Requiem for a Heavyweight 

Gary Triano's sensational murder remains unsolved after five years.

It was what struggling high roller Gary Triano needed. A little comfort. A little loving from his friends in an extended birthday party on the weekend, five years ago, before he hit 53.

The birthday boy finished up a round of golf at La Paloma Country Club, where he clung to membership despite receiving notice two weeks earlier that he would be cut off because he was not paid up on dues and fees.

He joined partners in the clubhouse afterward, and as the fall sun began to set he headed to his borrowed 1989 Lincoln Town Car. Triano was on his way to meet another set of friends gathered for a "surprise" party. He stopped to talk to someone in the parking lot, exchanged pleasantries, then slid his big body - 6-feet-2, 241 pounds--into the Lincoln.

Next to the Lincoln, Keisho Kudo was parked in his minivan, reading a golf magazine while waiting for a friend to finish his round. Kudo saw a well-worn, faded old Monte Carlo pull out of the lot.

Meanwhile, Triano noticed a blue canvas bag on the passenger side of the Lincoln. A birthday gift? A birthday gag? He leaned over and reached to a wood box--like a cigar box--in the bag.


The blast blew open Triano's skull, splitting it apart by an inch and a half on the right part of his forehead for a length of more than four inches, leaving a bridge of bone. Metal from the pipe bomb flew into his brain. His hair was singed, his eyes ruptured. His right hand, except for his pinky, was blown off, sent flying like the windshield and other parts of the car that rocketed up to 200 yards and into La Paloma's swimming pool. Triano's right arm was broken above the elbow and the blast split his thick abdomen and severely cut his liver.

The hands on the dial-less gold Movado on his left wrist stopped at 5:38 p.m.

The explosion blew out the passenger window of Kudo's van, cutting and bruising him. Kudo required only minor attention at Tucson Medical Center--testimony that the hit, though the device was called simple, even crude by some experts, was one of artistic precision.

From the parking lot, a maroon Explorer, driven by a man on a cell phone, pulled away. The driver, a club member, was cleared, as were the driver and passengers of the Monte Carlo. They were club employees. A man Kudo saw next to Triano's car turned out to be a member of that day's golf party.

Triano was pronounced dead at 5:40. A University of Arizona cardiologist, Dr. Samuel Butman, told the Arizona Daily Star's medical reporter, Jane Erikson, that he was to meet friends for drinks at the country club. He heard the explosion as he walked near the pro shop. He ran to the parking lot and toward the car. He saw Triano's blanched body. He reached to feel a pulse, then backed away when he saw flames and smoke from the dash.

In all likelihood, Triano was killed instantly. Only an instant to erase a man who came to symbolize Tucson real estate boom and bust, and speculation roller coasters. A mercurial sort who showed off an association with Donald Trump, who burned through millions of dollars and who pined for his children lost in a nasty divorce.

GUS FOTINOS HAD played La Paloma with Triano numerous times. On this day, November 1, 1996, he was in the next foursome.

"I was in the clubhouse when I heard the boom," Fotinos said. "One member came in as white as could be. I started to go out and then another member came in and said there was a car bomb and it got Gary Triano and his face and chest have been blown off. I didn't need to see that."

Others did.

While awaiting cops, paramedics and others summoned by Butman and other 911 calls, members and employees milled about taking looks and, at least in small measure, contaminating a scene in which debris from the car, the bomb and Triano's body had been scattered.

Fotinos liked Triano.

"I've been here 50 years. He was a man about town. I don't think there was anybody in business who didn't know him. He was extremely smart. I enjoyed our relationship.

"I was in absolute shock," said Fotinos, a partner in one Triano real estate deal. "I would never anticipate this sort of thing happening to anybody, let alone to one of my friends."

There have been plenty of hits in Tucson. Drug-trade executions are common in the desert, and in quiet family homes in front of parents or kids. Mobster Charles "Bats" Bataglia was grabbed in the mid-1980s outside El Conquistador. Told to make sure his body would be intact to send a message, his killers dumped him in Avra Valley, unaware of ravenous coyotes.

Still, Triano's hit, which remains unsolved, caught the Tucson media flat-footed and exposed its terrible dearth of sources gained through the kind of old school reporting that corporate bosses at the dailies and television stations neither understand nor appreciate. The Weekly is not excused, either. Though hampered by "official" sources, including the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, which put out false information that the bomb used "black powder," the Star did benefit from the experience of the late John F. Rawlinson, once a premier investigative reporter who wasn't afraid to check Joe Bonanno's garbage, and fast work by Joe Salkowski and probing by Enric Volante. Salkowski, for example, blitzed the courthouse, and uncovered the 74 lawsuits--some relevant, some frivolous--involving the litigious Triano.

The hit also befitted Triano's flamboyance, his friends concede: a spectacular explosion at the exclusive La Paloma, closing down traffic east and west of 3800 E. Sunrise Drive at rush hour the weekend before the presidential election.

That's Triano.

Smart, clever and conniving, Triano grew up in Tucson and graduated from Rincon High School. He earned a degree in accounting from the University of Arizona and also completed a number of law school classes.

Friends and associates say he frequently was ahead of the lawyers.

And he was always willing to take a chance. He was far from a gifted athlete. At tennis he was paired with the better players for doubles. It didn't matter at golf; he bet large each hole and ran up big debts. He could lose $10,000 on a game of golf, adding emphasis to John Feinstein's book A Good Walk Spoiled.

He also was in $30,000 each to two Las Vegas casinos.

The rules, Triano thought, were trifling things that didn't always apply to him.

Such as in 1973, at just 29, when he mapped out a run for the City Council even though he was building a house well outside the city in the Catalina Foothills. With his name yanked off the ballot, Triano brashly but unsuccessfully sued to challenge city election laws that require candidate residency in wards for at least a year.

THROUGH THE STALLED search for Triano's killer(s), friends have grown quiet. Some received warning visits from people who felt they shot off their mouths.

They and sheriff's investigators say Triano had built up some enemies, including an ex-wife and ex-girlfriend; the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation; the Las Vegas casinos; and Chinese investors and speculators seeking a casino in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Some partners-turned-adversaries were simply stubborn, not murderous, and took it out on the money end. Triano and an "adviser"--not a suit, but a big guy who can consult with fists and boot heels--were surprised that Charles H. Keating, the S&L slickster whose conviction was ultimately overturned after he served time in the federal prison in Tucson, once declined to pay Triano his money on a real estate deal. Triano's adviser announced, calmly, that he would then take off one of Keating's ears. Keating's lineup of suits grew nervous, but Keating kept both ears. Triano lacked leverage. And Keating did what his talent allowed. He stiffed Triano.

Triano got seriously upside-down on a parcel he was going to develop on the west side near Tucson Mountain Park, owing relatives of then-U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., much of the $850,000 he used for the 209-acre Park Point development. Not to worry. He got the Pima County Board of Supervisors to bail him out in 1988, swapping 23 acres of land on East Ajo Way in exchange for the Tucson Mountains property that was added to the park. The county paid off his debt. But Triano borrowed against his newly acquired 23 acres and soon lost it all. The county ended up paying for it more than once when it needed the property for a baseball spring training complex.

Triano did not endear himself to the Tohono O'odham tribe, even though the tribe and Triano and his partners amassed a fortune with high-stakes bingo. Papago Bingo--using the derogatory name the tribe shed 17 years ago--was the precursor to the Tohono O'odham Desert Diamond casinos that lure millions of dollars away from gamblers at slot machines, keno, poker and, yes, bingo.

Triano and partners Louis Cohn and Richard Hickey, with whom Triano shared a Sabino Canyon home before the murder, raised a $1.2 million loan for the tribe to build its first bingo hall in 1983. Triano and his partners created a management arm to run Papago Bingo in exchange for 40 percent of the profits. But tribal leaders wanted more for themselves, and less for Triano and his crew of non-Indians.

The fight escalated as the bingo hall evolved in the early 1990s with the addition of slot machines. The association was further tainted when the Star's Volante reported in 1992 that 80 of the 225 slots acquired by the tribe were leased or purchased from two New Jersey manufacturers with close ties to the Mafia. Triano, the Star reported, was not directly involved in ordering the machines.

But by 1993, a year before Triano filed a spectacular bankruptcy--one in which he listed $40 million in debts--the tribe forced Triano out.

Triano had five children from three women. Two of them, ex-wife No. 2, Pamela Phillips, and girlfriend Robin Gardner, had at various times developed a hatred for Triano that manifested itself in volatile relations, breakups, fights and, with Phillips, bitter and petty court battles. Only Triano's first wife, Mary Cram, who lives in a big home not far from Triano's last office on East Fourth Street, seemed beyond those battles. Investigators say she even used her money to keep the stream of cash going to Pam just to keep Gary Triano out of the slammer for failure to pay child support.

Triano and Mary Cram had a daughter, Heather, now 31, and son, Brian, 30. Everyone gathered recently for a wedding in Tucson.

Triano was splitting with Pam, who grew up in Tucson Country Club privilege, when the Tohono O'odham diverted his revenue stream. They had two children, now 14 and 11 and in Aspen with their mother, who is 44.

Pam Phillips and Gary Triano enjoyed a high-visibility lifestyle. They entertained Donald Trump and Marla Maples, even taking them to a UA basketball game in what was then showboat Triano's chief mode of conveyance--a rented stretch limo. His limo rides became so regular, and so much of a joke, at the UA games that longtime Chevy dealer R.B. "Buck" O'Rielly, in a rare flash of humor, once knocked on the window of a limo parked conspicuously outside McKale Center and told the driver to go home. Triano, O'Rielly assured the driver, had made other arrangements with friends.

Today, friends say that Pam Phillips is a devoted mother. She is active in real estate and Republican politics in Aspen. Friends also say that it is money that she truly loves. She did not return calls.

In Tucson, she was one of the few women to work in the late 1980s in commercial real estate. At Grubb & Ellis, then a leading brokerage, she used her beauty to pursue listings, deals and commissions. Pam cared little about state conflict of interest laws in 1987 when she sat on a county Bond Advisory Committee and voted to support a proposed county purchase of the sprawling Empire-Cienega ranches southeast of Tucson. Grubb & Ellis was handling the sale and stood to make millions from a deal that would have cost county taxpayers $35 million. The county eventually lost out to a federal purchase of the ranches.

One of Pam Phillips' friends, Ron Caviglia, a political insider who brokered a number of county real estate deals ranging from river bottom to the former bank building that is headquarters to the sheriff's department on East Benson Highway, said back then that "Pam will rip your heart out for a commission."

She booted Triano from their Skyline Country Club home in the summer of 1993, and the two exchanged thick files of vitriol in the ensuing divorce. She sought three restraining orders against him and complained that he was prone to violence, carted a loaded gun around on the front seat of his car--an El Dorado with "Triano" vanity plates--mixed booze and antidepressants, threw things, tore her clothes and called or showed up at all hours.

"My household help has been scared away," she complained in court papers.

It was on stage in Superior Court, battling over divorce matters in March 1994, that Pam became infuriated when she thought Triano was mocking her with laughter. In the hall during a break, she threw water on him. She was cited.

She also took out a restraining order in Aspen, saying a friend had told her that Triano announced that if it weren't for their kids, she'd be dead.

The children she is raising in Aspen were the beneficiaries of Triano's $2 million life insurance policy. Phillips was questioned and considered a suspect by sheriff's investigators and brass at one time. Unlike others, including a gaming figure who was connected to Triano's play for a Chinese casino, she declined a lie-detector test. That was on the advice of her lawyer, who objected to her being singled out for a test he said was unreliable and inadmissible in court.

In Tucson, Triano frequented the Olive Tree restaurant, where he would have lamb chops and share a bottle of wine with proprietor John Condiss, an ex-cop, on the patio. Triano was never without a cell phone, Condiss remembers, but it wasn't for playing the big shot. He was on the phone with his kids in Aspen.

"He loved and missed his kids," Condiss says.

He and Triano talked about business or just B.S.ed. He was a good customer and was good to my help."

With at least one exception. A stunningly beautiful hostess who was attending the UA said she was repulsed by Triano's constant groping as well as his money flashing.

"He liked them young," says a Triano pal who also is friendly with Pam.

THE SHERIFF'S department coordinated a multi-agency task force after the murder. It met daily. Eventually, work wound down. The task force was scaled back and then disbanded.

There were conflicts with ATF. When the materials of the bomb were identified--the battery and other material including the blue canvas bag--top sheriff's brass pushed for a press conference showing some of the items in an attempt to spur calls from someone who might have sold them. ATF quashed it.

Investigators still won't say whether the bomb was detonated by remote device, or set.

Was there anything special in the bag to entice Triano?

"Don't read too much into it," says one person close to the investigation. "It was around his birthday. He never locked his car. He thought this was part of the birthday, 'the guys left me a surprise.'"

Sgt. Michael O'Connor is an unassuming and energetic head of homicide for Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat who has held office since 1980. Though O'Connor would like to have the Triano case solved, its five-year history does not panic him.

"As time goes on, it can actually help investigators," O'Connor says. "The longer the case goes on, the more information trickles out. People who had alliances, no longer do. Things happen--divorces, or splits in business. Some may have fallen out of grace. Time has a way of working for us, in my experience."

Pam remains what O'Connor calls a "loose end." She is not, he says, "completely excluded" as a suspect.

What makes that end even more loose is the vanishing of Ron Young, described by authorities here and in Colorado as a "bad guy." He also is described as a boyfriend of Pam's and someone she had some business deals with. Wanted on weapons and fraud charges in Aspen, he slipped out of sight around the time of the Triano murder and hasn't been seen since.

Ed Piccolo, an investigator with the District Attorney's Office in Glenwood Springs, near Aspen, says that Young is believed to be in the Bahamas.

Investigators also explored Triano's business and personal relationships that arose when his New Frontier Investments alighted in the East Grant Road office of John Kenneth Orms, who also is known as J. Kenneth Orms or Ken Orms. He is the founder of Platinum Luxury Real Estate and Platinum Mortgage and Financial Services Inc. A former marketing instructor, Orms has been nearly as flamboyant as Triano in selling his services on television and on a radio program on KTKT. He talks about Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan as if he is a confidante and boasts fast mortgages made faster by "drive-by" appraisals and papers that a spouse can sign later. Orms boasted about a Democratic challenge to popular U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., in 1994, but backed out well before filing papers.

It was at Platinum that Triano fell in with Robin Gardner, a Virginian 22 years his junior. She had Triano's child, but Triano refused to marry her. That touched off a series of storms and exchanges of accusations of abuse and violence. Triano, a year before he was killed, called 911 to report that Gardner threw a vase at him in the garage of his Sabino Canyon home.

Like Triano, Orms avails himself of the courts. Last December, he had his lawyer Mark Clark sue the Westin La Paloma and Troon Golf for not activating New Frontier's $25,000 corporate membership. Orms acquired New Frontier in 1998. In the claim, he contends the bombing was too embarrassing for La Paloma. The suit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.

On May 4, 2000, two days before his 56th birthday, Orms put Clark into action again, this time to sue Gardner in Pima County Superior Court alleging that she owed him money on a loan for her 1994 white convertible Mustang and that she had to return a diamond engagement ring that, he claimed in court papers, was worth $10,000. The engagement was broken off two months earlier.

Court papers show a rocky relationship here, too, with Gardner having Orms cited for disturbing her at her temporary Oro Valley home just two months after their January 2000 engagement. She said Orms on March 11, 2000 threatened her and hit her in the face. He was cited in municipal court and completed probation. Another time, Orms went to her house, gave her $500 in cash and said "there's more where this came from" if she would agree to have dinner with him at his house.

Gardner, and her lawyer William Walker, turned the tables several weeks ago, winning a stunning jury award for $919,000 after Walker was able to show that Gardner was improperly denied commissions and pay and was the victim of breach of contract, assault, slander and infliction of emotional distress.

Sgt. O'Connor called Gardner "extremely cooperative." Orms also satisfied investigators. Neither could be reached for comment.

Triano was working on several things, big and small, when he was killed: a system to bleed hydraulic brakes, and a casino on the Chinese island of Hainan, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This would be the first such casino in China, and Triano wanted the action. Michael Tsang, a Tucson businessman, was one link. Financing was coming from the Illinois-based Fears family. Despite his squabbles with Triano, Gary Fears scoffed at any suggestion that he had anything to do with Triano's murder. He agreed to a polygraph exam. Authorities, he said, were wasting his and their time.

But the Triano-Phillips divorce provided another level of scrutiny for the Fears-Triano venture. Phillips' lawyer, doing what he should do, was keen to examine all of Triano's income. He questioned a tax document Fears sent Triano claiming payment of $100,000 for the China casino work. The player on the other side was Tong Shi Jun. Tong and Triano also clashed, and he left his temporary residence in Tucson.

But O'Connor says that it appears everyone in the China deal "reconciled with one another."

TRIANO'S BODY, BLACKENED by powder, burned and punctured, sat slightly slumping in his friend's Lincoln for seven hours before the county's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Bruce O. Parks, could arrive. He stayed about five feet from the car. From there he could see the huge gash in Triano's right leg.

When they brought Triano's body to the morgue for what would be a 9-and-a-quarter-hour autopsy, an apron covered the back of the head. It was full of blood, as was a sheet that lined the bag on Triano's back. Black, charcoal-like dust covered the areas of the wounds. Parts of his right hand and tendon were brought in a separate bag. The stump and the injured left hand were covered with white paper bags. Triano's shirt, which bore GLT on the collar, was torn and melted onto the body.

Despite his weight, Triano, alive, was in pretty good shape. His organs were in good condition, except for damage by the blast. He could have lived to be an old, old man. He had minimal coronary atherosclerosis. Same with the aorta and the brain, which was "sectioned coronally" in the autopsy.

If he and the boys drank the day of the murder, it had been early or the booze had already washed out of his system. Only caffeine showed on the lab tests. Triano had recently eaten tortillas or tortilla chips, olives, green chile, tomato and onion.

Salsa at the club. Real food at the party later.

His gray slacks were torn. Inside a front pocket were a broken plastic divot tool and a dime. In the other pocket were another dime and two pennies.

Gary Lee Triano, the man who put together million-dollar deals and pissed away tens of thousands of dollars on bad golf, was dead with 22 cents.

In the rush then and in the slow-moving, hope-for-a-break investigation now, it may not be the big things that count after all. It may not be the big debts, the domestic volatility, the casino or other deals. It may be the small stuff. It may be in the phone records, old and new, that are of interest again to investigators.

For all his high-powered borrowing and dealing, for all his name-dropping, his ability to be seen, his connections with politicians, for his acumen, it may be, according to O'Connor, a minor investor, somewhere, who simply had enough of what he thought was Triano's bullshit.

"What always has intrigued me," O'Connor says, "is for all his familiarity with politicians and connections to the high end, he was dealing sometimes or living on the dark side with what I consider hard-working people but low-rent. [Maybe] a little old lady, who has given him her life's savings or $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, and getting the feeling that he is ripping them off. He had plenty of those. What if one of them has a former Navy SEAL doing some handiwork or errands for them and all they hear is the complaining about Triano? What if they said one day, 'want me to take care of that for you?'"

More by Chris Limberis

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    • Sep 22, 2005
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