A malicious and materialistic socialite or a woman duped by a con man and swept up by circumstances. Those are the opposing portrayals jurors heard on the first day of Pamela Phillips’ murder trial.
Phillips is accused of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in the 1996 death of her ex-husband, Tucson real estate investor Gary Triano, who was killed when a pipe bomb exploded in his car in the parking lot of the La Paloma Resort.
Prosecutors said Phillips paid a man to have Triano killed following their contentious divorce because she wanted to cash in a $2 million life insurance policy.
“Moments prior to that bombing, the only person who stood to get any benefit from Gary Triano’s death was Pamela Phillips,” Deputy Pima County Attorney Nicol Green said in the state’s opening statements.
Green argued that Phillips had grown accustomed to the lavish lifestyle she lived with Triano and wanted to continue that sort of existence, which had suffered after the couple’s divorce.
To maintain the life of wealth she wanted, Phillips joined forces with Ronald Young, whom she met after moving to Aspen, Colo.
Phillips and Young had a brief romantic relationship that later developed into a financial arrangement, Green said.
The state argued that Phillips devised a plan to have Triano killed and agreed to pay Young $400,000 to do the job.
The relationship soured, however, as police identified Young as a possible suspect in Triano’s death when a rental car he had abandoned in California days prior to the killing was found with evidence such as Phillip’s financial and divorce records, linking him to the crime.
Young disappeared, but he and Phillips maintained regular contact through letters and telephone conversations, which he recorded.
Green said the two spoke in coded language about their arrangement, but Young maintained a ledger showing payment schedules from Phillips.
At some point, Phillips stopped making payments to Young, igniting his anger.
“He tells her that he could dig up evidence against her,” Green said, adding that Young told Phillips he would see her sent to “women’s prison for murder.”
Young was arrested in 2008 and later stood trial and was convicted of Triano’s murder in 2010.
“There’s one reason Gary Triano was murdered,” Green said. “He was murdered because his death benefited Pamela Phillips in a big, big way.”
Phillips’ defense attorney, Paul Eckerstrom, said his client was the victim of Young’s scheme, not a co-conspirator in a murder plot.
In a 2½-hour opening statement, Eckerstom argued that Phillips didn’t need Triano’s money because she already was independently wealthy from a successful career in real estate.
“She wasn’t hurting for money as the state is claiming,” Eckerstrom said.
Rather, Eckerstrom argued, Young had provided Phillips with business advice and helped create a business plan for a company she started. That, he said, accounted for frequent conversations about money she owed Young.
Eckerstrom also said Phillips wouldn’t have been as careless with the insurance policy if she wanted to cash in on Triano’s death.
The policy, which Phillips had entrusted to a friend to make the payments, went unpaid the month before Triano’s death.
“If your motive is for the $2 million, you’re going to make sure your payment is made,” Eckerstrom said.
Phillips made the late payment and the next month’s payment about the same time of Triano’s death, and later collected on the policy.
Phillips’ defense also argued Young was a notorious con man who initially waived the fees for the services he provided her, only to demand payment later.
Eckerstrom also asserted there’s plenty of evidence that someone else committed the murder.
“Gary Triano lived on the edge — the financial edge, especially,” Eckerstrom said, asserting Triano’s many business dealings caused a lot of people to lose money, particularly after his bankruptcy.
One business associate in particular, Neil McNeice, was known to have made threats against Triano after a failed business deal.
Eckerstron said McNeice, who died of a drug overdose in 2002, lent $80,000 to Triano, who provided as collateral a ring supposedly valued at $250,000. The ring turned out to be a $9,000 cubic zirconia.
Eckerstrom laid out a scenario whereby McNeice conspired with another man, also deceased, to kill Triano.
Eckerstrom said he plans to bring witnesses to testify to McNeice’s involvement. Those witnesses, however, cannot be identified publicly until they testify.
The trial continues today in Pima County Superior Court. It is expected to last at least six weeks.