Wrong Man on Death Row
Home| Phoenix Magazine| About Jana| Winnie Ruth Judd| Public Speaking| Contact Me
Is the Wrong Man on Death Row
for the Murder of an Heiress?
Feature Story Phoenix Magazine
This should be one of the Valley’s most important cold cases, but it’s not. It’s not even on the list anymore. Because someone’s in prison, Phoenix PD considers the case solved. A fresh look by PHOENIX magazine, however, shows that it’s anything but closed. Among other things, we’ve uncovered evidence that fractures the very foundation of the case.
Jeanne Tovrea’s killer might still be on the loose 19 years after the crime was committed. And the money man who paid to have her executed in her expansive home might still be out there, too.
The beautiful, vivacious heiress-widow of a family whose name is synonymous with Arizona’s pioneer years was murdered on Friday, April 1, 1988, in her Paradise Valley home.
Five shots to the head with a .22-caliber handgun at close range did the deed two shots were right in her face. It was a signature killing, a professional hit.
Hers was neither a neighborhood nor a stratum of society familiar with that kind of bloodshed. Maybe in the old days, when Jeanne was a working-class waitress eking out a living, but not in 1988, not when she had married so well and was so rich that she never had to worry about working a day in her life again. The elegant home her husband had given her was located inside a gated community with a 24-hour guard and a mountain for a backyard. It was a home where there was life and parties and laughter, a house you’d expect to be immune from violence. But brutality had come inside and it was over-the-top vicious.
The entire upper crust of the Valley was affected by the crime. Everyone had known Jeanne’s late husband for a long time one of the most popular men in town and everyone knew Jeanne’s rags-to-riches story. She had won over those who counted the ones who decided the darlings of society and she was now one of them. Those who didn’t know her personally had danced at the charity balls she’d helped organize. Many socialites had been to her home for celebrations and holidays. Her address book included every mover and shaker in the Valley, and there were plenty of wannabes who wished to be on her list.
In this city at that time, high-profile crime was epitomized by the murder of Jeanne Tovrea. But her killer has never been brought to justice. Maybe he’s in prison for some other crime, or maybe he’s still roaming the streets of Phoenix. Regardless, he’s not behind bars for one of the most brutal and shocking murders in the city’s history. Whoever ordered the slaughter might also be free, maybe eating at a nice Scottsdale restaurant tonight, or taking in a Suns game.
A man sits on Death Row for Jeanne’s murder, but nobody has ever seriously thought he was the “trigger man.” Police believe James “Butch” Harrod was the middleman who organized the murder. Prosecutors acquiesced to that theory during his 1997 trial, but stressed that if he were there, he was as guilty as any of them. Jurors who convicted him told reporters they didn’t think he was the actual killer. They thought, as conventional wisdom holds, that if he got the death penalty, surely he would roll over on the guy who lured him into this mess with the promise of big money.
Officials said it was the oldest story in the book: murder for hire. In this version, an angry stepson could no longer watch his late father’s frivolous third wife spend away the family fortune. To protect his and his sister’s inheritance, he hired a pal to knock her off. It was on that theory that they convicted Harrod of murder, saying he was doing the bidding of Ed “Hap” Tovrea Jr. But the namesake to the Tovrea legacy was never charged with any crime, and, to this day, he’s living happily in San Diego.
Hap has steadfastly maintained his innocence all these years, insisting he had nothing to do with the gruesome crime. James Harrod echoes the same thing that they’ve sent an innocent man to Death Row and says he can’t squeal on Hap because there’s nothing to squeal about.
This should be one of Phoenix’s most important cold cases, but it isn’t. It’s not even on the list anymore. Since someone is in prison, the Phoenix Police Department considers the case solved.
A fresh look by PHOENIX magazine, however, shows it is anything but closed.
Our probe raises serious questions about what happened that April Fool’s night almost 19 years ago, and suggests there is far more to this murder than the state has ever acknowledged.
Most significantly, we’ve uncovered evidence that shatters the very foundation of the case: Turns out, state prosecutors got the motive for the murder wrong. And if the movtive is wrong, other dominoes fall, including questions about the guilt of the man who is sitting on Death Row.
As you’ll see, this case remains one of Arizona’s most fascinating, unsolved murder mysteries.
Political malfeasance, not murder, captured the attention of Arizona during Easter weekend in 1988. The entire nation was watching what would happen to Governor Evan Mecham, who had been a controversial figure since taking office on January 5, 1987. The Glendale car dealer represented the far-right wing of the Republican Party, and had won the election with less than half the vote, leaving two moderates one Democrat, one Independent to split the rest. And although he had squeaked into office, he took hold of it with great gusto.
The first thing the new governor did was cancel the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that had been approved by outgoing Governor Bruce Babbitt. He then began unleashing a series of misstatements and strange views that continually embarrassed Arizona and amused the rest of the nation.
He thought “piccaninny” was a “term of endearment” in the black community, and insisted he was being spied on by radio waves that could only be stopped by wads of tinfoil.
But it wasn’t fantasy that got him into the most trouble. It was the charge that he’d tried to obstruct justice and misused a “protocol” fund by loaning his ailing car dealership $80,000.
That week, the Arizona Legislature had completed Day 24 of Mecham’s impeachment trial and was poised to vote. Would he become the first U.S. governor in nearly 60 years to be thrown out of office? Would Arizona find its first female governor in Secretary of State Rose Mofford? In the coming days, Arizona would answer both questions with a resounding “yes,” but as the weekend approached, locals were still guessing and still bracing for the final days of the trial that would be broadcast live on Channel 8 that Monday morning.
At that moment, President Ronald Reagan was preparing to leave office, and his vice president, George Bush, was seeking the Republican nomination. Democrats were still trying to decide between Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis. At home, Terry Goddard was the mayor of Phoenix.
Robert Redford had released The Milagro Beanfield War, and the just-announced Pulitzer Prizes gave the big award to The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina for exposing the crimes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club television ministry.
The local commentary of the day came through the “letters to the editor” in The Arizona Republic, and folks were bent out of shape about the prospect of a law that would require people to wear seatbelts, and the fear that someday smoking would be banned in restaurants and office buildings.
Jeanne Tovrea was getting ready for a weekend getaway with her new beau in Las Vegas, and it’s both heartbreaking and comforting that she spent her last days so pleasantly.
She had a lunch date Thursday with her dear friend Danny Medina then the outrageous publisher of Trends, a societal bible for the rich and famous set. Medina had the kind of sharp tongue that could slash a pretender to shreds or elevate a wannabe to status, and he adored his flamboyant work. He also adored this pretty woman who had transformed her life, elevating her status by marrying rich.
Jeanne was a 39-year-old divorced cocktail waitress when she caught the eye of one of Arizona’s most eligible rich old men, Ed Tovrea a World War II hero and former prisoner of war who was heir to the cattle fortune that once dominated Arizona in 1971. The Tovrea name still graces the “wedding cake” castle on East Washington Street. Ed was 25 years Jeanne’s senior, already a veteran of two marriages, but he fell hard for her. They were married in 1973.
She was neither cultured nor refined. Loud and brassy, she was always fighting her weight, and she had a laugh that would fill a room. Anyone who thought she was just a gold-digger soon learned differently, as she earned points with Ed’s famous and connected friends. She proved herself a devoted, loving, caring and fun-loving wife.
But Ed was gone he had been for five years and Jeanne had a reputation as one of the more free-spending rich widows in town. She also was generous, hosting balls that earned tens of thousands of dollars for charities. To this day, Danny Medina now retired and living on an island remembers her only with great fondness: “Jeanne’s lifestyle was one to be envied by all. She wore the latest fashions. She drove expensive cars and mixed with the who’s who of the Valley. She also chaired some of the grandest balls in Arizona,” he says.
Jeanne went shopping that Thursday, a regular part of her daily ritual. She loved to shop, would “buy one of every color” in outfits she fancied, and was well known at all the best boutiques. That day, she spent $718.08 on her Bullock’s charge account, all on clothes for her new boyfriend.
Six days earlier, she had spent $474.82 at the Elizabeth Arden Salon, a spa where some would remember her as “always trying to buy her way in” if she wanted an emergency hair appointment and none was available. They thought she had an embarrassing “flaunt the wealth” attitude.
She returned home to her gated community in the afternoon as her housekeepers were preparing to leave. Mabel and Fred Wolfe had long worked for Jeanne, and now their daughter, Carol, was helping, too. They left about 2 p.m. and remember Jeanne as being in a good mood and the house as being spotless the plush, white rug that ran through the one-story ranch-style home looked brand-new in its just-vacuumed state and the kitchen counters had been wiped to a gleaming clean.
At about 5:30 p.m., Jeanne’s gardener, Ramiro Gonzales, spent an hour working in the patio area. He waved goodbye to Jeanne as he left.
Early in the evening, she talked long distance with her sister, Sandra Eller, who had called from Arkansas. Jeanne told her she was working on invitations for an April party where she hoped to announce her engagement.
Jim Lawler was manning the gate at Lincoln Hills that night and remembered something strange about Jeanne Tovrea she drove in between 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in an incredible hurry. When he was slow to raise the gate, “she almost ran into it.” He wondered why she was in such a rush, and it surprised him that she “wasn’t dressed up like she normally dresses when she goes out.”
By the time The Arizona Republic went to press in the wee hours of Friday morning, April 1, 1988, Jeanne Tovrea was dead.
“Socialite is slain in Phoenix,” blared the front-page headline on Saturday, April 2. “Burglary a possible motive for break-in,” it added. Arizona first heard of her death with these words:
“A widowed Phoenix socialite who married into a pioneer Valley cattle barony was slain early Friday when she apparently confronted a burglar in her privately guarded hillside estate.
“Jeanne Tovrea, 55, was to have flown to Las Vegas, Nevada, on Friday morning to meet a current beau, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
“Phoenix police refused to disclose how Tovrea, the widow of Valley cattle magnate Edward Tovrea Sr., was slain, where in the home her body was found or whether anything was missing.”
The story noted that the burglar alarm at the house in the 3500 block of East Lincoln Drive was set off at 12:46 a.m. A “close friend” was quoted as saying, “She didn’t have any enemies. Everyone loved her.”
Danny Medina told The Arizona Republic he was shaken by Jeanne’s murder. “It seemed like her life was just coming together,” he said.
Neighbors hadn’t heard any shots and couldn’t understand how anyone could have gotten into the gated community, with its 24-hour guard and its backyard of steep mountains. When Republic reporters asked a neighbor if it were possible for an assailant to enter and flee through the mountains, the neighbor said, “Yes, it’s possible, but it’s a rugged trip.”
Karen Ganz drove to Jeanne’s house early that Friday morning for a regular workout in her home gym. Staying in shape was a constant concern for Jeanne, likewise for the friends who joined her all of whom were members of the “never too rich or too thin” club. She had hired a trainer named Robert to help. The workouts did the trick, taking Jeanne from a size 12 to a size eight, but she was prone to yo-yo back up if she wasn’t diligent. It was a struggle most women understand, and for someone who loved shopping at all the best stores I Magnin, Saks, pricey boutiques it was one Jeanne was determined to win.
Karen, who considered herself one of Jeanne’s best friends, often joined her on shopping sprees that were breathtaking in their excess.
“Jeanne was a Leo and a big personality she loved being the center of attention,” Karen remembers. “She came from just a little holler in Arkansas, but she wanted the big life.”
Karen had a particularly close look at the big life Ed Tovrea provided, since she was then married to one of Ed’s best friends, and the foursome spent considerable time together. “They were house guests of ours in Coronado [California] and we went to their home in Pinetop,” Karen says. “She really worked at making a wonderful life for Ed, and she won over a lot of people. She made Ed happy.”
The two women remained friends as Karen’s marriage dissolved and Ed Tovrea died of natural causes in 1983. At the time of her death, Jeanne lived alone in the beautiful home inside Lincoln Hills Estates, where Ed had lived out his last years, bedridden.
“Once Ed died, she started spending money like crazy,” Karen remembers. In fact, Ed Tovrea himself once joked with a friend that he expected Jeanne to go through his entire fortune within just a few years. As Karen drove up to Lincoln Hills that Friday morning, she saw police cars and wondered what could be wrong in paradise. Then she saw Robert and a workout friend running toward her car. “Robert was crying and told me Jeanne had been killed,” she says.
She remembers not being able to wrap her mind around that horrific thought. “We just couldn’t figure it out,” she recalls now. “By the time I got home, I had 30 messages, because it was on the news. I think I was in shock for a long time.”
She remembers that friends pulled together for Jeanne’s funeral at Valley Presbyterian Church a big funeral with thousands of flowers. Afterward, people went to Paradise Valley Country Club. “The McGuire Sisters showed up in their hats,” Karen recalls.
She also remembers getting a call from Jeanne’s stepson, Ed “Hap” Tovrea. “Happy called me and wanted to know where the funeral was and [if he] should fly in, and I remember being cool,” Karen says. “I knew he didn’t like her, and he was trying to sound so concerned.”
He didn’t show up for the funeral. Karen never heard from Ed’s two daughters, Georgia, known as “Crickett,” and Priscilla, known as “Prissy.” They didn’t even pretend to like Jeanne.
Karen says Jeanne’s friends constantly talked about the murder and were trying to figure out who could have committed such a terrible crime. They first suspected Jeanne’s newest boyfriend, Eddie Akeridge, a cowboy from Las Vegas who was getting divorced and planning to marry Jeanne. “We thought it must be tied to him,” Karen says. “I never thought it was tied to the kids [Jeanne’s stepchildren]. They’d never be that stupid.”
Stevie Eller, a social star in her own right, always liked Jeanne Tovrea. The wife of business mogul Karl Eller, Stevie still remembers her friend fondly: “I cannot imagine anyone being a nicer human being than her.” Jeanne had just hosted a wedding shower for Stevie’s daughter, and that sort of kindness was typical, according to her friends.
“She was a doll with a huge heart,” Stevie remembers. “She loved people and was always on the phone to see if there was something she could do if you had troubles. I loved to be with her. You could be having the worst day and come away feeling better after being with her. I thought she was beautiful she became prettier and prettier because of her kindness. She had a lot of life to her.”
The Ellers had long been friends with the Tovreas, and Stevie says Jeanne was one of the best things that ever happened to Ed. “Ed wasn’t an easy guy,” she says. “He adored her and she made his life fun. She had this incredible energy. Since Ed died, I thought, how wonderful [that] he had her. I never felt she had another agenda. She adored him.”
Stevie says she’ll never understand how anyone could have “assassinated” her friend: “I’ve never seen anything like this.” She remembers that not long after the murder, police met with Jeanne’s friends. “They told us there was no question in their minds that Hap had ordered the murder,” Stevie remembers. Police told the friends Hap was afraid that Jeanne was spending his inheritance. “I can’t imagine [the motive] being anything but money,” she says.
She heard the rumors about the “mob” ordering Jeanne’s death, but “I just yoo-hooed it. I thought it was a smokescreen,” she says. Police told her they had “all the proof” that Hap had hired a friend to kill his stepmother. She has always felt comfortable that at least they have somebody behind bars. “I’d love to have whoever did it put away,” Stevie says.
For seven long years, the Tovrea murder was Phoenix’s No. 1 unsolved homicide. For all that time, police were actively and doggedly following one lead after another. The case passed through four detectives, as men retired from the force. At least twice, a solution looked promising, as informants named hitmen. Police also had some rather influential folks in town playing amateur detectives.
One of the most intriguing examples was the involvement of Kemper Marley, a wealthy and powerful liquor dealer whose name was tied to the assassination of Don Bolles, the Arizona Republic reporter who was blown up at high noon with a car bomb in 1976. Marley was never charged with Bolles’ murder, and consistently denied he had anything to do with it, while the state’s entire theory was that Bolles was murdered because he had angered Marley with a series of stories written years earlier.
Marley had long been friends with Jeanne’s husband, Ed, and had apparently introduced the couple. He took a particular interest in her murder, asking his righthand man, Max Dunlap, to find out what had happened. Dunlap turned to an investigative reporter, Don Devereaux, who was particularly well connected with both police and mob sources.
Devereaux told Dunlap and police the “scuttlebutt” from his sources was that the Scottsdale mob had ordered Jeanne killed to protect the inheritance of “Hap” Tovrea, who supposedly owed mob characters a lot of money.
But a police report notes Kemper Marley didn’t believe it. “Kemper emphatically told Max that he was absolutely positive that Ed Tovrea Jr. had not killed Jeanne,” the police report notes. “Kemper knew who and why Jeanne was killed. He intended on telling Detective Dick Fuqua what he knew but died before he could.” (Dunlap, meanwhile, ended up in prison, where he sits to this day, for the Bolles murder.)
For a time, police and prosecutors were apparently in negotiations with murderer Joe Calo over what he knew about Jeanne Tovrea’s death, and Calo insisted he knew precisely who killed her. He fingered a hitman named James Majors, who he himself had hired for a series of murders around the same time as Jeanne’s. “Majors killed her,” he told officials in May of 1991.
Calo’s version of the murder was that Jeanne was transporting drugs “for excitement” and decided she’d had enough. “She was killed because she wanted to stop transporting drugs,” the police report from their conversation notes.
Calo insisted the plot was hatched at Pronto Ristorante, and that the fee was $100,000. He said Majors was driven to her neighborhood to scope it out. Later, he says, Jeanne was lured to a restaurant so Majors would know what she looked like.
Calo said the hitman found her at a shopping center and, at gunpoint, forced her to drive to her home in Lincoln Hills Estates as he “hid on the back seat.” Calo is currently in an Arizona prison, while Majors is on Death Row in California. Neither responded to requests for interviews about this case. Hot on the heels of Calo’s bombshell was yet another informant naming a killer. On July 3, 1991, accused burglar Hoy Lee Mathis called police to say a fellow inmate had confessed to him that he had killed Jeanne Tovrea. Mathis named Forrest David Mason as the man who did the boasting, but police ruled him out, saying he’d been in prison in Michigan at the time of the murder.
But there was something about Mathis’ story that worried police. He knew too many details from inside the crime scene things nobody but the murderer would have known. It is apparent from police reports that there was considerable suspicion that Mathis might have named the wrong guy, but indeed had heard very accurate and damning information from someone inside that jail. The only certainty is that he wasn’t hearing it from “Butch” Harrod, who wasn’t incarcerated at that time.
During the investigation, police seriously questioned workout friend Karen Gantz. “Jeanne’s sister told them she was mad at me and police called me in for questioning,” Karen says with astonishment. “They thought maybe I could have done it.”
Another prominent suspect was Jeanne’s new boyfriend, Eddie Akeridge, who she planned to visit in Las Vegas that weekend. Eddie was married but separated from his wife, Lila. But Lila told police she had no knowledge of any Phoenix woman in her husband’s life, and that they were seeing a marriage counselor to work out their problems.
Police already knew that Jeanne had spent the last night of her life addressing invitations for a shindig where she intended to announce her engagement to Eddie. As for Eddie, he backpedaled and told police he and Jeanne had never discussed marriage.
Jeanne’s daughter, Deborah Luster, was investigated when a friend told police Jeanne intended to change her will and not leave her estate to Deborah.
Meanwhile, police collected the evidence they found at the scene. They reconstructed the crime like this:
Someone came down a very steep mountain and sheer rock face on the backside of Jeanne’s home to her back patio the same “rugged” route she and her neighbors considered a safety barrier against intrusion. The intruder stood on a wicker footstool and removed a kitchen window that wasn’t connected to the alarm system, entering the house by squeezing through a window measuring 20-by-24 inches.
The killer or killers climbed over the sink and kitchen counter and went down the hall to Jeanne’s bedroom, where she was already asleep. The killer pulled the phone out of the wall, covered her head with a pillow and pulled the trigger five times. Then, the killer ransacked an acrylic jewelry box in the room, emptied out her red purse on the kitchen counter, and left the house through the kitchen’s arcadia door, triggering the alarm.
The alarm went off at 12:46 a.m. Police arrived within 10 minutes, finding the kitchen windowpane lying on a patio couch and the arcadia door ajar. They called for backup and the canine unit. A dog named Bear found Jeanne in her bedroom, down the hall.
The first time James Harrod walked into the Phoenix Police Department to talk about the Jeanne Tovrea murder was weeks after the killing in 1988. Police had called and asked him to stop in because his name had shown up on Ed “Hap” Tovrea’s long-distance phone records. He remembers a detective taking one look at him and saying, “Well, you’re not the guy. We’re looking for an athlete.”
At the time, the 5-foot-10-inch Harrod was overweight more than 250 pounds was smoking two packs of Marlboro Lights a day, and was coping with a right foot that had been damaged as a child. The damage was severe enough to keep him out of physical education classes in high school and get him a 4-F military deferment during the Vietnam War.
Police were looking for an athlete because “the guy came down a mountain,” the detective explained, and this overweight, chain-smoking guy with a limp was certainly no physical specimen.
Police were so confident James Harrod wasn’t their guy that they never bothered to fingerprint him, although, trial records show they were fingerprinting virtually everyone they thought might have been near the Tovrea home, including Jeanne’s banker and gardener.
Harrod said he knew nothing about the murder, and his only connection to the case was that he had worked some business deals in China and South America with Hap Tovrea. Police thanked him and sent him on his way.
The second time James Harrod walked into the Phoenix Police Department to talk about the Jeanne Tovrea murder was six years later, on September 14, 1994.
By then, Bill Clinton was president, Skip Rimsza was mayor of Phoenix and the celebrity murder trial that would rewrite the book on murder trials the O.J. Simpson case was under way.
This time, Harrod had been picked up at his home at 5:30 a.m. and brought Downtown and fingerprinted. As he would later testify, a new detective, Ed Reynolds, told him, “I know you’re not the one who did it,” but said he was convinced Harrod was involved and knew who all the guilty parties were.
Records show Reynolds stressed that his “No. 1” focus was whoever hired the killers and “No. 2 and No. 3” were the killers themselves. “Right now, the best-case scenario for me, today, is that I get the guy in the middle,” Reynolds told Harrod. “The guy that was hired… to get it done. The guy in the middle that can give me both people, I want him to cooperate fully…. Now you can sit here today and you can think, ‘I’m just gonna go tell him to piss up a rope. I don’t know what he’s talking about.’ That’s fine. A lot of people do that. But you are never, after you walk out this door today, you are never gonna get the opportunity to be the man to give me him and him.”
On the stand, Harrod could still recite the frightening words he heard from Reynolds that day: “Give me No. 1 and No. 2 and No. 3. What do you want? What would it take [to make you talk]? You want me to tell the prosecutor he doesn’t want the death sentence?”
Harrod testified he was already in shock. He had just been told he was being arrested for murder and that his fingerprints were all over the crime scene. (To this day, he says he can’t explain the prints, but insists, “I just know they’re not mine.”) He says the mention of the death sentence scared him beyond belief. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harrod insisted.
A transcript of the interrogation shows the detective fabricated a story that Tovrea had a plan to blame the entire thing on Harrod and say Harrod had blackmailed him. Harrod kept insisting that couldn’t be true, and no amount of cajoling or threatening would shake his declaration of innocence.
Finally, Reynolds told him, “All the evidence is going to come back to you bird in the hand, easy slamdunk, put him away. If ever in the future somebody wants to come forward and say… ‘I can give you him and him,’ then we’ll consider that then. But right now, we’ll slamdunk the easy one.”
The next day, The Arizona Republic announced the news: “Ahwatukee man held in ’88 Tovrea slaying.”
The story read: “An arrest was announced Friday in the murder of Phoenix socialite Jeanne Tovrea, whose slaying had stumped authorities for more than seven years.
“James Cornel Harrod, 42, an Ahwatukee man who was questioned shortly after Tovrea’s slaying in 1988, was arrested Thursday and charged with first-degree murder and burglary.
“Harrod, known by his neighbors as ‘Butch,’ was described by them as a macho man with a penchant for telling tall tales of his war exploits that would leave listeners scratching their heads. b “Harrod, described in divorce papers as a ‘consultant,’ is being held without bail in a Maricopa County jail….
“The criminal charges… accuse Harrod of carrying out the slaying ‘either alone or with one or more other persons.’”
He went on trial for the murder in 1997, and as the evidence was laid out against him, James Harrod looked guilty as hell.
The state’s case focused on four things that nailed him: his fingerprints; his ex-wife’s testimony that Harrod had confessed to killing Jeanne for Hap for $100,000; his voice on an answering machine tape pretending to be a reporter named “Gordon Phillips”; and phone records showing calls between Hap Tovrea and Harrod around the time of the murder.
Police said they found 18 fingerprints at the murder scene that matched James Harrod: four from the outside of the kitchen window at the point of entry; eight from inside the window at the point of entry; four on the kitchen counter by the sink; one from the north-side gate; and one from a piece of weather-stripping.
His ex-wife, Anne Costello, said she kept quiet for nearly seven years because she was afraid of her husband, but told the jury she knew he was going out to murder that night as she went to bed. She also said she was sure the “Gordon Phillips” on the tape was her husband.
Jeanne’s daughter testified that her mother was afraid of this so-called reporter, Gordon Phillips, who said he wanted to do a story on the late Ed Tovrea. He had shown up in San Diego when the family was vacationing there, and Deborah sat in as he met with her mother. When he left, Deborah said she called security to be sure he left the property. She found the answering machine tape after her mother’s death and turned it over to police.
In 1992, Unsolved Mysteries did a television segment on the Tovrea murder and played the tape as part of their re-enactment. A couple years later, they replayed the show. Harrod’s former brothers-in-law thought the tape sounded like him; eventually, so did his wife and her new boyfriend. The boyfriend, who worked with the FBI, notified Phoenix police, and that was how James Harrod came back onto the radar screen of this murder case.
And, prosecutors made a big deal about the 108 phone calls between Tovrea and Harrod in the year surrounding the murder.
Yes, James “Butch” Harrod looked guilty as hell.
Couple that with the media’s meticulous detailing of the $4 million Tovrea trust a “residual” trust that Jeanne controlled during her lifetime. She was to live off the interest, with the principal split among Ed Tovrea’s three children at her death. But, reportedly, she had “invaded” the principal and was spending with such ease that the money couldn’t possibly last forever. Most news stories strongly hinted that the Tovrea children had four million reasons to want Jeanne dead.
It seemed to most everyone that this was a slamdunk case.
If it was such a slamdunk, however, why are there still so many questions, including:
•How did an overweight, chain-smoking man with a bum leg get down a steep mountain that police immediately knew demanded the stamina of an athlete? And just as significantly, how could he ever have scaled back up the mountain in the scant 10 minutes after the alarm went off and the first police arrived?
•If the killer came down the mountain, why wasn’t there a shred of desert debris inside the house? Wouldn’t there have been twigs or burrs or gravel on the all-white carpet?
•If the killer didn’t come down the mountain, how did he get in? Convicted killer Joe Calo told police that the hitman came in the front gate with Jeanne, hidden in her backseat with a gun at her back. Could that explain her haste that night, when the guard barely had time to raise the gate? Calo, interestingly, said he didn’t know anyone named James Harrod.
•If James Harrod were there, how did a man so overweight squeeze through such a small kitchen window to get his fingerprints inside on the kitchen counter?
•How was that window removed from the outside? At trial, prosecutors said the weather-stripping was removed from the outside and the pane taken out of the aluminum frame. But John Pizer of the Prison Legal Aid Association says he has studied the window design of Jeanne’s home and decided that it “cannot be done.” He maintains the weather-stripping was on the inside of the window, and that there was no way to remove that kitchen window “without breaking it.” PHOENIX magazine took trial exhibits to John Collier, a retired criminologist for the Phoenix Police Department who is considered an expert in fingerprints. He said that from the information he reviewed, it appears two people removed that window: “One pushing the glass out [from the inside] and one on the outside pulling or gripping.” The one inside wore surgical gloves while the one outside was barehanded, Collier said. (He also offered an intriguing hint about how to solve this case: “Any bullet casing today could be checked for DNA on who loaded the gun,” he said. While that technology wasn’t available when Tovrea was murdered, Phoenix police supposedly still have the bullet casings in evidence.)
•Why are the position of James Harrod’s prints so suspicious? Harrod’s defense attorneys hired fingerprint expert Michael Sweedo of Tucson to review the fingerprint evidence before trial. “All his prints were at the point of entry and there were no others throughout the house,” he says. “Why is a guy only handling things at the point of entry and not anywhere else? Why go in and not use gloves and leave such beautiful fingerprints behind?” Among the places they did not find Harrod’s prints were in Jeanne’s bedroom, on the phonecord that was ripped out of the wall, on the acrylic jewelry box, on her purse that was on the kitchen counter, or on the arcadia door that was allegedly the killer’s exit. Sweedo noted he was never allowed to test the original fingerprints because the glass from which these prints were supposedly taken was never placed into police custody. “I compared his prints to latent print cards, but I never looked at the original evidence,” he said. When asked, he noted, “The easiest way to fake a print-lift-card is to say it came from someplace it didn’t.” Harrod’s trial attorneys tried to convince the jury the fingerprints were fake. The jury didn’t buy it.
•How could the court be so sure the “Gordon Phillips” on the tape was James Harrod, when the tape was never tested? Harrod’s family offered to pay for voice stress tests, but were denied during the trial when the judge said he was satisfied it was Harrod’s voice. But a voice stress expert, who helps train FBI officers, says the naked ear isn’t reliable. “You can’t do it without a test,” says Bill Dunbar. “If it was the guy’s mother, she would be able to tell his voice from a tape, but you and I... we couldn’t tell.” (Harrod’s late mother, Marie Wollitz, mortgaged her house to pay for her son’s defense and offered to pay for the test. “Let’s get that analyzed, because that’s not my son’s voice,” she told her daughter.) Dunbar says, unfortunately, the entire issue is moot because police have told the court they lost the original tape and only have a third-or fourth-generation copy from the television tape. “It’s no longer possible to do an accurate test on that tape,” Dunbar concludes.
•Is Deborah Luster’s eventual identification on the third try of Jim Harrod as the mysterious “Gordon Phillips” credible? Soon after the killing in 1988, Luster gave police descriptions to create a composite drawing, which Harrod’s attorneys note, “bears no resemblance whatsoever to Harrod.” In 1990, Luster was hypnotized in hopes of remembering more, but added only that Phillips had an “off-brand” color of eyes, such as green. Harrod’s eyes are blue. Before Harrod’s arrest, Luster was shown a photo lineup of people who police then suspected. She picked out one photo that “bears a strong resemblance to the composite drawing,” police records show.
Although the jury would never learn of that identity, records show that the man was actually James Majors, the very hitman Joe Calo had told police killed Jeanne Tovrea. After Harrod’s arrest, Luster was shown a second photo lineup, this time including his picture. She picked out somebody else. By the time she gingerly chose Harrod out of a physical lineup, she had already seen his face in two others. And even then, her “identification” was less than certain. She told police, “I very much felt that No. 5 [Harrod] resembles Phillips.”
•Did Jeanne Tovrea really believe this Gordon Phillips character was a threat? Luster claimed that she and her mother were so afraid when he showed up at their place in San Diego that she called security at the Balboa Club to be sure he was off the premises. But when police checked with the security office, they found no record of any such request or any reference to a Gordon Phillips. And while Deborah said her mother was concerned, apparently she wasn’t concerned enough to even mention a Gordon Phillips to either her new boyfriend or her housekeeper. Both told police they had never heard Jeanne voice any concern about a threatening reporter.
•Is Harrod’s ex-wife believable when she says her husband did it for $100,000? She claimed she kept quiet so long because she was afraid of him, but does that gibe with her actions? Soon after the killing, she went away with him on a trip to Barbados. She also moved her mother into their home for a time, and most notably, she stayed married to him for seven more years.
•Police reports show her story kept getting better and better every time she told it. She originally told police her husband received “documents” from Hap Tovrea by UPS. By the time she got on the stand, it was “documents and cash.” She originally said her husband left the house the night of the murder in “camouflage pants” and didn’t tell her where he was going. On the stand, she claimed he told her he was going to murder someone, and then she went to bed and slept soundly through the night. Harrod claims his ex-wife was trying to reconcile their marriage shortly before he was arrested, and, from Death Row, he angrily suggests she lied about him “for the reward money.” (Silent Witness offered a $35,000 reward.)
•If James Harrod were guilty, would he have passed polygraph tests that specifically asked him: Did you shoot Jeanne Tovrea? Were you physically present when Jeanne was killed? Did you enter through the kitchen window? And did you participate in any way in the killing of Jeanne Tovrea?
•Did James Harrod and Hap Tovrea have legitimate business deals that would explain why money changed hands? And how much of the $100,000 killing fee that Anne Costello cited did the state actually find?
•Harrod’s original defense attorney, Michael Bernays, remembers that the trial clearly established the men were in business together, trying to launch a sulfur mining business in China. He noted Harrod’s passport showed two trips to China, and a colleague who was also their translator, Jason Wu, testified about the legitimacy of the business deal, adding that the Tiananmen Square riot had ended their plans.
•Harrod and Tovrea then went on to seek other mining opportunities in Chile. Even prosecutors acknowledged the men were in business, but they contended the business helped cover the murder payments. Prosecutor Paul Ahler told the jury that Harrod had received $46,300 from Hap Tovrea in the year after Jeanne’s murder. But records show $13,300 of that was from checks made out to Harrod under Tovrea’s company, MECA, and each was noted for specific business expenses. As it turns out, that small amount was the only money the state could directly link between the men. The other $33,000 came from money orders Tovrea made out to “cash” and were never traced to Harrod.
•Do the many phone calls between Tovrea and Harrod show they were plotting a murder? In a 17-month period July 1987 to December 1988 records show that Tovrea called Harrod 108 times. The men say they called because they were in business and were setting up complicated foreign projects. Harrod’s defense attorney argued to the jury that the volume of calls isn’t unusual in business, and noted that during a comparable period, Hap called an Arizona cousin 148 times.
Attorney Bernays says the case still bothers him: “I always felt that it was unfair to sentence James to death and not even prosecute Hap. If he’s guilty, Hap has to be. No way he’d have done this on his own. He’s always had the ticket off Death Row by snitching [on] Hap Tovrea.”
But the prosecutors that sent James Harrod to Death Row have no questions. Bill FitzGerald, a public information officer for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, sent this e-mail in response to requests to discuss the case:
“This is going to be the only statement from the office regarding the Harrod case,” it read. “Neither Mr. Ahler or any other members of the office will be available for an interview or have any further response.” It then cited this quote: “The County Attorney’s Office fully agrees with the jury’s decision to convict this defendant based on the evidence presented at trial.”
Tom Henze is the kind of defense attorney you cherish if you’re innocent, and worship if you’re guilty. He’s been Hap Tovrea’s attorney since the 1980s and he says he knows an important bombshell about the Jeanne Tovrea case: Prosecutors got the motive for murder completely wrong.
“There was no financial incentive for the kids to have her killed because the kids didn’t know there was another trust fund,” Henze says. He maintains that no one understood not the prosecutors, not Harrod’s defense attorneys, not the media that the Tovrea heirs had been kept in the dark and lied to for years about the trust fund Jeanne was living on.
He contends that Hap and his sisters each got about $200,000 when their father died, “and they were told that that was it there was no further inheritance.” He says it was a police officer who “told the kids they might have money coming from Jeanne’s death.” He adds that their mother, Priscilla Tovrea, also learned of the other trust fund from officers and hired an attorney to dig into what was going on. He jokes that it’s hardly a motive for murder when you learn about the money after the fact.
On April 2, 1990 two years and one day after Jeanne’s death the three Tovrea siblings filed suit against the law firm that was handling the trust, a firm then known as Evans, Kitchel & Jenckes. The suit contended the firm had mishandled the fund for the sole benefit of Jeanne Tovrea, while keeping the children in the dark. The kids were represented by attorneys Ted and Teresa Thayer.
“It was only when Jeanne died that they found out they had an interest in the trust,” Teresa Thayer notes. “They were told by Evans, Kitchel & Jenckes, by the trust company and by Jeanne that they had no interest. That’s what they believed because that’s what they were told.”
The Tovrea kids lost the suit. Both Henze and Thayer contend the jury was tainted when the other side brought up Jeanne’s murder and the veiled implication that the trust fund had something to do with it.
The media certainly never understood that the trust fund didn’t have anything to do with it, but that’s because they were being told the opposite in court during James Harrod’s murder trial.
Prosecutor Ahler told the jury that after Jeanne’s death there were “a series of lawsuits filed by the stepchildren, against Jeanne’s estate and also the attorneys involved who represented her estate, claiming that the trust had been mismanaged and they were entitled to more money. The trusts were terminated. After taxes they had to pay estate taxes out of the $4 million they each got about $700,000 from the residual trust.”
Attorney Theresa Thayer responds with shock: “They got nothing close to that amount.” She says Jeanne had bought a life insurance policy for her daughter with money from the trust, and after estate taxes and attorney fees were paid, there was hardly anything left. So, by the time it was established that the Tovrea children were, in fact, beneficiaries of the trust, there was nothing left from which to benefit.
This shocker would be no surprise to police and prosecutors if they had listened as Hap Tovrea tried, again and again, to tell them about that years ago.
For instance, in a September 1995 interview with Detective Ed Reynolds – conducted in San Diego the day after Harrod was arrested Hap tried three separate times to explain to police that they were barking up the wrong tree in believing he had a motive to hire a hitman.
Reynolds plays the “good cop,” telling Tovrea he’s on his side and doesn’t want to see him snagged for something he didn’t do. In fact, he makes a point of noting how the two previous detectives on the case thought Tovrea was the “prime suspect,” but Reynolds thought otherwise. “And I came to you and I told you that I’m not looking at you anymore,” Reynolds reminded him. “And that was the first time you were really willing to talk openly with a detective because finally the finger of fate was not pointed at you any longer.”
Tovrea then tells Reynolds, “Here’s something else we can document. We never knew about an inheritance.”
Reynolds ignores him and Tovrea tries again. “We didn’t know anything about inheritance,” he says, trying to interrupt the detective, who ignores him a second time.
Reynolds is intent on feeding Tovrea a fabricated story that Harrod had fingered him as the money man in the murder and had “proof” a tape-recording of the two men discussing the murder, and written documents that discussed payment for the murder. Tovrea responds with astonishment at both theories, vociferously denying any such things exist.
“You’ve got to realize that this man’s gonna try to build a case against you so that he can work some kind of a deal to keep you from getting Death Row,” Detective Reynolds tells Tovrea. “And he says he’s got evidence to prove [it].”
“Well, then he’s manufactured it,” Tovrea says.
Reynolds keeps pushing, suggesting Harrod’s trial attorney will probably “plant the suggestion in the minds of the jury that this is the oldest motive in the book here. This is a man who stood to inherit a large quantity of cash if his stepmother was….”
At that point Tovrea interrupts, “I didn’t, me or my sisters never knew that…. We can absolutely document that flat out.” It was the third time Tovrea tried to tell the detective he had no motive for murder, and the third time the detective ignored him.
Henze says he doesn’t know who killed Jeanne Tovrea, but he is “just pretty sure Hap Tovrea didn’t have anything to do with it.”
He says it’s ironic that people latched onto him a guy named Hap because as a kid he was always so happy when he was the family’s buffer. “The girls hated Jeanne,” Henze says, “but Hap was the peacemaker between his sisters and Jeanne.”
Thayer has a similar reaction. “It is ludicrous to think the Tovrea kids were involved,” she says. “I’ve always been suspicious there was a rush to judgment to look at Hap. It keeps everyone off the mark.”
“I couldn’t believe they convicted him. I covered that entire trial and I sat there at the end, and I just couldn’t believe it there were so many open-ended questions in this case.”
Guinda L. Reeves was already a 26-year journalism veteran by the time she covered the 1997 Harrod trial for the Ahwatukee News. “I built a reputation for paying attention to detail and being fair and getting it right,” she says.
Her career included mainly small-town newspapers, but also a stint as a radio reporter and anchor. (She has since left Arizona and is working at a Southern newspaper.)
“My ‘ah-ha’ moment was when they played the tape of Gordon Phillips,” she remembers. “‘That’s not him,’ I thought. ‘It’s got some tonal quality, but the accent is not right.’ I spent years in radio, and you learn to listen. But when we walked out of the courtroom, the other media thought it was a slamdunk.”
That wasn’t the only time she wondered if she and other reporters were covering the same trial, and indeed, a review of media coverage of the month long trial shows hers was the most skeptical. She often put testimony into context with other evidence, which helped tell a more complete story.
“This one bothered me so bad I couldn’t walk away,” she says. “My sense of right and wrong bothered me too much.”
After the trial, she approached Harrod’s sister, June Barney, sharing her concerns. She notes that she had never in her professional career done that kind of thing before. The two women spent hours discussing the case, going over the evidence, enumerating all the holes, and the more they talked, the more she felt certain that an “injustice had been done.”
She thought Harrod had become a pawn. “They thought giving him the death penalty would make him sing on Hap,” she says. “Don’t you think by now he’d have saved his own life and cut a deal? This man can’t sing because he doesn’t know anything. I have no problem with the death penalty, but let’s be damn sure, without a doubt. If you’re gonna play God with people’s lives, you better be sure who you’re sending to hell.”
Reeves never dreamed she would eventually become part of the case.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court told states that a jury, not a judge, must decide the death penalty. Cases that were decided by a judge had to go through a new “sentencing hearing.” James Harrod’s case was one of Arizona’s retrials. His family was told they could either be in the hearing, sitting behind him for support, or could testify on his behalf. They asked Reeves to speak for them so they could be in the courtroom with “Butch.”
The sole purpose of the hearing was to determine if a jury thought he deserved the death penalty. But Reeves said she was horrified to find the prosecution now upping the ante by changing its tune and claiming Harrod was the actual killer. She later wrote a statement to the judge: “At the original trial, the prosecution never stated that Mr. Harrod was the actual killer of Mrs. Tovrea, and in fact stated the opposite, pursuing the prosecution theory that Mr. Harrod was a participant in the planning of the murder. I am appalled that this new theory has been unchallenged before the current jury.”
It went unchallenged by Harrod’s court-appointed attorneys because they, too, were fingering him for guilt. At one point, his attorneys claimed he killed Jeanne to fulfill a “Rambo” fantasy. Harrod, his family and Reeves were astonished. “I think they were making it up as they went along,” Reeves says in derision.
James Harrod refused to sit in the courtroom the day his own attorneys called him a murderer.
June Barney remembers being told, “Your brother’s on a conveyer belt to Death Row, and there’s nothing you can do.” But the messenger didn’t understand that this tiny, tenacious woman has spent the last decade fighting for her brother’s life.
If you ever needed a fighter in your corner, you’d want June Barney. She has wrecked her health and endangered her marriage because of her obsession with the case. Some admire her tenacity, others say she’s just a pain in the neck.
She remembers how she was about to celebrate her wedding anniversary in 1995 when she got a call from her brother saying he’d been arrested for murder. She thought it was a joke.
Her immediate impulse was to be a big sister and believe her brother’s vows of innocence. But she told her husband if her brother had done this, she’d want him to “get what he deserved.” She waited a long time and spent a small fortune to get copies of the police reports and evidence exhibits that would eventually be used in court. She has been studying them ever since.
She now has transformed an upstairs closet into a library of legal files so overflowing she had to take the doors off. She has read some of the reports so often, she can quote them almost verbatim. And she is more convinced than ever that her brother is sitting in a prison cell in which he doesn’t belong. Their mother went to her grave believing in her son’s innocence. And his older sister has vowed to continue fighting for him to the end.
But the end isn’t even in sight. Currently, Harrod has a new attorney who is preparing an Arizona Supreme Court appeal for his resentencing to death. That hearing won’t look at his guilt or innocence, just if his conviction deserves the ultimate punishment. But a federal appeal that will look at the evidence again, a “Rule 32 review,” is still pending.
In the meantime, Jeanne Tovrea’s murderers go unpunished.
At best, the state is punishing the “middle man.”
At worst, it is punishing no one for stealing the life of a woman who had so much to live for.
Home| Bio| Book| Speaking| Articles| Contact Jana Bommersbach © 2003 - 2008
Email Jana Bommersbach
Web Design: Web-Writer, Inc.