Aspen, Colorado -

A socialite who was once engaged to Michael Douglas has been found dead at a glitzy US ski resort popular with the wealthy elite.

The body of Nancy Pfister, whose family made a fortune in the Levi Strauss jeans company and the publisher Random House, was discovered in a cupboard in the billionaires’ winter playground of Aspen.

A couple who rented her chalet-style house while she was abroad have been charged with her murder.

Retired doctor William Styler, 65, and his wife Nancy, 62, are said to have killed the 57-year-old philanthropist after she returned from Australia to confront them over their refusal to pay rent.

Her death has horrified the community in the tiny town in Colorado, where Pfister was described as “Aspen royalty”.

Her parents Art and Betty helped set up the world’s ritziest ski resort – nicknamed “Glitter Gulch” – in the 1960s and the family were known as Aspen’s “bluebloods”.

Friends say that, in the socialite’s hard-partying youth, the gregarious blonde befriended Aspen’s celebrity visitors including the Kennedys, Jack Nicholson and Cher.

She was close to the writer Hunter S Thompson and was said to be briefly engaged to actor Michael Douglas, who had a home in Aspen and invested heavily in its development in the early 1990s.

“Nancy certainly used to be one of the big party girls here, sort of Aspen royalty,” an insider said on Wednesday. “She knew all the Hollywood stars and, as well as being a lovely person, she was very pretty.” The resort, once a silver mining town 13 000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, has become a magnet for the world’s rich.

At least 50 billionaires – worth a combined £145 billion and including Roman Abramovich – are thought to have homes there. Hollywood stars with properties in Aspen include Kevin Costner, Mariah Carey and Jack Nicholson. Lady Thatcher visited in 1990.

Although quieter nowadays, it had a reputation for cocaine-fuelled excess in the 1970s and 1980s – when streets would be closed off so Nicholson could ride his motorbike in peace and resort T-shirts carried the slogan: “Hard Drugs, Soft Powder, Casual Sex”.

The town had a high-profile crime in 1977 when French chanteuse Claudine Longet – the ex-wife of singer Andy Williams – shot dead her boyfriend, Olympic skier Spider Sabich. She received just a 30-day jail sentence after claiming the gun went off accidentally.

Just four days before her death, Pfister returned early from a study trip to Australia after posting on Facebook that her tenants were “not paying rent” and “haven’t paid utilities”. “The people that were supposedly taking care of my house are not doing what they said they would do,” she wrote.

Police have not revealed how she was killed. Her body was found on February 26 after a woman found it in an upstairs closet.

The Stylers, who run a plant-growing business specialising in water lilies and had been renting Pfister’s luxury home since early December, appeared in court on Tuesday, when their lawyer said they may both have “mental health issues”.

Court papers revealed that Dr Styler, a successful anaesthetist, had been “traumatised” by acrimonious legal battles involving a health firm and a lawyer.

He had also “repeatedly expressed suicidal thoughts... fantasising about suicide by cop” – a reference to acting in such a way that a police officer would have shot him dead.

Locals said Pfister was a kind-hearted and beloved member of the Aspen community who “managed to befriend royalty and service industry workers alike”.

Her daughter Juliana said that her mother had also sounded so happy in her final days that the police’s initial theory that she had committed suicide “just didn’t make sense”.

She added: “I have no idea how someone could do something like that and especially to her. My mum could never hurt anything or hurt anyone and that is one thing that everyone who knew her knew.”