The two 19-year-old Cody men who gunned down the family — Tanner B. Vanpelt and Stephen F. Hammer — were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at Tuesday’s hearing in Cody.
Vanpelt and Hammer, as part of agreements with the Park County Attorney’s Office, each pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder during an emotional, hour-long hearing.
Vanpelt, who shot all three residents, received three consecutive terms of life without parole. Hammer, who fatally shot 70-year-old Hildegard Volgyesi, received life without parole for that murder and two terms of life in prison according to law for aiding and abetting the killings of Ildiko Freitas, 40, and Janos Volgyesi, 69.
“The court cannot bring back the victims of this senseless inhumanity, this court cannot provide any answers to the questions of your parents as to why this happened and this court cannot erase what this community has experienced,” District Court Judge Steven Cranfill told Vanpelt and Hammer as he imposed their sentences.
However, Cranfill said he could accept the plea agreement — noting it was approved by the victims’ family and meant the rest of the defendants’ lives behind bars.
Vanpelt and Hammer broke into Cody Sports and Pawn early on Feb. 26 and made off with 10 firearms. However, they later became spooked that Cody police were on to them and decided to get a car and flee the area.
The two borrowed a roommate’s Ford Taurus and drove out to Clark on the morning of Saturday, March 2. They tried knocking on the door of one home and stopped at another and asked for directions, said Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric.
“Were they truly lost? I don’t know. My opinion was they probably weren’t,” Skoric said. “It’s just fortunate that other individuals weren’t brought into it that day.”
The men ultimately ended up at the Big View Road home of Ildiko Freitas, who Hammer knew from living in the area years earlier.
Thomas Volgyesi said he holds Hammer more responsible for the violence that followed.
“You’re the one who knew my sister and you knew that she had the car. If it wasn’t for you, she’d still be alive today,” Thomas Volgyesi said. “It still sickens and angers me that she knew you and that she welcomed you into the house.”
Janos and Hildegard lived in another home on the property, while Ildiko Freitas’ husband John was away on work that day.
After being let in, Vanpelt argued with Freitas about taking her Audi A4. He abruptly ended the argument by pulling one of the stolen pistols and shooting Freitas in the head.
“I’m pretty sure if you’d just showed her the guns, my sister would have just handed you the keys and they’d all still be alive today — here with me and John,” Thomas Volgyesi said. “There was no reason to kill them.”
Hammer hadn’t been expecting violence, he said in court, but after Vanpelt shot Freitas, he drew his weapon. Hammer heard a noise and saw Hildegard Volgyesi at the foot of the basement stairs. He emptied his pistol’s clip, striking Hildegard five times — two shots causing fatal injuries.
Hammer later told police he was sorry for shooting “that lady.”
“‘That lady’ that you shot in the basement,” Thomas Volgyesi said, “was my mother.”
He described Hildegard as a sweet lady, a ray of sunshine who was always laughing.
“It just angers me so much that a 70-year-old woman was no threat to you and yet you gunned her down as if she was in a video game,” Thomas Volgyesi said.
Though Hildegard was fatally wounded, Vanpelt later told police he saw she was still moving, so he shot her a couple more times.
Hammer fled the home and got into the Taurus the teens had arrived in. Vanpelt, meanwhile, made for the garage and the Audi when he encountered Janos Volgyesi — who apparently had no idea what had just happened inside.
Vanpelt described the encounter to Park County Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Patterson after his arrest.
“Vanpelt stated that the man then turned around to walk back to hang something up so he shot him,” Patterson recounted in an affidavit. “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.”
Thomas Volgyesi said the statement proved Vanpelt “was out to kill” and is “just a monster.”
In total, the teens claimed three lives with 15 bullets — eight fired by Vanpelt and seven by Hammer, Skoric said.
The two then fled and tossed their pistols in a Clark irrigation ditch. Neighbors came upon the gruesome scene and called 911.
A couple hours later, Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Walker stopped Hammer and Vanpelt’s vehicles at the intersection of of Road 1AB and Wyo. Highway 120. The then-unarmed teens surrendered.
Vanpelt later told Patterson that “they had not planned for it to go down this way.”
Six months after the murders, Vanpelt, Hammer and their court-appointed attorneys had no explanation for what went so wrong.
“There’s no explanation for what I did, but the only thing that I know is that I have to live with it every day,” Vanpelt said at Tuesday’s hearing. He said he could only imagine the pain of having a mother and father taken away.
“I just want everyone to know that I am terribly sorry for what I did, and if I could take it back, I would,” Vanpelt said, choking up with tears. “I just hope that I can help (mentor) people in prison.”
“It’s unexplainable how we can be standing in a courtroom with someone who was 18 years old at the time, now 19, doing such horrible things,” said Kerri Johnson of Casper, the lead attorney for Vanpelt. “I don’t think you will ever understand why we’re here.”
Over the course of the defense’s investigation, Johnson said those others who knew Vanpelt described him as kind, thoughtful and helpful.
“He’s just not the type of kid you would look at and say, ‘Well, I knew something like that was going to happen,’” Johnson said.
Hammer’s public defender, David Serelson of Cheyenne, said friends, family and even jailers had similar things to say about Hammer, describing him as polite, respectful and kind.
Serelson said Hammer was no different than his own children or anyone else’s.
Both defense attorneys noted Hammer and Vanpelt not only brought pain to the Freitas and Volgyesi families, but also to their own family members.
Friends and associates of the two teens have told various media outlets that the two were involved with drugs, including meth, but the subject was broached only once during Tuesday’s hearing — when Serelson said Hammer had been using unspecified drugs. Like Vanpelt, Hammer did not have any significant criminal charges prior to his March 2 arrest.
Hammer took full responsibility for his actions in a somber statement. Hammer described what he did as “completely unspeakable.” Like Vanpelt, he noted he’ll have to live with those decisions for the rest of his life.
“I can’t even fathom what I’ve put you through and everybody through,” he said to Thomas Volgyesi and John Freitas. “I wish more than anything I could take back what I’ve done.
“If it would bring Ildiko and Janos or Hildegard back I would gladly give my own life to just bring back one of those three,” he said. “I pray for God’s forgiveness of me and I pray that one day I might have your forgiveness.”
A shattered family
In his earlier statement to the court, John Freitas described Vanpelt and Hammer as “immoral, disgusting and cowardly human beings.”
He described a happy, loving family shattered by the violence.
“What was stolen from me can never be replaced. What was stripped away from me can never be repaid. What has been given to me is a life sentence of nightmares, panic-filled sleepless days and nights,” John Freitas said in court on Tuesday.
He described his wife Ildiko as “his everything,” and the pain of losing her as crushing. He recalled the sound of her voice in the morning and her love for animals and people — including her parents, Janos and Hildegard.
“They were taken so violently from their only son Thomas, to be gunned down so brutally for such little gain,” John Freitas said.
“At 27, here I stand. I have no family,” Thomas Volgyesi said to the court and to Vanpelt and Hammer. “At 27, you’ll still have yours, and that’s beyond unfair.”
Janos, Hildegard and a young Ildiko immigrated to the United States from Germany several decades ago. John and Ildiko Freitas came to Clark from California a number of years ago, followed by Janos and Hildegard.
John Freitas plans to stay in Clark, while Thomas Volgyesi said the murders have left him unsure of what to do next.
“They meant the world to me and your senseless act has ruined my life forever,” he said to Vanpelt and Hammer. “But the love that me and my mom and my dad and sister shared together will endure far longer than you ever will.”
Prosecutor ‘strongly considered’ death penalty
With the backing of the victims’ family and law enforcement, Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric ultimately decided to offer life in prison rather than seek the executions of two young Cody men who murdered three Clark residents in March.
The possibility of death sentences for Tanner B. Vanpelt and Stephen F. Hammer has been the subject of much discussion in the community since they were arrested for murdering Ildiko Freitas and her parents, Janos and Hildegard Volgyesi. Many individuals — including a couple members of the Volgyesis’ extended family — have taken to online comments sections and Facebook to call for capital punishment.
Skoric said he made the decision after weighing a number of factors and getting the support of law enforcement and Freitas’ and the Volgyesis’ closest family members.
“Although the death penalty would have been deserving for what you did, that would not bring my sister or my parents back and it wouldn’t bring me any closure, so I’m content with you spending the rest of your lives behind bars,” Thomas Volgyesi, Ildiko’s brother and Janos and Hildegard’s son, told the defendants in court.
John Freitas, Ildiko’s husband, similarly told the Tribune that Vanpelt and Hammer’s executions would not have brought him closure.
“What would bring me closure is if the government would stop making parents raise kids the way they want and let parents raise kids the way they should be raised,” said Freitas. He specifically cited corporal punishment, which he said teaches children consequences for their actions.
Youth today “have a TV and a video game,” he said. “Parents that have to work way too hard in order to raise their family, so something sacrifices, and it’s the youth.”
Skoric said in a lengthy statement that he “strongly considered seeking death” for Vanpelt and Hammer. He noted the law requires the consideration of many factors, including a defendant’s age and prior criminal history.
Had Vanpelt (18 at the time) or Hammer, 19, been roughly a year younger, each would have been juveniles and ineligible for the death penalty.
Skoric also said law enforcement had no reports of significant criminal activity for the two before this year’s crimes.
Getting the death penalty requires a 12-person jury to unanimously agree the death penalty is appropriate.
Skoric said he believes Vanpelt and Hammer would have had to be tried separately and, because of all the publicity, outside of Park County. Each trial would have taken between two and five weeks and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Skoric said.
He also noted Wyoming juries have sentenced just seven individuals to death since capital punishment was reinstated 37 years ago.
Only one of those individuals has been executed, in 1992, while five either died in prison first or had their sentences overturned on appeal.
Just one man, Dale Wayne Eaton, currently sits on the state’s death row, and Eaton remains in the middle of appeals more than nine years after his conviction.
“The family and law enforcement in this case were fully aware of what death penalty prosecutions would entail and the years, if not decades, of appeals that would follow,” Skoric said in the statement. “The guilty pleas ensure definitive justice for the victims’ family and provide future community safety from these individuals.”
Skoric added that Tuesday’s sentencing provided only legal closure to the cases against Vanpelt and Hammer.
“Their horrendous crimes of murder on March 2, 2013, shook this community and the entire state of Wyoming to a degree that full closure for the victims’ family and the community will likely never occur,” he said.
Editor's note: This version corrects the number months that passed between the murders and sentencing and expands the opening quote.