Ted Binion

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Mug shots of Ted Binion taken in August 1997.

Lonnie Theodore "Ted" Binion (November 28, 1943 – September 17, 1998) was a wealthy U.S. gambling executive and one of the sons of famed Las Vegas casino magnate Lester Ben "Benny" Binion, owner of Binion's Horseshoe. His death has been a subject of controversy; girlfriend Sandra Murphy and her lover Rick Tabish were initially charged and convicted in Binion's death, but were later granted a new trial and acquitted on the murder charges.

Early life[edit]

Ted Binion was born in Dallas in 1943. He had an older brother, Jack, and three sisters: Becky, Brenda, and Barbara. Binion moved to Las Vegas with his father in 1946. He was involved early on in his father's casino, the Horseshoe.

While growing up, Ted spent summers at the family's Montana retreat, a cattle ranch in Jordan, to work with the ranch hands. Later, in the early 1960s, Benny sent his three grandsons—his daughter Barbara’s sons—to Montana to work on the ranch. By the 1980s, Benny had amassed an 85,000-acre (340 km2) ranch, according to the county recorder’s office. The last parcel he purchased was in 1985. The family sold all the parcels in April 1998 to John Hillenbrand.

Career[edit]

In 1964, Benny Binion regained full control of the Horseshoe after previously selling his interest to cover his legal costs defending himself from tax evasion and other charges. Since he was a convicted criminal, Benny was no longer allowed to hold a gaming license. His sons Jack and Ted--aged only 23 and 21, respectively--took over the day-to-day operation of the casino, while Benny remained on the payroll as a "consultant." Jack became president of the Horseshoe, while Ted became casino manager.

For the next 30 years, Ted was the face that was most seen during the peak evening hours of the casino operation and became well known as the host of the Horseshoe's poker tournaments. Binion loved living the high life and partying, schmoozing with high-profile guests of the Horseshoe, and flirting with attractive women.

He was arrested in 1986 on drug trafficking charges and began drawing attention for his connection to organized crime figure "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein. From that point on, Binion was in hot water with the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Besides his drug problems and association with mob figures, the Nevada Gaming Control Board suspected that he was using his live-in girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, as a bagwoman. Binion had met Murphy while she was working at Cheetah's, a topless club. His dalliances with her had caused his estranged wife and daughter to pack up and leave for Texas.[1]

In 1996, he was provisionally banned from any management role in the Horseshoe and undergo regular drug testing. For the duration of his suspension, he was banned from even entering his family's casino.[2] He struggled to avoid falling afoul of Commission drug tests, and at one point shaved off every hair on his body to avoid a hair test that would reveal his history of usage.[1] In May 1997, Binion's gaming license was suspended after it was found he had violated the agreement. In March 1998, after the Commission learned that Binion was associating with Chicago Outfit figure Herbert "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein, it voted unanimously to permanently revoke Binion's license. Binion was the first person to lose his license for violating a Nevada regulation that bans gaming licensees from associating with known criminals.[2] He was never to be associated with the family business again. Inside the basement of the casino was Ted's silver collection, housed in a floor-to-ceiling vault at the Horseshoe Club. When Ted’s ties to the family casino were severed, he had to either sell the silver or relocate it to a secure spot.

After Binion lost his license and the family sold the Montana ranch, he became even more involved in drugs, especially marijuana, Xanax, and the street drug tar heroin, which he smoked. He was known to "chase the dragon" (inhale the smoke). The dealers knew when he was around due to the telltale odor of marijuana smoke whenever he used the eye in the sky to keep an eye on the action.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Binion was once the target of a near-kidnapping, a dramatic attempt that left bodies strewn across the desert.[3] Later in life, he developed a severe heroin addiction.

He was an avid reader of magazines and books. He was a history buff, particularly American Civil War history, and enjoyed watching History Channel and Discovery Channel programming. In addition, he was mathematically gifted - easily able to mentally calculate odds or the "house take" in gambling transactions with no aid. He was known to help people he knew to be in difficult financial straits.[1]

Buried treasure[edit]

After his death, it was discovered by Nye County sheriff's deputies[4] that Ted had had a 12-foot-deep vault built on the desert floor on a piece of property he owned in Pahrump, 60 miles (97 km) west of Las Vegas. The concrete bunker contained six tons of silver bullion, Horseshoe Casino chips, paper currency, and more than 100,000 rare coins, including Carson City silver dollars—many in mint condition—estimated to be worth between $7 million and $14 million—that were once housed in the Horseshoe vault. The Pahrump underground vault would play a major role in the investigation into Binion's death.[5]

After Ted Binion was banned from the casino, he contracted construction of the underground vault with MRT Transport, a trucking company owned by Rick Tabish. MRT trucks were used to transport the silver to the vault, and the only two people who had the combination to the vault were Binion and Tabish.

The vault was discovered two days after Binion died, whereupon Nye County sheriff's deputies arrested Binion's associate Rick Tabish and two other men unearthing the silver.

Binion hid millions in and around his Las Vegas home, all of which went missing after his death. It is rumored to be buried on the property under odd mounds in the front and back yards. After the trial much of the silver was given to his daughter, but a large portion still remains unclaimed at the courthouse.[6]

Death and aftermath[edit]

Ted Binion was found dead on a small mattress on the floor of his Las Vegas estate home, 2408 Palomino Lane near Rancho Drive and Charleston Boulevard, on September 17, 1998. Empty pill bottles were found near the body, and an autopsy and toxicology report revealed that he died of a lethal dosage combination of the prescription sedative Xanax and heroin, with traces of Valium. The day before, Binion had himself purchased 12 pieces of tar heroin from a street drug dealer, and had earlier gotten a prescription from his next-door neighbor, a doctor, for Xanax, and evidence introduced at trial showed that Binion personally took the prescription to be filled at a local pharmacy.

Binion's death was initially treated as a probable suicide. His live-in girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, said that Binion had been suicidal ever since losing his gaming license a few months earlier.[1] His sister Barbara, afflicted with the same kinds of drug problems as her brother, committed suicide in 1977, which also helped contribute to the perception that Ted could have been vulnerable to suicide as well. However, his sister Becky discounted any talk of suicide, saying that in her conversations with him that he didn't sound despondent.

Las Vegas homicide detectives suspected that the scene had been staged, as his body didn't show the typical signs of a drug overdose. Also, the stomach contained heroin and the police thought that neither an addict nor a suicide would take heroin in that manner. However, despite the urgings of Becky Behnen and Jack Binion, they refused to open a full-scale homicide investigation. Six months later, chief medical examiner Lary Simms ruled Binion had died of a heroin and Xanax overdose. After six months, however, the Clark County Coroner's office reclassified Ted's death a homicide on May 5, 1999. Although there were no specifics, law enforcement sources cited evidence that the death scene had been staged, as well as witness statements implicating Murphy and Tabish. Detectives had suspected for some time that Murphy and Tabish had been romantically involved, and had learned that Binion suspected Murphy was cheating on him.

In June 1999, Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish were arrested for Binion's murder, as well as for conspiracy, robbery, grand larceny and burglary. The prosecution contended that Murphy and Tabish had conspired to kill Binion and steal his riches, drugging Binion into unconsciousness and burking him, a form of manual suffocation. The suffocation, in this theory, which was presented at trial by forensics pathologist Michael Baden, who testified for the prosecution,[7] was done because the overdose was taking too long, and the pair feared discovery. They were each charged with murder and burglary charges connected to the removal of his fortune from the vault on the desert floor in Pahrump.

Murder trial and re-trial[edit]

Judge Joseph Bonaventure, by courtroom artist Paulette Frankl.

The case attracted national media attention. After two months of trial, Murphy and Tabish were found guilty, after nearly 68 hours of deliberation. Tabish was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, while Murphy received 22 years to life.

Later that year, David Roger, who prosecuted the case, was elected Clark County district attorney, and David Wall, who second-chaired the prosecution, was elected district judge.

However, in July 2003, the Nevada Supreme Court overturned the murder convictions, ruling that Clark County District Court Judge Joseph Bonaventure erred in deliberation instructions to the jury. The justices found that Tabish should have received a separate trial for the assault and blackmail of another businessman. While the prosecution was never able to prove a link between this crime and Binion's murder, the justices said, testimony regarding the separate assault prejudiced the jury against Tabish. The justices also ruled that jurors should have been told to consider statements by Binion's estate attorney as statements of the attorney's mind, not fact.[1]

The defendants were granted a new trial, which began on October 11, 2004 in Judge Bonaventure's courtroom. This time, Murphy, who was represented by Michael Cristalli, and Tabish, represented by famed civil rights lawyer J. Tony Serra, and local Las Vegas attorney Joseph Caramagno, [8] were each acquitted of murder but were convicted on lesser charges of burglary (12 to 60 months) and grand larceny (12 to 60 months) connected with the Binion case. Tabish also was convicted of use of deadly weapon (18 to 60 months). Murphy was sentenced to time served and did not return to prison.

Tabish was originally sentenced to serve consecutive terms and was denied parole in 2001, 2004 and 2005. On January 26, 2009 he was brought into Las Vegas where the Nevada parole board granted him "Parole to Consecutive," meaning the three convictions were to run concurrently.[9]

Tabish received another parole hearing in Las Vegas on January 13, 2010. The Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners announced January 26, 2010 that Tabish, 44, would be granted parole. His younger brother described the news as “pretty wonderful.”

Tabish was released on May 18, 2010. His parole started on April 2, 2010, but negotiating the terms of his release delayed his actual exit from prison.[10]

Print and electronic media[edit]

A prosecution death theory, which the jury ultimately rejected, formed the basis for "Burked", a September 27, 2001 episode of the TV series CSI. After the jury in the re-trial found Tabish and Murphy not guilty of murder[11] news accounts reported that jurors had been unwilling to find them guilty because the forensic evidence introduced by the prosecution had not met the standards of the television show.

The case was covered extensively in Death in the Desert,[12] a biographical true crime book by author Cathy Scott, in Positively Fifth Street[13] by James McManus, which is about a poker tournament at the Binion family's Horseshoe, and in An Early Grave, by Gary C. King and released in 2001 as part of the 'St. Martin's True Crime Classics' series. The case was also covered in the 2008 made-for-TV movie Sex and Lies in Sin City, originally said to be based on the book Murder in Sin City by columnist Jeff German which took the prosecution's point of view. However, the movie title and storyline were changed to allow for other theories about Binion's death. Las Vegas columnist John L. Smith published a pictorial summary of the case titled Quicksilver.

A&E aired an hour-long video about the case titled Who Wants to Kill a Millionaire, which is part of its "American Justice" series, and includes interviews and film clips of the characters surrounding Binion's death and aftermath.

The second edition of Death in the Desert, released in 2012, covers the re-trial and acquittals, as well as An Early Grave's re-release in 2005 with appendices about the re-trial and acquittals. Coverage can also be found at trutv.com under "Ted Binion" and in the 48 Hours Mystery episode "Buried Secrets of Las Vegas."

The TV show "On the Case" covered the case in its episode #12, aired 22 November 2009. Contains much unique footage, including exclusive interviews with Sandra Murphy and shots of the histrionics of her lawyer Tony Serra during the second trial.

The seventh episode of the CBS legal comedy-drama The Defenders (2010 TV series) titled "Las Vegas v. Johnson" was a loosely depicted version of the trial.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Crime Library profile of the Binion case
  2. ^ a b "Regulators revoke Binion's license". Las Vegas Review-Journal. 
  3. ^ "Ted Binion Kidnapping Plot". 8 News NOW. 2004-10-26. Retrieved 2012-10-21. 
  4. ^ "LAS VEGAS RJ:NEWS: Police probe Ted Binion's buried silver". Reviewjournal.com. 1998-09-22. Retrieved 2012-10-21. 
  5. ^ The Binion Collection - Silver Dollars from the Hoard of Ted Binion
  6. ^ 48 Hours: Buried Secrets of Las Vegas CBS News
  7. ^ http://www.8newsnow.com/story/2484609/forensic-pathologist-testifies-for-binion-prosecution
  8. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/24/national/24binion.html?pagewanted=print&position&_r=0
  9. ^ Nevada Department of Corrections - Tabish, Rick Offender Detail Record
  10. ^ Associated Press (2010-05-18). "Rick Tabish released from Nevada prison to live with parents in Missoula". Missoulian.com. Retrieved 2012-10-21. 
  11. ^ Tabish, Murphy Not Guilty Of Murder, Guilty Of Other Charges,
  12. ^ Death in the Desert: The Ted Binion Homicide Case, Cathy Scott[1]; published 2000 (ISBN 1588205320)
  13. ^ Positively Fifth Street, James McManus; published 2003 (ISBN 0374236488)