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Death of an Heiress

Page 4 of 9

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.

In the early 1960s, the remaining Tovrea feedlots in east Phoenix succumbed to urban growth. The business relocated to rural Maricopa, where a scaled-down version operated until 1983--the year Ed Sr. died at the age of 64.

That year marked the 100th anniversary of Big Daddy's immigration to Arizona.

"The empire died and left a lot of money behind for us kids to play with," says Phil Tovrea III, an articulate Jerome resident who was the Tovrea Castle's caretaker for years. Like his great-grandfather, Big Daddy, Phil III served for a time as Jerome's mayor.

"I always considered myself a nobody who happened to have a name, which made me different from some of my cousins. They felt that being named Tovrea meant they were automatically somebody as people. Sure."

Ed Sr. and Priscilla were divorced in 1965, when Cricket and Hap were in their teens and Prissy had just turned 11. The children stayed with their mother, but Ed Sr. remained close.

Like Big Daddy before him, Ed Sr. sought companionship in a woman a quarter-century younger. He married a Phoenix woman named Joy in 1969 at a brief ceremony his daughter, Cricket, recalled.

After the couple had completed their vows, Cricket told police, Joy had turned to onlookers and shouted gleefully, "I'm rich! I hooked him!"

Not for long. The union lasted less than a year.
Ed Sr. sought solace at local watering holes. One favored haunt was Joe Hunt's, a bar at Scottsdale Road and Stetson. It was there around 1970 that he became smitten with a fellow patron in her late 30s named Jeanne Gunter.

Jeanne Gunter was as rough around the edges as any of Ed Tovrea Sr.'s wranglers, but with a beguiling twist: She let everyone know in her delightfully nonthreatening manner that, beneath it all, she was a lady and expected to be treated as such.

Ed Sr. had grown up in the lap of Arizona-style luxury. Most of Jeanne's life was a struggle to make ends meet. Born in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, Jeanne migrated as a child with her parents to Oklahoma, California and finally to Redmond, Oregon.

Jeanne married a lumber-mill worker named Stan Nolan shortly after graduating from high school in 1950. Her only child, Deborah, was born the next year. Jeanne separated from her husband while Deborah was still a baby, and began a long odyssey, wandering from state to state, job to job.

She'd always find work--as a hairdresser, secretary, waitress, whatever was available. Attractive and gregarious, Jeanne made friends wherever she went. She never lost--in fact, seemed to cultivate--what she described as her "hillbilly" Arkansas accent.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin