Phillips found guilty of first-degree murder in 1996 Tucson pipe-bomb killing

2014-04-08T00:00:00Z 2014-04-11T09:05:06Z Phillips found guilty of first-degree murder in 1996 Tucson pipe-bomb killingBy Patrick McNamara Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A jury has found the woman accused of having her ex-husband killed with a pipe bomb guilty of murder.

Pamela Phillips was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder on Tuesday after a nearly two-month-long trial in Pima County Superior Court.

She showed little emotion when the verdict was read other than an initial gasp of disbelief.

The family of Phillips’ ex-husband, real estate investor Gary Triano, cried and cheered when the guilty verdict came in.

Phillips was accused of conspiring to have Triano killed to collect on a $2 million life insurance policy.

Co-conspirator Ronald Young was convicted of the murder in 2010 and is serving 25 years to life in prison.

Triano was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded at La Paloma in 1996.

“Nicol and I look at this as a difficult decision for the jury,” Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said after the verdict. He and fellow Deputy County Attorney Nicol Green prosecuted the case.

They relied heavily on a collection of emails and recorded phone conversations between Phillips and Young in building their case. Young recorded numerous phone conversations with Phillips in which the pair talked about money she had agreed to pay him.

Prosecutors theorized the money, $400,000 in total, was payment for Young killing Triano.

Phillips had, in the years following the killing, sent Young payments clandestinely to a number of locations. The prosecution argued the secretive payments were made to keep law enforcement at bay.

Phillips’ attorney said he remains convinced of his client’s innocence.

“Pam and Ron were convicted on just insinuation and innuendo,” defense attorney Alicia Cata said after the verdict. “She is absolutely innocent.”

Cata and co-counsel Paul Eckerstrom presented a complex counter theory of the crime, which put the blame on several people.

The defense argued Triano had accumulated a number of enemies in business, some of whom, they speculated, had ties to organized crime.

They pieced together an alternative version of events implicating a former business associate of Triano’s who was angered at being duped into providing an $80,000 loan. The defense argued Neil McNeice, now dead, hired some ex-cons from out of state to plant the bomb to kill Triano.

They said McNeice got a friend, the also deceased Jerry Capuano, to make the remotely detonated bomb because of his experience building radio-controlled aircraft and boats.

Components found on the exploded bomb were identified as controllers from radio-controlled vehicles.

They also relied on the testimony of a man who in 1997 told federal authorities he knew details of the killing.

Jeffrey Morris, one of the ex-cons from Washington, said he made the admission to the FBI because he wanted to get a better deal in a counterfeiting case he was implicated in.

Morris, however, signed an affidavit for the defense admitting his role in a conspiracy to help collect money for a contract killing in Tucson in 1996.

The defense was able to place him in Tucson at the time of the killing, but in testimony Morris denied any involvement. He further claimed to have signed the affidavit only because a defense investigator convinced him of Phillips’ innocence.

Under cross-examination, Morris said the defense’s investigator had misled him.

Eckerstom said he knew entering the trial that Morris would be a difficult witness.

“We felt like he would either plead the Fifth or lie,” Eckerstrom said.

Eckerstrom acknowledged the difficulty in convincing the jury of the theory.

“That was a big concern because of the complexity of the case,” Eckerstrom said.

In closing arguments, Unklesbay called the counter theory “fanciful,” saying even if it was true, Phillips and Young had still conspired to kill Triano.

After the verdict, Unklesbay said the defense’s version of the crime created some concern because of the third-party culpability it presented and because the prosecution case was largely circumstantial.

The prosecution did not present direct evidence about the origins of the pipe bomb that killed Triano.

At the conclusion of the trial, Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard Fields commended both sides for their efforts.

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said she was happy justice had been done.

“I’m very pleased for the family,” she said.

The case has consumed years of effort of both the county attorney’s and legal defender’s offices.

Young was arrested in 2008 and Phillips in 2009. She was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in 2011.

In late 2012, Phillips was deemed competent. By then, however, new defense attorneys and prosecutors were assigned to the case, delaying the start of the trial.

Phillips is scheduled for sentencing May 22. She faces 25 years to life in prison on both counts, which would be served concurrently.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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