Death of an Heiress

Page 8 of 9

In early July 1987, Jeanne Tovrea and her daughter, Deborah, met in Newport Beach, California, with "Phillips."

For several reasons--including a phone message left on Jeanne's answering machine that witnesses, police and even Harrod agree sounds like Harrod--detectives in 1994 became convinced the man calling himself Phillips was in fact Butch Harrod.

Some time before the meeting in California, Jeanne had told friends of getting phone calls from Phillips. She said he had claimed to be a writer for Time Life publications researching a story on prisoners of war.

Jeanne said she tried to explain to Phillips that she hadn't met her husband until years after the war, but that Phillips insisted they meet anyway. She told friends that she and Phillips again spoke on the phone before the Fourth of July weekend in 1987.

Jeanne said she told Phillips she intended to spend that weekend at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, and would be unavailable. What a coincidence, she said Phillips replied--he also planned to be in that area. Worn down by his persistence, Jeanne said she agreed to meet him there.

She told a Phoenix friend about the disconcerting meeting with Phillips the day after it happened--on July 5 or 6, 1987.

"She said, 'Remember that guy I was telling you about?'" Heather Richardson told police in July 1996. "'Well, he showed up at my house last night,' and she said he knocked on the door. She said, 'How did you get in?' 'cause it was a guarded community, and he said, 'My car broke down on the street and I just walked in.'"

Richardson said Jeanne was troubled by the tone of the 30-minute session: "[Phillips] never one time asked her any questions about POWs. He was more interested in her. . . . She was absolutely frightened out of her mind."

If Gordon Phillips was Butch Harrod, and if Harrod killed Jeanne Tovrea, he's one of the more gutsy, or foolish, killers on record. It's one thing to let your intended victim see you. But Phillips also met Deborah Nolan-Luster.

Nolan-Luster picked Harrod out of a lineup last December, saying he was the man who called himself Phillips. (However, in January 1995, she was shown a photo lineup that included Harrod. She chose someone else as the man who looked like Gordon Phillips.)

After her mother was murdered, she told police Phillips was a "Rambo type," a white male in his mid-30s, about five-nine or five-ten, with a stocky build and light brown hair. That describes an untold number of men, including Butch Harrod.

She also recalled Phillips telling them he knew Hap Tovrea, and that he had been aware of bitterness between Jeanne and the stepchildren. Finally, Nolan-Luster told detectives, Phillips had said he was from Buffalo, New York.

Heather Richardson's husband, Charles, found a Gordon Phillips in a Buffalo phone directory at a city library. He also called Time Life in New York City, and was told no Gordon Phillips worked for the company.

"At one point," Charles Richardson told police last year, "[Jeanne] said, 'He's really bothering me, these calls I'm getting from him.' She vehemently said, 'I don't want this person near me. If he finds out where I am, where I live, he could come and kill me.'"

In October 1987, Jeanne spoke by phone with the Gordon Phillips in Buffalo. He turned out to be a doctor, and not the man who had appeared on her doorstep in California. Several friends suggested she notify authorities about the Phillips character, but she didn't.

Jeanne's sister, Sandra Elder, told detectives last year that Jeanne was convinced Hap Tovrea was behind the Phillips escapade.

The specter of Gordon Phillips was one reason Jeanne Tovrea in November 1987 insured her life for $2.7 million. She named her daughter as the sole beneficiary.

The premium on the policy was $500,000, which Jeanne took, legally, from the $4 million trust fund established by her late husband.

Phillips left at least two more phone messages for Jeanne Tovrea, probably in the fall of 1987. Butch Harrod may never have been arrested had Deborah Nolan-Luster not found those messages at her mother's home after the murder and turned them over to police.

As 1988 dawned, Jeanne Tovrea had happier things than Gordon Phillips to dwell on. For starters, she had a new boyfriend.

His name was Eddie, and she considered him a gem. Jeanne first had met Eddie in 1959, when he was one of the leading money winners on the pro rodeo circuit.

After hanging up his spurs, Eddie had tried his hand as the lead singer in the country-tinged Gold Buckle Band. By late 1987, he was 58 and working as a greeter at the Sahara casino in Las Vegas when Jeanne Tovrea reentered his life.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin