TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A once-prominent socialite was found guilty Tuesday in the 1996 Tucson car bomb killing of her ex-husband after spending years abroad living a lavish lifestyle across Europe.
Pamela Phillips, 56, had pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
During the trial that began in February, Phillips’ lawyers told jurors their client had nothing to gain from the death of businessman Gary Triano and that she was the victim of overzealous authorities who failed to follow other leads. They said Phillips was already a successful real estate broker with her own money, and suggested that Triano had numerous other enemies.
But prosecutors described Phillips as a gold digger who hired a former boyfriend to kill Triano to collect on a $2 million life insurance policy in order to maintain her extravagant taste for the good life.
It’s been nearly two decades since Triano died when his car exploded as he was leaving a Tucson-area country club after playing golf. Authorities said Phillips paid ex-boyfriend Ronald Young $400,000 to carry out the hit. Young was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to two life terms in prison, but jurors weren’t allowed to consider his case while determining Phillips’ fate.
“The state went after the easy marks,” defense attorney Paul Eckerstrom told jurors during closing arguments, indicating that Triano had plenty of other enemies with better motives to kill him. “You have to tell the state: ‘You made a mistake.’ ”
Prosecutors presented a portrait of a woman who grew accustomed to the high life and found herself struggling financially with an easy $2 million way out.
The state’s case against her hinged largely on the purported secret arrangement between Phillips and Young, who the defendant dated while working as a real estate broker in Aspen, Colo., after she divorced Triano.
While Phillips claimed she had paid Young the $400,000 for assistance with business ventures and financial planning, prosecutors argued the money was clearly payment for the hit.
“He’s not getting paid for business advice that she never takes — he’s getting paid for murder,” prosecutor Rick Unklesbay said in closing arguments.
During the trial, in addition to witnesses, prosecutors used financial records and telephone conversations that Young secretly recorded during talks with Phillips. In one recording, Young appears to grow angry over not receiving his payments, telling Phillips, “You’re going to be in a woman’s prison for murder.”
Defense lawyers said the calls were merely the ramblings of a con man.
One prosecution witness, a longtime friend of Phillips, testified that Phillips once told her how easy it would be to hire someone to kill her husband.
The defense downplayed the testimony, noting Phillips was distraught at the time after having a fight with Triano during which he threatened her. Phillips’ lawyers also called into question the witness’ memory.
Triano was a developer who made millions investing in Indian bingo halls and slot-machine parlors in Arizona and California before Congress authorized tribes to open full-blown casinos. But after the real estate market declined and he lost control of his gambling interests, Triano went broke.
That’s around the time Phillips filed for divorce, prosecutors said.
The couple, who had two children together, separated, but Phillips remained the beneficiary of Triano’s insurance policy, paying the premiums herself.
She eventually moved to Aspen and worked in real estate before meeting Young, and prosecutors said the two would later hatch a plan to kill Triano and collect on the policy.
After the killing, Young was on the run from a warrant for his arrest in Colorado on fraud charges while Phillips was sending him money for the hit, eventually adding up to $400,000, prosecutors told jurors.
The investigation into Triano’s killing stalled until Young’s arrest in 2005 in Florida on the fraud charges. That’s when both Phillips and Young became the key suspects in the killing. Authorities say he kept detailed records of his financial transactions with Phillips, including recorded telephone conversations and invoices. Prosecutors said police also found divorce records pertaining to Phillips and Triano in a van rented by Young.
By then, Phillips had received the $2 million insurance payout and had left Aspen for a life overseas.
She was arrested in Austria in 2009 and extradited to Tucson. Her case was delayed after a judge ruled she was mentally unfit to stand trial at the time.
Phillips’ attorneys argued throughout the trial that the evidence against her was flimsy, and that Phillips was already wealthy with her own money. They said Young didn’t even kill Triano, raising the specter that it could have been a hit by a jilted investor.
Jurors began deliberating last week. Sentencing has been set for May 22, and Phillips faces life in prison.
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