Longform

Death of an Heiress

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The children apparently had no contact with their stepmother after that incident. But their civil lawyers expressed the trio's animus during bitter and protracted litigation early this decade.

"She was more than amply taken care of [by her late husband]," an attorney said of Jeanne during a lawsuit filed by the Tovrea children against a law firm that had represented her. "She got greedy. And, unfortunately, her lawyers capitulated in what she did to satisfy her own desire for money."

The stepchildren lost that and other lawsuits they brought against Jeanne's estate and others, including her natural daughter Deborah. The effort cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, on top of the $2 million-plus they had to pay in estate taxes before they got a penny from the trust.

Police always had viewed the stepchildren as prime suspects, but there were several others. The list has included Jeanne's boyfriend at the time of her death, a married, onetime rodeo champion who lived in Las Vegas but spent lots of time with her in Phoenix; the old cowboy's wife; a friend with whom she had engaged in a business deal that went sour; mobsters and land speculators whom she allegedly had crossed.

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.)

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin