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Dead Man's Hand

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At first it seemed a drug overdose, or perhaps suicide. When paramedics arrived last Sept. 17 at his $900,000 Las Vegas home, they found the body of casino heir Ted Binion surrounded by the telltale signs of narcotics: foil wrappers, balloons and an empty bottle of the sedative Xanax. Certainly, Binion, 55, had reason to be forlorn: Although he was personally worth some $50 million, this scion of a powerful casino clan had been permanently stripped of his gaming license just months earlier. But his sister Becky Behnen, who runs Binion’s Horseshoe, the casino her father started in 1951, had her doubts. Informed of Ted’s death, she told police immediately, “Consider it a homicide until further notice.”

Investigators quickly turned up evidence of foul play: There was bruising on the body, and it appeared that someone had turned the corpse from its side to its back. Nine months later they arrested two suspects: Sandy Murphy, 27, an ex-topless dancer who had been Binion’s girlfriend for four years, and her lover, ex-convict Rick Tabish, 34, who ran a debt-ridden trucking business. Even by the standards of Las Vegas, the saga has been a nonstop string of shocking revelations. “It’s a case that has it all,” says Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney David Roger, who is prosecuting. “It involves drugs, sex, greed and violence.”

At one time, Ted Binion had been among the city’s most promising young casino operators. “He was good with people and with numbers,” says Becky. “The casino business was made for him.” But somehow he lost his way, struggling for three decades with a drug problem he never kicked. “He was one of the best operators in town,” says family friend Harry Claiborne, 82, a Las Vegas lawyer. “But he was also the biggest waste I ever encountered.”

Trouble found him early. Born in 1942, he was 9 when his father, Benny—a one-time illegal numbers runner in Dallas—opened the Horseshoe casino in Vegas. Soon after, Benny was convicted of tax evasion and served several years in a federal prison. Still the family went to church each Sunday and gathered for dinner at 6 each night. “I grew up thinking we were not different from other families,” says Becky. Though he steered his three daughters away from the casino, Benny planned for Ted, a numbers whiz, to run the gaming operation. “I remember Benny asking Ted to tabulate the night’s play,” says Claiborne. “Ted would take his finger, run it down the paper and calculate on the spot.”

In 1980, Ted married blonde beauty Doris Kilmer and, soon after, a daughter, Bonnie, was born. But by then he had already become heavily involved with drugs, including marijuana and LSD, and would soon become addicted to heroin, according to Kilmer. Even the death of his older sister Barbara from a drug overdose in 1983 didn’t stop him. Then the drugs caught up with him when Nevada officials revoked his gaming license in 1987. Continued drug use, confirmed by random tests, largely kept him out of the business for the next several years. “He was obsessed with getting back his license,” says Claiborne.

Drugs were also ruining his marriage. “They led separate lives,” Tom Loveday, their longtime gardener, says of the couple’s last years together. “I never saw them kiss or hold hands.” After Ted’s mother, Teddy Jane Binion, died in 1994, he delved even more into drinking and drugs. A year later, Doris left, taking daughter Bonnie, now 19, with her. “The three loves of his life,” says Becky, “were all gone at once.”

Around that time, on a visit to a nightclub called Cheetah’s Lounge, Binion met a 23-year-old topless dancer named Sandy Murphy. Within weeks she became a constant companion, taking up residence in his gated ranch house. “She filled a void in his life,” says Claiborne.

But that relationship had problems too. “Sandy was into cars, money and clothes,” says Loveday. She ran up tens of thousands of dollars in charges on Binion’s credit cards, and, according to several sources, he was physically abusive. “He was not a day at the beach,” says prosecutor Roger. “He had a volatile and physical relationship with Sandy Murphy.”

Binion’s luck kept getting worse. When Nevada officials permanently revoked his gaming license in March of 1998, they erased any hope that he might return to the family business. “He wasn’t the same after that,” says Loveday. According to Becky, it merely drove him more deeply into heroin. In turn that provoked Sandy to spend more time away from the house. During one such outing, she met Rick Tabish, a friend of Binion’s and a married father of two. He had been convicted of two felonies back in his home state of Montana—including theft and drug possession with intent to sell.

As it happened, Becky took over operation of the Horseshoe that July. Apparently concerned about losing control over a stash of $5 million in silver bars and rare coins he had stored in a casino safe, Binion made plans to move it to an underground vault on property he owned in the small town of Pahrump, Nev., 60 miles west of Las Vegas. The trucking contractor he hired was his buddy Rick Tabish—who was himself facing a mounting burden of debt, including more than $330,000 he owed the IRS and a $200,000 bank loan.

That August, Sandy Murphy and Tabish spent the weekend together in Beverly Hills, to which they returned a month later, just a week before Binion’s death. Tabish’s lawyer Steve Wolfson says the two were merely friends. “Mr. Binion relied on Rick Tabish to accompany Sandy Murphy many times when Ted was so intoxicated and so under the influence of drugs,” says Wolfson. “This was a platonic relationship.”

Apparently, Binion didn’t think so. He hired a private investigator to monitor Sandy. Growing concerned on Sept. 16, he called his lawyer James Brown and, according to police, told him: “Take Sandy out of the will if she doesn’t kill me tonight. If I am dead, you will know what happened.” (Binion’s will stipulated she was to get his house and $300,000 at his death.)

The next day, at 3:54 p.m., Sandy Murphy called 911, hysterical, to say Binion had “stopped breathing.” A paramedic found him dead, and it looked as if he had been for some time. It was two mornings later, in the town of Pahrump, that Nye County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ed Howard drove by an empty lot between a store and a casino and noticed an unusual sight—an excavator digging at 2 a.m. Searching a nearby truck, he found a large cache of silver. He promptly arrested the three men on the scene, including Tabish.

It took nearly nine months for investigators to gather enough evidence to charge Murphy and Tabish with the murder. Wolfson, the lawyer for Tabish—who is being held in Clark County without bail—says his client is innocent: “He was nowhere close to the scene.” Murphy posted $300,000 bail with the help of a 70-year-old male acquaintance she had met in March. Fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet, she is under house arrest at her Henderson, Nev., apartment. Murphy and Tabish are scheduled to be arraigned Sept. 27 for a trial early next year.

Ted Binion was interred at Bunker’s Eden Vale cemetery, not far from the Las Vegas office of the Nevada Gaming Control Board—the very organization that stripped him of his license. “He enjoyed money, women and heroin,” says prosecutor Roger. “Ultimately all three led to his downfall.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Lorenzo Benet in Las Vegas