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A Socialite Scorned
The Murder of a Tucson High-Roller
By Kerrie Droban
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Kerrie Droban
All rights reserved.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
"The nightmare is in your mind."
— Ron Young to Pam Phillips
Pamela Phillips, a striking blond commercial real estate agent, noticed Gary long before he ever saw her. Newly divorced from her first husband, a prominent Tucson attorney who eventually succumbed to cancer, Pam worked for the esteemed brokerage firm of Grubb & Ellis and had a reputation as being ruthless, unscrupulous, and cold. She crashed Gary's parties, sipped champagne casually alongside his first wife, Mary Cram, and fixed Gary with her stunning crystal-blue gaze. Pam worked the crowd like an electric bolt, abrupt, charged, and at times shocking. She mentioned frequently, like punctuation at the end of a sentence, that her net worth was a cool two million and she was looking for a partner. Gary.
She liked that he had earned substantial revenue through Indian gaming casinos.
And a few months later, in 1986, Gary ended his first marriage with a short phone call to his wife while she and their two children, Heather and Brian, vacationed in Europe. Although their connection crackled, Gary's message reverberated loud and clear. He had found a distraction and was totally "smitten" by Pam. They had everything in common — not just potent sexual passion but a real love ... of money. Gary divorced Mary quickly and without flare, generously deeding Mary his cemetery property, the Tucson Memorial Gardens, in their divorce settlement. Mary could not have realized then the irony in Gary's gesture; eventually she would bury his remains in that garden.
At Pam and Gary's wedding, Pam radiated happiness. Gary basked in her glow and together they seemed the perfect couple. Theirs was an expensive black-tie affair on a yacht at sunset in San Diego. Ocean water shimmered around them. Gary towered over his new bride, his arm draped protectively around her slim waist. She adorned him well. Dressed in a white southern-belle gown with puffed sleeves, a white lace rose in her fitted embroidered cap, and a delicate single strand of pearls around her slender neck. She beamed for the camera, but there was something forced in her expression, like an artificial sweetener with a bitter aftertaste. Still, she had never looked more beautiful nor Gary more polished in his shiny tails, crisp white shirt, bow tie, and perfectly lacquered hair. They made a stunning portrait.
David Bean, the couple's wedding photographer, captured the newlyweds in a series of posed images: Gary seated, legs crossed next to a floor-length mirror, red velvet draped behind him, his lips curled in a half smile, his dark eyes expectant, as if waiting for the camera flash, Pam holding a champagne glass, toasting her good future, her reflection distorted in the golden liquid. Bean snapped the newlyweds in a rare photo together as they prepared to slice their cream-laced wedding cake. The crowd audibly gasped as Gary playfully pressed the butcher knife to his new bride's throat.
They created the perfect illusion of happiness. The couple purchased a home in Tucson's affluent Skyline Country Club, a community nestled in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains overlooking Sabino Canyon and the Westin La Paloma golf resort. The view from their balcony dazzled with white city lights and bruised horizons. They drove twin Jaguars, attended social events with Donald Trump and Marla Maples, and jetted to Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach before Trump donated the property to President Carter and it became known as "Florida's White House."
Trump's mansion, situated between the ocean and Lake Worth, once rested on jungle-type undergrowth and swampy grounds before it evolved into the "Jewel of Palm Beach." The hurricane-resistant structure is anchored by concrete and steel to a coral reef comprising twenty acres of perfectly landscaped lawns dotted with sculptures of monkeys, parrots, and other assorted wildlife. Pam, wrapped in a gauzy white sundress and delicate straw hat, stood barefoot in the seventy-five-foot tower that overlooked the main house, reminiscent of a Mediterranean villa. Lake wind smacked her cheeks. Water lapped against the Dorian stone embedded with seashells and fossils — "imported from Genoa, Italy," Gary enlightened her. Walls and arches encased her; the day fell around her like fine mist.
"It's perfect here, isn't it?" said Marla, joining her in the tower, looking like Pam's twin. She squeezed Pam's elbow affectionately. Her skin glistened in the afterglow of seaweed and mud treatments from the Trump Spa. She wore a white linen sheath, slim white heels, and a tasteful strand of pearls. Her bloodred lips bloomed against her white canvas.
Pam smiled. "The place is timeless." Perfect, like Marla, impossibly lovely. Marla twittered about the five-course dinner she anticipated sharing with Pam and Gary in the Gold and White ballroom with its ornate ceilings and crystal chandeliers in the style of Louis XIV. Later, as Pam clicked across the black-and-white marble imported from an old castle in Cuba, Marla stood to greet her at the dining room table. She wore a chic Carolina Herrera column gown tastefully adorned with $2 million Tiffany diamonds. Donald beamed at her as if she were a gorgeous jewel.
Gary squeezed Pam's hand beneath the table. She caught her reflection in the gold-bordered plates. Hers was a dirty beauty, brassy like patina on wood. Gary ordered their dinner from a menu with no prices, each course accompanied by a different bottle of wine. Pam lost track of the dishes, the exotic aromas. The wine made her tipsy and when she laughed, her voice sounded like ice clinking against crystal. Their lives were foil, a bright sheen on the outside, but inside, terribly dull. Gary and Pam's honeymoon was over far too soon.
"Gary never paid me for the photographs," David Bean recalled. "But he did invite me to dinner several weeks after their wedding as a token of his appreciation. I expected an occasion. Wine, good food, pleasant company, and lively conversation. It wasn't like that at Gary's residence. They had a glass dinner table. Two thin panels that rose from the floor. We looked see-through. Pam and Gary sat on opposite ends of the giant table like chess pieces. A king and queen approaching checkmate. There was no conversation, just the click of forks scraped against china. It was a little uncomfortable. While I sipped my wine, my first course still steaming on the plate, I looked up and the two of them had already devoured their food."
Bean shook his head. "Then I got the tour of their house. I remember one room in particular was filled with bronze statues, all Native American heads of Gary. And there were strange paintings that reminded me of Jackson Pollock. Gary's nose dripped off the canvas, his long face pulled like a scream; disembodied parts of him floated in white space."
The white space crept into Pam's bright world. She didn't know Gary before she married him. She fell in love with his image. He boasted a net worth of $800,000 annually from Indian bingo halls and slot-machine parlors in Arizona and California. She accompanied him while he hosted Donald Trump at a University of Arizona football game, donated money to charities, and briefly ran for the Tucson City Council. And yet, he was embroiled in litigation: she would later learn about seventy-four lawsuits involving failed business and real estate investments. She knew Gary could be irascible, having once sued Pan American World Airways because he was dissatisfied with his $4,410 first-class seat, but she had no idea he owed his first wife, Mary Cram, $1.8 million in business debts and loans, a Tucson attorney $91,476 in legal fees, his own mother $68,000 in loans and a Bally's health and fitness club $30,000 in past due membership costs.
But that wasn't the worst of it. Shortly after their wedding, while Pam was pregnant with the couple's first son, Trevor, Gary invited her to consult with a bankruptcy attorney. As she listened to the soothing sounds of waterfalls and rain piped over the speakers, the rose-colored walls closed in around her. Gary's hand over her fist was cold and clammy. Her heart flapped against her chest like a riot of wings. A familiar helplessness enveloped her, nearly paralyzing her. Images of her childhood flashed in her mind's eye: her mother's death when Pam was fourteen; her father's wilted form filling his brown suit like a rotten banana, stinking of alcohol; the echoes of his boots on bare tile, his muttering late at night as he peeled potatoes in the sink, chilling Pam to her very core.
Now Pam was about to lose another home.
Gary agreed to pay for the Skyline property by promising the investor land in neighboring Cochise County. Instead, Gary repurchased the acreage and kept the $650,000 in proceeds for himself. He insisted he was entitled: the Skyline house was infested with poisonous "kissing bugs." A judge disagreed and ordered Gary to reimburse the investor $681,197 plus $17,000 in attorney's fees. The Skyline house was seized and sold at auction to satisfy the judgment.
After that, Pam became cautious with her finances. She maintained separate bank accounts and loaned Gary money for his investments. She recorded every transaction on a promissory note. She provided the down payment for their next investment, Woodland property, and populated the land with farm animals, including a potbellied pig. The place had a long, winding driveway, a pool, and tennis courts. But even as her money dwindled, Gary placated her with lavish gifts, buying her gold watches and expensive port on a whim, and when she protested he simply laughed, dismissing her with a wave of his hand and willing her to believe that everything was going to be all right.
"Pretense was a way of life," Pam explained. Her fingers trailed the long column of her throat. "To the outside world we never looked like we struggled. We'd be in a restaurant and Gary would tip the waitress a hundred bucks because he liked the way the young lady smiled. Meanwhile we owed creditors thousands of dollars. I stashed $2 million markers in my cocktail purse in Las Vegas, knowing it was all bluff. Once, at a New Year's Eve party, Gary bought cocktails for the entire staff." Their applause resounded in Pam's ears like a giant wave crashing on the shore. And when the tide receded, she washed up with the debris. Pam suggested she contribute to help ease the family finances.
"But Gary never wanted me to work," she advised police later in one of her initial interviews. "How would that look?" Gary demanded to know her plans, wanted to control the finances, and smothered her with attention.
"He called constantly," one of Pam's friends recalled. "All hours of the day and night. Even when Pam wasn't home, there would be four and five telephone messages from Gary waiting for her return. And they'd all sound the same. You know, 'It's me. I know you're there. Pick up the phone.' Or 'Me again.' Or he'd say something like 'Just calling to let you know I'm watching you.' By their very nature, the messages he left were themselves intimidating."
But Pam minimized his calls, pretending not to register his veiled threats, mistaking his control for concern while all the while bracing for the inevitable, the violence.
She recalled the first episode in vivid detail: An early winter morning turned leaden and the temperature dropped to a chilly fifty degrees. Freezing rain fell. Cactus stalks glistened in a beard of ice. Pam arrived home ten minutes late from a shopping trip with girlfriends. The sight of Gary at the front door filled her with dread. She dropped her Macy's bags on the bar. The house resounded with her children's laughter. Gary's penetrating gaze bore into the back of her head like a brand. She faced him. She thought he studied her as if she were an insect he contemplated smashing with the heel of his boot. The girlfriends scattered like exotic birds into the street.
"Where've you been?"
Pam bristled at his question, all too familiar with his pattern: interrogation first, then anger, then condescension, as if she were a child scolded by her father. She pointed to the shopping bags. Gary turned up the volume on the television. A commercial vibrated through the room. He flipped up the radio switch. Violins collided with feedback. The moment took on an unreal cast, the tenor of a film noir. Then, in a rush of movement, Gary shoved Pam into the bedroom and locked the door. He dropped the wooden blinds. Shadows climbed the walls. The veins in Gary's neck bulged. Without warning, he pounced on Pam and pressed his thick hands to her throat. White spots popped behind Pam's eyes. The room spun. She buckled beneath him like a rag doll. Gary crushed her spine into the iron bed frame. Pain tore through her. A scream died in the back of her throat. Gary loosened his grip. Pam curled to her knees, crawled to the door, a mirage she could not reach. But Gary was on top of her. He punched her head with his fist, buried her nose into the carpet. Her temple throbbed with the impact. Sounds reverberated around her, dull, distant, like a fuzzy recording.
He gathered her curls in his hand, lowered his lips to her ear, and whispered, "Don't be late again."
Pam never reported Gary to the police. The next morning she brushed makeup on her throat to cover the bruises, the obvious handprints. She still looked fine, though the light behind her skin had darkened to coals. She patted her cheeks, still puffy with fresh tears. She had divorced her first husband after he became ill with cancer. Once a handsome attorney with impeccable taste, he obsessed over dark patches of skin in their bathroom and embodied her worst fear: helplessness. Ill, he became an invalid. She vowed not to become that.
Days passed without incident. Neither she nor Gary spoke of the assault. And then one night Gary stumbled home drunk. He plopped on their living room couch. Pam trembled in the archway. She heard the click of Gary's revolver as he spun the cylinder in the dark. He had stashed an arsenal of weapons in their house, including a rifle. But Pam fixated on the flash of chrome and the clicks. One. Two. Three. He pointed the gun at her. Click. She forgot to breathe.
"I'm thinking about killing you and then turning the gun on myself," he laughed.
* * *
"He had a cruel streak," Pam insisted. "Mr. Life of the Party, jovial ... Everyone thought he was a pleasant, happy guy. But there was something scary about him ... I don't know ..." Her voice faded, as if there were more to the story she couldn't share. The next morning the phone shrilled at five o'clock. Pam had barely slept. She overheard Gary's conversation, his voice forceful and low between sips of coffee. Curious, she padded to the doorway, cinching her robe tight. Gary curled the telephone cord in his fingers. Sunlight streamed through their expensive white curtains. Gary looked up, crossed his legs, and gave his wife a wink. Calmly, he replaced the receiver to the cradle. He adjusted his tie at his neck. His next words chilled her.
"He's done, finished. One phone call and he's gone, just like that." He snapped his fingers.
And yet, Pam insisted Gary often suppressed news coverage that he had any associations with organized crime.
"The name 'Triano,'" she said, "is actually Spanish in origin, not Italian, but that detail never stopped him from exploiting his possible connections. In Las Vegas everyone knew him as 'Mr. T.,' you know ... It was the illusion that mattered."
Gary often flew to Las Vegas in his chartered Learjet, portraying a man with Mafia connections and serious money like a character straight out of a Hollywood movie. Duped officials gave Gary an expensive suite in Las Vegas. He flashed wads of cash in the casinos, betting and losing Pam's money while Pam fumed quietly in the wings.
The illusion quickly soured behind closed doors. As Gary's violence toward her escalated, Pam became even more dependent on Gary.
"Sure, I fantasized about leaving him, but then I thought: How would I actually do that? I mean, where would I go, how would I live? He was the center of attention. He made me feel like I was nothing, and after a while I believed I was nothing ... became nothing."
"When he looked at her, his gaze seemed to drift past her, as if he was seeing someone who wasn't there," one of her friends confirmed.
Later in their marriage, Gary grew paranoid after investing in a riverboat casino in Macau, China. "I heard it was a pretty horrible place, rampant with drugs and prostitution," Pam remarked. "Not the kind of people who messed around. Gary screwed them over."
And Pam no longer felt safe in her own home. "Gary slept with a loaded gun, his finger always on the trigger."
Excerpted from A Socialite Scorned by Kerrie Droban. Copyright © 2012 Kerrie Droban. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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