In happier days, the Horseshoe Club was a toast of the town here, a thriving gambling den that lured a hard-core betting crowd and hosted the annual World Series of Poker.
Its founder was the late Lester Ben Binion, a colorful cowboy from Texas that everyone here knew simply as Benny. An ex-convict, Binion was arguably the town’s most popular citizen. His 83rd birthday at a local sports arena was attended by 18,000 people.
“Benny Binion was a legend in this town,” said Mark Atkinson, a researcher for the union that represents most of the city’s casino hotel workers.
Benny Binion died last Christmas at age 85, and his family-owned casino hotel has been ensnared in controversy since. The Horseshoe has been shaken by a bitter strike as well as new criminal charges against several casino employees, including a Binion son and grandson, who are accused of beating and robbing their customers.
How the turmoil is resolved is likely to affect the future of organized labor in Las Vegas, a union stronghold, and determine whether one of the powerful gambling clans in southern Nevada can withstand a two-pronged prosecutorial challenge.
The Horseshoe occupies a square block in the downtown gambling zone known as Glitter Gulch, a poor cousin to the more exotic Strip several miles away on Las Vegas Boulevard. Glitter Gulch is awash every night in neon lights, polyester and the sounds of slot machines in the no-frills gambling halls.
These days, though, the focus in Glitter Gulch is the Horseshoe’s main entrance, where strikers cluster, shouting slogans and warnings to customers to stay away. Horseshoe security guards, armed and wearing brown uniforms, stand silently a few feet away.
The Horseshoe’s problems come at a sensitive time for America’s gambling capital, which has been the nation’s fastest-growing city for several years. Las Vegas has been in the midst of an unprecedented hotel-building boom, led by huge casino-hotels such as the Mirage and Excalibur that cater to a more upscale and wholesome crowd than most other casinos in town.
Union leaders say the problems at the Horseshoe, and the publicity it generates, make it harder for Las Vegas to redo its image into a kind of adult Disneyland designed to broaden its tourist base beyond its present stable of gamblers and conventioneers. As the reasoning goes, the city needs a wider customer base--namely, more family business--if it is to fill the glut of new hotel rooms.
Union officials say the Horseshoe is one of a handful of family-owned casinos in town that are led by insular, backward-looking executives who do not like unions and could care less about the “new” Las Vegas.
“They don’t have a vision of what the future looks like,” said John W. Wilhelm, western regional director of the hotel and restaurant workers union.
A federal indictment has accused eight Horseshoe employees of kidnaping, robbing and beating unwanted customers--black people in particular--in violation of U.S. racketeering law.
The indictment, which said the beatings took place from 1977 to 1986, was handed down in April and capped a sweeping, 2 1/2-year investigation in which scores of alleged victims were interviewed. The investigation included state and federal law enforcement agents and was spearheaded by the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force in Las Vegas.
The charges have set the table for another major legal battle between Las Vegas law enforcement authorities and the Binion family. A similar court battle was played out in state court nearly three years ago, but a local judge threw out the convictions in the case. A retrial is planned.
Meanwhile, the strike has evolved into a mean-spirited power struggle that pits an aggressive union seeking to stem an erosion of its membership against a casino company that would love to throw the union out, local observers say.
The strike’s outcome is likely to carry over to those other casinos in town--about a fifth of the industry--that are also operating without a labor contract. If the Horseshoe settles, labor leaders believe that most of the other casinos probably will follow suit.
The Horseshoe is headed by 53-year-old Jack B. Binion, Benny’s eldest son, viewed by most as an able businessman who lacks the charisma or charm of his legendary father.
Sounding in no mood to compromise, Jack Binion in a recent interview pictured the union as fighting for its life, calling its tactics “desperate,” and said he wants more power to fire incompetent or dishonest workers without union interference.
In one case, he claimed, it took the casino a year to get rid of a $50,000-a-year bartender who deliberately served warm beer to customers that he didn’t like. “That, in a nutshell, is what this strike is all about,” Binion said. “I want the ability to reward good employees and deal effectively with the bad ones.”
Replied union leader Wilhelm: “He wants to break the union. There’s no question about it. He wants to be able to hire and fire without due process.”
Jack Binion charged that union leaders struck the Horseshoe--as opposed to other casinos whose labor contracts have also expired--because they knew an indictment was in the works, a charge union leaders deny.
According to the federal indictment, a series of beatings were ordered by Jack’s brother, Lonnie Theodore (Ted) Binion, and Jack’s nephew, Steven Binion Fechser, and were carried out by eight security guards as warnings to undesirables to stay away.
According to the indictment, the casino wanted to “foster the image . . . as a place which meted out its own justice and sent out warnings or messages that certain persons would not be welcome.” On the unwelcome list were black people who were “poorly dressed” or “aggressive-looking,” the indictment said.
Lawyers for Ted Binion, 47, and Fechser, 35, would not allow either to be interviewed. Both have pleaded innocent to the charges, and neither works at the Horseshoe any longer. Jack Binion also declined to discuss any aspect of the cases.
Horseshoe security guards were known for their enormous necks and an unwillingness to call local police when there was trouble. “The Horseshoe handled their own business in their own way,” said John Redlein, chief deputy attorney general.
Scott MacKenzie, a bartender at the casino before he went on strike, said customer beatings at the Horseshoe used to be so common that “frankly, I got used to it. It’s like a doctor who learns to stick a needle in someone’s arm.”
In another interview, a striking Horseshoe waitress said she saw a black customer handcuffed and thrown into an alley, with his head used as a battering ram to open the door. “I was sick for a week after that,” said the waitress, who asked not to be identified.
Although casino employees say the number of beatings is down in recent years, at least one customer complained about getting beaten up by a casino guard in the hotel parking lot just four months ago.
John W. Davis, a heating and air-conditioning maintenance worker from Oklahoma City, said he needed hospital treatment after being attacked and beaten by a security guard as he was trying to open his car with a coat hanger. He had locked his keys inside the automobile.
“I thought this guy was crazy,” Davis said in a telephone interview. “I was in a state of shock.” Davis, 27, said he was told later by a hotel employee that security guards were edgy because a car battery had recently been stolen in the garage.
The most serious allegations against the Horseshoe came from two customers, Alan E. Brown and Barry R. Finn, who testified before a state grand jury in 1986 that they were savagely beaten by two security guards and Steven Binion Fechser. The casino suspected the pair of cheating at blackjack, court testimony shows.
Brown said he was pummeled so badly that he defecated in his pants and, according to Redlein, probably would have died without prompt medical attention. Brown said he could not get out of bed without his wife’s help for “at least two months.”
The pair testified that the prolonged beatings occurred in a security office adjacent to the casino parking lot. “They called us cheaters,” Brown said. “They said, ‘You should never come back here again. You are going to tell your friends not to come back in.’ ”
The men, both of whom were experienced gamblers, were then robbed of their gambling chips before being released, they said. Brown, an engineer, and Finn, an airplane pilot, were later paid a total of $675,000 to settle the civil suit they filed.
The testimony led to state indictments of Fechser and the two guards--Steven Dale Witten and Emory W. Cofield--on charges of kidnaping, robbery and battery. Cofield was eventually acquitted, but Witten and Fechser were convicted of robbery and battery during a hotly contested jury trial that ended in early 1988.
A state judge, Thomas Foley, threw out the convictions, however, because he felt that law enforcement officials had acted improperly in trying the case. So irked was Nevada Atty. Gen. Brian McKay at Foley’s decision that he took a sharp public jab at the city’s casino-controlled power structure.
“The good-old-boy network in Las Vegas told me there was no way they could let the convictions stand, so I wasn’t surprised,” McKay was quoted as saying.
A retrial of Witten and Fechser is scheduled, although the state’s case is now hampered by the enigmatic disappearance of the trial court reporter, Liz Donnelly. Prosecutor Redlein said he needs a transcript of the trial to answer defendants’ motions to dismiss the charges.
If a trial transcript is not produced soon, the charges may be dismissed, according to Oscar Goodman, Fechser’s attorney. Donnelly, who has moved to Utah, said in a telephone interview that she has been unable to prepare a transcript because she has been ill.
The Horseshoe’s recent problems notwithstanding, the casino has long been a financial powerhouse in Glitter Gulch because it has had a loyal clientele of serious gamblers drawn by the favorable odds there as well as the cheap food and drink. Part of the draw was also Benny Binion himself, hailed as the “Last of the Cowboy Gamblers” when he died.
A street-smart, outrageous character with almost no formal education, Binion became a veritable institution in Las Vegas, where he moved in 1947. Unshaven and dressed in cowboy garb, including 10-gallon hat, Binion was a familiar figure around the casino where he acted as unofficial spokesman and host.
His earthy wit and humor were a big hit. Interviewed once on a national television talk show and asked his definition of a “good gambler,” Benny is said to have replied: “A crap shooter who goes to church.”
That Benny Binion had killed at least two people and spent four years in prison for tax evasion seemed to bother few here, including prominent industry leaders and political figures who attended his funeral. Stephen A. Wynn, whose Golden Nugget Inc. owns the Mirage, gave one of the eulogies.
Benny’s criminal convictions dated back to his days as a rackets king in Dallas during the 1930s and 1940s. At age 26, Binion received a two-year suspended sentence for killing a black liquor runner named Frank Bolding.
Benny Binion lost his gambling license in the 1950s after the tax-evasion conviction, but his offspring obtained control of the operations and have turned the casino into a veritable money machine with no major debts. According to one company financial statement obtained by The Times, the Horseshoe earned a total of $65 million in fiscal 1987 and 1988.
Labor union officials, however, say that the Horseshoe’s business has plunged in the wake of the strike, possibly as much as 40%, and that it will get worse. “Either there will be a settlement or the Horseshoe will destroy itself,” Wilhelm said. “We prefer the former.”
The union has sent sophisticated direct mailings to customers and businesses that detail the company’s problems and are clearly intended to dampen business at the casino. Jack Binion confirmed that casino winnings are off as much as 15% from year-ago levels.
“They have hurt our business,” he acknowledged, “but not as much as they think they have.”
The strike damage does not seem confined to the Horseshoe alone. According to figures from the Nevada Gaming Control Board, 1990 winnings at the Glitter Gulch casinos are down slightly from last year, while they have soared at the Strip casinos.
Tensions have run high on the picket line and the union has accused the casino and its employees of a rash of labor law violations, including threats of violence against the strikers.
One particularly ugly incident occurred in mid-July when Key Binion Fechser, another of Benny Binion’s grandsons, tangled with a 12-year-old picketer and his 61-year-old grandfather, striker Don Parrott, a retired policeman from Colorado.
The incident was sparked after Parrott’s grandson called Fechser a “scab” at the entrance to the casino parking lot, Parrott said in an interview. Fechser, 37, then allegedly swore at the boy, spit on him and threw Parrott to the ground.
Jack Binion confirmed that the incident occurred but said that his nephew was provoked because Parrott’s grandson spit at him first. Binion indicated that Fechser’s behavior was out of line but added that the casino employes have generally behaved themselves better than the picketers.
“It’s a pretty vicious strike, no doubt about it,” Binion said, “but I think we have shown more restraint than they have.”