Death of an Heiress

Why was socialite Jeanne Tovrea shot to death? Investigators believe a lust for her huge inheritance is a distinct possibility.

Another early suspect had been Jeanne Tovrea's natural daughter, Deborah Nolan-Luster, if only because she was sole beneficiary of Jeanne's $2.7 million life insurance policy. The possibility of Nolan-Luster's involvement gained slight momentum in September 1989 after she showed deception during a polygraph test. But the examiner claimed her fragile emotional state probably had skewed his readings.

Another theory had emanated from Hap Tovrea himself. He speculated to police that his father somehow had orchestrated a "hit from the grave" as a final, macabre payback to his free-spending wife.

In a sense, Ed Tovrea Sr. had spoken from the grave, but to his children, not to his wife. In a three-page letter dated July 21, 1981, but not delivered until after his funeral, Ed Sr. provides insight into a troubled family.

"Remember," Ed Sr. scrawled to his children, "none of you have earned any of your inheritance, so be thankful for whatever you get."

These days, the Tovrea (pronounced TOE-vree) name is familiar locally because of Tovrea Castle, the quirky landmark that sits atop a saguaro-studded hill at 52nd Street and Washington.

Bill Roer says he has nothing against "that house or whatever it is," but he laments the fact that the Tovrea Castle is what most people think of when they hear the name.

"I think of Big Phil [Philip Edward Tovrea], who built that empire with handshake deals and a lot of hard work," says the 80-year-old Roer, a real estate agent, cattle dealer and retired roper. "He knew how to handle cattle and he knew how to handle people.

"And I think of my friend, Ed Sr., everything he did and went through. The Tovreas kind of ruled things around here with Kemp [businessman Kemper Marley] and the rest of 'em. They were a family to reckon with, until it all petered out."

In their heyday, the Tovreas had a sprawling, vertically integrated business. They owned cattle, farms where cattle feed was grown, meat-packing plants and, at one time, the world's largest stockyards--near east Phoenix's Stockyards Restaurant, which they owned. The Tovreas even started a bank.

The family also held expanses of property in Arizona and New Mexico. Some of the most valuable acreage was near the Castle, which the City of Phoenix has owned since 1993. About 31 prime acres near the Castle are still being held in trust for Big Phil's surviving grandchildren, including Hap Tovrea and his two sisters.

It all began in 1883, when 22-year-old Edward Ambrose Tovrea migrated to Arizona from his native Sparta, Illinois. Legend has it that E.A. or "Big Daddy," as he became known, arrived in Holbrook on a freight wagon.

The stout, big-boned young man moved to Bisbee, near the Mexican border, after a time. There, he opened a butcher shop and, in the 1890s, took the first steps toward becoming a cattle baron.

E.A. and his first wife, Lillian, had five sons together. The youngest, Philip Edward Tovrea--the legendary Big Phil--later assumed the role as family patriarch.

Divorced from Lillian, 45-year-old E.A. married Della Gillespie in 1906. She was only 18, but was feisty and could stand her ground.

The Tovrea cattle concerns flourished over the next two decades. By the late 1920s, Big Daddy began to turn control over to Big Phil. Big Daddy died in 1932 at the age of 70, just months after he and Della had moved into the recently completed Tovrea Castle. (Della, who did not have children, lived at the Castle until shortly before she died in January 1969, after two men beat and tortured her during a robbery. Both were caught.)

Big Phil was married twice, and his two sons, half-brothers Ed Sr. and Phil Jr., planned to join him in the family business when they came of age. But duty called, and the young men volunteered for the Army Air Corps as World War II approached.

In 1941, Ed Sr., a lieutenant, was shot down as he flew over the English Channel. German sailors patrolling the area rescued him. Placed in Stalag Luft III southeast of Berlin, Ed Sr. forged a place for himself in military history--and later Hollywood--as a chief tunnel construction worker on what became known as the Great Escape.

He never did get to escape, which probably was a blessing in disguise. Though it never made it into the movie script, the Germans coincidentally moved the American prisoners to another camp just a few days before the planned escape. Of 86 Allied prisoners who did flee, 50 were shot to death and only three reached friendly lines.

Ed Sr. returned to the States after 33 months in captivity, emaciated and never again in top health. His fondness for cigarettes and whiskey didn't help.

Back in Arizona, Ed Sr.'s pal, Barry Goldwater Sr., introduced him to Priscilla Peterson. He married her in 1947, and the couple had three children, Cricket, Hap and Prissy, born in 1948, 1950 and 1954, respectively.

Also in 1947, Big Phil sold the Tovrea packing plant to the Cudahys, another prominent clan. From 1947-59, he and his sons ran the profitable Tovrea Land and Cattle Company. Big Phil retired in 1959, and died three years later at the age of 67.

His will left trust funds worth a few million dollars each to his 13 then-surviving grandchildren, but it was to be doled out over decades.

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