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Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Pamela Phillips Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1986, Gary Lee Triano, a well-known real estate developer in Tucson, Arizona, made the mistake of his life when he married 28-year-old Pamela Phillips. Triano had made millions investing in bingo halls and slot-machine parlors in Arizona and California. He made his fortune before Congress authorized Native Americans to open full-blown gambling casinos.

     In 1992, when Triano was broke, his wife of six years divorced him. The couple had two children together. Shortly after the breakup, Phillips took out a $2 million insurance policy on her ex-husband's life. She moved to Aspen, Colorado where she began working as a real estate agent. It was there she met and began dating a 44-year-old man named Ronald Young.

     In 1994, Gary Triano filed for bankruptcy. He was $25 million in debt. He told his girlfriend in July 1996 that someone had been following him.

     At 5:30 PM on Friday, November 1, 1996, after playing a round of golf at the Westin La Paloma Country Club with his friend Luis Ruben, Triano climbed behind the wheel of his 1989 Lincoln Town Car . Eight minutes after pulling out of the country club parking lot, the vehicle exploded and burst into flames. The blast killed Triano instantly.

     Investigators determined that someone had wired a large black powder pipe bomb to Triano's car. Detectives had no idea who this person was. They questioned his ex-wife but didn't consider Phillips a suspect in the bombing. Without promising leads, the case quickly went cold.

     In November 2005, nine years after the car bombing murder of the ex-millionaire, Tucson detectives caught a break in the form of an anonymous tip. According to the tipster, Pamela Phillips had paid Ronald Young $400,000 to murder her ex-husband. The hit man had been compensated out of the $2 million life insurance payout that had gone to Phillips.

     FBI agents in Florida uncovered information connecting Young and Phillips in the Triano murder plot. The evidence included incriminating emails between the hit man and the mastermind, detailed records of their business transactions, meetings, and even recorded telephone calls in which the two discussed the murder plot.

     Ronald Young, charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, went into hiding and became a fugitive.

     In September 2006, FBI agents raided Phillips' house in Aspen, Colorado. On her computer, agents found evidence of her involvement in her ex-husband's murder. However, before she was taken into custody, the murder-for-hire suspect fled the country and took up residence in Austria.

     Gary Triano's two children, in November 2007, sued Pamela Phillips and Ronald Young for the wrongful death of their father. (The plaintiffs were awarded $10 million in damages two years later.)

     On October 2008, FBI agents, after Ronald Young was featured on the TV show "America's Most Wanted," arrested him in California. The suspected hit man was now 66-years-old. Upon his extradition to Arizona, the authorities booked him into the Pima County Jail. The judge set his bond at $5 million. Young pleaded not guilty to the charges of conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder.

     A jury, in March 2010, found Ronald Young guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the chance of parole.

     In December 2010, government officials in Austria agreed to extradite Phillips to the U.S. on condition she would not, if found guilty, be sentenced to death. Prosecutors in Arizona agreed to this condition and the fugitive was sent home to face trial.

     The Pamela Phillips murder-for-hire trial got underway in February 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. Prosecutor Nicol Green portrayed the defendant as a cold-blooded gold digger who hired a former boyfriend to kill Mr. Triano for the life insurance money.

     Defense attorney Paul Eckerstrom painted his client as a victim of overzealous law enforcement. As a successful real estate agent in her own right, the lawyer claimed his client didn't need Triano's insurance money. Regarding the $400,000 she had paid Ronald Young, Eckerstrom characterized the transaction as payment for Young's help in various business ventures.

     In speculating who may have bombed Triano's Lincoln Town Car, attorney Eckerstrom said, "Gary Triano lived on the edge, the financial edge….He borrowed a lot of money from all sorts of people, many people who might be connected to organized crime."

     On April 8, 2014, the jury found Pamela Phillips guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. On May 22, 2014, the judge sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Upon hearing her fate, Phillips turned to the gallery and said, three times, "I'm innocent!" 

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