A onetime Aspen, Colo., socialite was found guilty of killing her ex-husband with a car bomb 18 years ago in order to collect on a $2 million life insurance policy, which authorities say she used to finance a life of jet-setting and avoiding arrest.
Pamela Phillips, 56, was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the death of Gary Triano by a jury in Tucson that deliberated for 13 hours before announcing its verdict Tuesday afternoon to close out an eight-week trial.
Phillips showed little emotion when the verdict was read. Members of her family gasped, while Triano’s family hugged and smiled.
"You have a woman who is used to a certain lifestyle- and with this divorce it has been taken away."
- Prosecutor Rick Unklesbay
Evidence presented by prosecutors showed that Phillips hired a hitman to carry out the Nov. 1, 1996 bombing that killed Triano, 52, as he left the La Paloma Country Club and headed home, where friends had gathered for a surprise birthday party. No one else was injured in the explosion, which came as he put the keys in the ignition of his Lincoln Town Car.
During the trial, jurors heard from Triano's daughter from a prior relationship, who was in college at the time, who recounted seeing the story on the television news before she knew it was her father who had been killed.
“It was his surprise birthday party that night," Heather Triano Klindworth testified. "So I was trying to figure out what to get him for a present… I saw on TV there was an explosion at La Paloma, and I thought to myself I should ask Dad about this.”
The case was cold until Phillips’ former lover, Ron Young’s arrest in 2005. Prosecutor Rick Unklesbay told the jury Young planted the homemade pipe bomb. Young, who was convicted of the killing in 2010, is currently serving a life sentence.
Prosecutors said Phillips was angry after learning Triano exaggerated his net worth and had filed for bankruptcy. They said his financial downturn led Phillips to borrow thousands from her wealthy circle of friends, but it soon was not enough to support her lavish lifestyle.
After collecting on the insurance policy, Phillips bought a luxurious new home in Aspen and sent her daughter to a fancy boarding school in Switzerland.
She was arrested in Austria in 2009 and extradited to Tucson. Although she has been in custody ever since her arrest, the trial was delayed until this year after a judge initially found her mentally unfit to stand trial.
Phillips, who initially came to court in state-issued jumpsuit, eventually began appearing with her trademark business suit and curled tresses. It was a reminder of the clothing and lifestyle she once embraced.
"You have a woman who is used to a certain lifestyle- and with this divorce it has been taken away," Unklesbay said during the trial.
The prosecution's star witness and former friend of Phillips, Laura Chapman, testified she once heard Phillips discuss hiring a hitman after she got into a heated argument with Triano.
"She said she should just hire a hit man and have him taken out,” Chapman testified. “And [she said] that the insurance policy was worth $2 million, but it would be double if it was an accidental death. She said it would be easy to do because he was so predictable and he played golf every day."
Phillips’ defense attorney, Paul Eckerstrom, argued Triano was in financial straits, had borrowed a large sum of money and had lots of enemies who could've planted the bomb. He called more than 70 witnesses to prove it.
"When the state tells you that nobody else had anything to benefit from Gary Triano's death ... that's just not true," Eckerstrom said.
The defense tried to pin this crime on Neil McNeice, an heir of a billion-dollar uranium fortune who had lent Triano $80,000. McNeice later died of a heroin and cocaine overdose.
Sentencing is set for May 22.