TUCSON, Arizona — A once-prominent Aspen, Colorado, socialite charged in the 1996 Tucson car bomb killing of her ex-husband had nothing to gain from his death and is the victim of overzealous authorities who failed to follow other leads, the woman's lawyer says.
However, prosecutors during opening statement Wednesday described Pamela Phillips as a gold digger who hired a former boyfriend to kill businessman Gary Triano to collect on a $2 million life insurance policy. They say she wanted the payout to maintain her lavish lifestyle as her finances dwindled.
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 say 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 aren't allowed to consider his case while determining Phillips' fate.
Phillips, 56, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
"Gary Triano lived on the edge, the financial edge ... He borrowed a lot of money from all sorts of people, many people who maybe were connected with organized crime," defense attorney Paul Eckerstrom told jurors. "That's who we think did this. That's who killed Gary Triano, not Pamela Phillips."
Prosecutors presented a wildly different theory of a woman who grew accustomed to the high life and found herself struggling financially with an easy way out.
"There is one reason that Gary Triano was murdered. One reason. He was murdered because his death benefited Pamela Phillips in a big way — $2 million is a hell of a motive," prosecutor Nicol Green said.
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 say, because Triano could no longer support her expensive tastes.
"All of a sudden, the lifestyle that this defendant insisted on and expected was no longer there," Green 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. The two would soon hatch a plan to kill Triano and collect on the policy, Green said.
"They were talking about it for years," Green said.
Young later left Aspen while being investigated by police for fraud, and turned up in Tucson briefly in the summer of 1996.
"The reason he comes to Tucson was that he and Pamela Phillips had already agreed to kill Gary Triano," Green said.
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, Green told jurors.
The investigation into Triano's killing stalled until Young's arrest in 2005. Authorities say he kept detailed records of his financial transactions with Phillips, including recorded telephone conversations and invoices. Green said police also found divorce records pertaining to Phillips and Triano in a van rented by Young. That's when Young and Phillips became the key suspects.
By then, Phillips had received the $2 million insurance payout and had left Aspen for a life abroad.
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, meanwhile, say the evidence against her is flimsy, and that Phillips was already wealthy with her own money. They say Young didn't even kill Triano, raising the specter that it could have been a hit by a jilted investor, one of whom Triano was about to file a $10 million lawsuit against.
"So when the state tells you that nobody else had anything to benefit from Gary Triano's death ... that's just not true," Eckerstrom said. "There's people out there that are angry with him ... And remember, benefit can be driven by revenge."