The Suspect's Sidekick

The lead news story in Arizona on April 1, 1988, was a grabber. "Socialite found slain," the headline in a Phoenix daily blared.

The crime could have been taken from a Columbo script--a millionaire heiress to a cattle fortune is executed as she sleeps in her home.

Phoenix police had responded about 1 a.m. to an alarm emanating from Lincoln Hills Estates, a gated, exclusive neighborhood near the Paradise Valley border.

Inside a home at the rear of the subdivision, they found the body of Jeanne Gunter Tovrea; she had been shot in the head five times from close range. The widow of famed Arizona cattle baron and war hero Edward Tovrea Sr. was 55.

Within minutes, a police helicopter hovered over the hills behind Jeanne's home. The moon was almost full, but the airborne cops saw nothing amiss.

The subdivision's security guards had nothing of substance to offer.
Police dogs failed to pick up a scent along the suspected escape route--up a hill about 100 yards to a secluded cul-de-sac situated off North 36th Street.

Detectives say the best chance of breaking a case comes in the first few days after a crime. Jeanne Tovrea's murder didn't fit that category. But homicide detectives soon established two leads:

* Jeanne had been frightened of a man named Gordon Phillips, whom she'd met at least once and had spoken with by phone often in the months before she was killed.

* Jeanne and her late husband's three children--Edward Jr., Georgia and Priscilla (known as Hap, Cricket and Prissy, respectively)--didn't get along.

A detective examining Jeanne's relationship with her stepchildren interviewed attorney Ken Reeves a few days after the murder. Now a Maricopa County court commissioner, Reeves in 1988 was Jeanne's attorney. A police report summarized Reeves' comments: "The children of Mr. Ed Tovrea benefit by the death of Mrs. Tovrea simply because she is out of the picture. . . . Mr. Reeves termed the picture as being several million dollars."

Like much of what is being revealed in this three-part series, Phoenix investigators blacked that comment out from reports released to the media.

Detectives also suppressed that someone--surely the killer or an accomplice--had left a dozen fingerprints at the point of entry into Jeanne's home, a kitchen window. The same person had left prints on a kitchen sink and counter. Authorities kept secret that the kitchen window was the only one not hooked up to the home's alarm system.

The police did release snippets of information--that the killer had placed a pillow over Jeanne's head before shooting her, and that some of her credit cards and, possibly, jewelry were missing. (No one ever used the cards, which never were recovered. And the missing jewelry was later found at the home.)

The most intriguing quote published in the days after the murder came not from police but from a Tovrea family member.

"I think someone hired someone to do this thing," Phil Tovrea III--nephew of Ed Tovrea Sr.--told the Phoenix Gazette. "A burglar doesn't shoot somebody five times in the head."

On April 5, 1988, Phoenix detective Dave Lott interviewed Hap and Cricket Tovrea in San Diego. The pair had ironclad alibis--they'd both been in California on the night of the murder.

Lott asked Hap what he knew about Gordon Phillips, a purported writer who had haunted Jeanne during her final months. Hap said he didn't know anyone by that name.

He said his father had left him and his sisters $200,000 each in his will, doled out at $1,500 per month. (He and his sisters also collected $60,000 in life insurance benefits after his dad's death in 1983.)

Hap and Cricket said that whatever money they'd get from Jeanne's estate was of minor consequence. They stated they were financially set, thanks to trusts established by their grandfather, Philip Tovrea, and their father, Ed Sr.

Within months, however, the children would be joined by their sister Prissy in a series of bitter court battles over Jeanne's estate. Their aim--to get more money. (They would lose each of the four lawsuits they brought against the estate, its attorneys, trust companies and others.)

Most of the bickering stemmed from a provision in Ed Sr.'s will. It instructed Jeanne to put about half of his estate into an account that would be given to Hap and his sisters--but only after Jeanne died.

Hap and Cricket told the detective they had no idea and didn't care how much money was in the account--it turned out to be about $4 million.

They may not have known the exact amount. But testimony they gave in the subsequent court cases indicates they did know it would be substantial. And they also knew the will granted Jeanne the right to spend the interest generated by the account--about $400,000 a year.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin