Trial in Casino Figure's Death Grips Vegas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hotel casinos here are bursting with gamblers in town for the finale of the NCAA basketball tournament. But, for many locals, the only game in town had already begun at the District Court downtown: the murder trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish.

The sleek onetime topless dancer and the dark, brooding trucking contractor face murder charges and life in prison if a jury finds that they drugged and then suffocated casino executive Lonnie "Ted" Binion.

Binion's outsize personality, his penchant for heroin and his friendship with Chicago mobster "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein made him a subject of local fascination even before his passing in 1998 at age 55. He was the son of Benny Binion, the legendary cowboy founder of the once high-rolling Horseshoe Casino.

What promises to unfold over the next two months in District Court Judge Joseph Bonaventure's courtroom is the prosecution's tale of how Ted Binion was allegedly betrayed by his live-in love of several years, Murphy, and his friend, Tabish. The couple, prosecutors say, forsook Binion for each other and a run on the casino executive's $50-million estate.

As the trial began Friday, defense attorneys challenged that scenario as preposterous, contending that Binion was simply a junkie who finally succumbed to his own demons.

In the past 18 months, the accusations and speculation surrounding Binion's death have exceeded even this town's high thresholds for the tawdry and venal. Newspapers and television here have provided breathless daily accounts of Vegas's "crime of the century"--conjuring up images of Binion's $7 million in silver buried, then stolen, from an underground desert vault; of a jailhouse search for a pair of Murphy's purloined panties; of alleged plots by Tabish to bribe witnesses and cut movie deals.

Reporters, television producers and cameramen made up the bulk of the courtroom audience for opening statements Friday. The long-awaited start of the trial did not lack the requisite sensation as Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. David Roger told jurors that the dead man's own words pointed the way to his killers.

"Take Sandy [Murphy] out of the will if she doesn't kill me tonight," Binion allegedly told his lawyer the day before he expired. "If I'm dead in the morning, you'll know what happened."

When his turn came, Murphy's attorney, John Momot, said Binion had bought his own heroin and overdosed, a victim of despair.

The defense attorney offered a portrait of the "Binion money machine" that he said had persuaded police and prosecutors to investigate a routine drug overdose as a homicide. Murphy and Tabish were two people who got caught up in that campaign while Binion's dysfunctional family stood by and worried only about his money, Momot argued.

"This case is not about homicide, this case is about heroin," Momot told the jury of nine women and three men in Clark County District Court. "This case is not about murder, this case is about money."

Las Vegans said the case has fascinated them because the Binions, particularly family patriarch Benny Binion, have played such a central role in their town's darkly colorful history. The elder Binion came to Las Vegas half a century ago after being run out of Texas by the law. He turned a suitcase full of cash into Binion's Horseshoe, the downtown casino once famed for never turning down a bet.

"Everyone knows about the Horseshoe Club and the Binions," said Harvey Byrum, who came all the way from Bullhead City, Ariz., to claim a seat in the courtroom. "This is really big time. It's got more characters and drama than a Broadway play."

Those who cannot make it to Judge Bonaventure's court need not miss any of the more than 100 witnesses the prosecution plans to present. Local cable television is offering gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial. Court TV will also carry regular coverage.

No one could have guessed on Sept. 17, 1998, at the protracted spectacle the Binion case would become. It was midafternoon when a frantic Murphy, then 26, called from the home she shared with Binion west of the Las Vegas Strip to say that the gambling executive was not breathing.

Authorities found an empty bottle of the sedative Xanax near Binion's body and traces of tar heroin on a sink; not a surprising way to go, it seemed, for a man who fought addiction for two decades.

But Binion's friends and associates were soon talking about how upbeat "Teddy" had been and the unlikelihood that he would have overdosed or taken his own life. He had been talking about getting back his gaming license and had just met with then-Mayor Jan Jones to hand over a $40,000 cash contribution in her campaign for governor.

Less than two days after the death, Binion's friend, Tabish, was arrested with two other men digging up as much as $7 million worth of silver that Binion had buried in an underground vault in Pahrump, Nev., 60 miles from Las Vegas.

Phone Records Link Suspects

It was a fate Binion didn't deserve, even if he "was no angel," prosecutor Roger told the jury. Ted Binion was a gregarious and happy man, if shadowed somewhat by his drug problem, Roger said.

Not long after Binion's death, detectives for the police and for the estate would discover that Murphy and Tabish, then 33, had been involved romantically. Phone records made it appear they had been in communication right up until the time of Murphy's 911 call.

A department store manicurist said Murphy allegedly confided her poor relationship with Binion and predicted he would die "within three weeks of a drug overdose." Her companion of more than three years was dead just 10 days later.

Roger displayed a photograph of Binion as he was found in his den, dressed only in his underwear and a shirt. He said testimony from renowned pathologist Dr. Michael Baden would show that Binion had been suffocated, likely after heroin and the sedative Xanax were forced down his throat.

"He was murdered for lust. He was murdered for greed," Roger said. "He was murdered by someone he trusted. And for a new companion."

Momot argued that it was Murphy who was dragged down by Binion. He described her as a young innocent from Downey when she came to Las Vegas at 23. She was hard-working and optimistic, Momot said, adding: "This is a nice young girl. She didn't bargain for death in the desert."

But Murphy soon met Binion at the Cheetah Club where, the defense said, she was modeling costumes for the topless dancers, not performing herself. She was mesmerized by Binion's power and money and the doors it opened, Momot said, not realizing that, "there is a price for everything, a dark underbelly."

That price was living with Binion's addiction, his abusiveness and his paranoia, Momot told the jury. Her lawyer insisted that Murphy was the only one in the gambling figure's life who would "stick and stay" with him during drug withdrawals; as his gaming license was revoked by the state because of his fraternizing with a mobster; as he struggled with a divorce; as he and his siblings warred over control of the Horseshoe casino.

Determined to shut Murphy out of Binion's will--which had entitled her to a $1-million ranch house, its contents and $300,000 in cash--the dead man's family went after "the outsider," Momot said.

Binion had bought 12 balloons of tar heroin the night before his death and also a bottle of 120 Xanax using a prescription he got from a neighbor who is a doctor. Defense attorneys wondered why the heroin dealer was not on trial.

'Drugs Were Always His Mistress'

His young client is far from the gold-digging vamp portrayed by the prosecution, Momot said. "She fell in love with Ted Binion. But did he love her? Drugs were always his mistress. . . . The addiction takes over your being. It is all-consuming."

Tabish defense attorney Louis Palazzo said that the two defendants are guilty, at most, of being "felony stupid" for thinking they could help Binion and his estate and not get dragged down themselves.

Since their arrest nine months ago, however, Murphy and Tabish have run into even more trouble.

Murphy violated the terms of her house arrest twice, including a trip to go shopping for furniture. She had been freed after an 81-year-old mining executive put up $300,000 cash to have her released on bail. After Murphy was caught illegally away from her apartment last month, Bonaventure ordered her jailed, probably for the duration of the trial.'

Tabish, meanwhile, was taped as he made contact from jail with an old Montana friend, whom he allegedly asked to help bribe witnesses to provide him with an alibi, prosecutors said.

The revelations in the case do not promise to stop any time soon. Binion's ex-wife, Doris, is scheduled to testify today. She is expected to be questioned about Binion's addiction.

On Friday, defense attorneys received permission from the judge to delve into records of her divorce from Binion and more of the family's history.

"Benny Binion was quite a gun-slinging, take-no-nonsense kind of guy. People who have been in Las Vegas a little bit kind of like that Old West feel," said cabdriver Rodney Paxton, who dutifully follows the case in the newspapers. "The Binion legend; the family that doesn't like each other. . . . People here kind of appreciate that stuff."

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