 2, my wife and her parents were brutally murdered in our home by two disgusting, immoral and cowardly individuals,” Ildiko’s husband John Freitas, who was not home at the time of their deaths, told the court. “I found out by a phone call that my people were gone.
“My life is shattered and changed forever. I have an eternity of memories,” he added. “What I miss the most, is the sound of (Ildiko’s) voice. That’s what made my day.”
Life in prison
Nearly six months to the day after these horrendous crimes of murder shook the community and state, Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said the action “culminates only the legal closure to the criminal case of Hammer and VanPelt ... full closure for the victims’ family and the community likely will never occur.”
The state could have sought the death penalty for first-degree murder, but never indicated they would do so. While a debate in the community flared over the merits of such a punishment, Skoric said the victims’ family was aware a jury could have handed down a lesser sentence of life according to law (which carries the possibility of parole).
“The prosecution secured guaranteed sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole,” he added. “The guilty pleas ensure definitive justice for the victims’ family and provide future community safety from these individuals.”
“Precious years were taken from me and John,” Thomas Volgyesi told the court. “At 27, here I stand with no family. At 27, you (Hammer and VanPelt) will still have yours. The death penalty would be fitting for you.
“But it would not bring my family back or bring me any closure. So I am content with you spending your life behind bars.”
“You robbed her of her future, our future,” John Freitas added. “You have a sentence of life behind bars. I have been sentenced to a lifetime of nightmares.”
Now convicted murderers facing a lifetime in prison, VanPelt and Hammer told the court they could not explain their motives that day but would live with the result of their actions forever and pledged to help others learn from their mistakes.
“What I did was completely unspeakable,” Hammer said. “I would have gladly given my life to bring back one of those three and I pray for God’s forgiveness.”
“I don’t know what it’s like to have my mother or father taken. I can only imagine,” VanPelt added. “I just hope I can help people in prison.”