Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish Trial: 2000
Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish Trial:
Defendants: Sandra "Sandy" Murphy, Richard B. "Rick" Tabish
Crime Charged: Murder, grand larceny, burglary
Chief Defense Lawyers: John Momot, Louis Palazzo
Chief Prosecutor: David Roger
Judge: Joseph Bonaventure
Place: Las Vegas, Nevada
Date of Trial: March 27-May 18, 2000 (Appeal pending before Nevada Supreme Court)
Sentence: Life in prison with possibility of parole
SIGNIFICANCE: The outcome of this high-profile trial ultimately hinged on how jurors believed Ted Binion died. Did he commit suicide by a drug overdose or was he smothered to death after being forced to ingest heroin and Xanax by his live-in girlfriend and her cash-strapped secret lover? The publicity drenched case touched off a media frenzy outside the courtroom and fueled fears that unprecedented public relations ploys could influence what goes on inside a courtroom, especially when a jury is not sequestered.
For two years, the mysterious death of casino millionaire Lonnie "Ted" Binion and the subsequent trial of his former girlfriend Sandy Murphy and her lover Rick Tabish mesmerized Las Vegas. This bizarre story of lust, addiction, buried treasure, blackmail, greed, celebrity, murder—not to mention unprecedented public relations ploys outside the courtroom—burnished the glitzy gambling capital's worldwide reputation for tackiness.
During her murder trial, former exotic dancer Murphy, 27, would claim that when she left the mansion she shared with boyfriend Binion on the morning of September 18, 1998, he was sleeping off a heroin-induced stupor. Upon returning, she found the 55-year-old gambling mogul dead on the den floor. Distraught, she dialed 911.
Authorities arrested 34-year-old Rick Tabish and two alleged accomplices two days after Binion's death, as they were digging up 46,000 pounds of silver bars Binion had buried in a desert vault. Tabish told police that he was following Binion's earlier instructions that the $7 million treasure be safeguarded for his teenage daughter Bonnie.
Sandy Murphy Becomes a Suspect
Sandy Murphy, who had lived with Binion for 3 and one-half stormy years before his death, was soon busy in civil court chasing what she claimed was her share of Binion's $50 million estate. Murphy was initially awarded a share, but the Binion estate appealed and that case went to the Nevada Supreme Court.
For months following Binion's death, Murphy appeared to be the emotionally overwrought girlfriend, devastated at finding her lover dead in their home. Intense media coverage, augmented by a public relations team, seemed to rally the public to her side. Chief Clark County Medical Examiner Lary Simms initially ruled that Binion had died of an accidental overdose of heroin and Xanax intoxication while suggesting suicide was a possibility. Binion had recently lost his gaming license because of his drug use and association with a mob figure.
None of this rang true for Binion's sister, Becky Behnen, who ran the family's Horseshoe Club. She hired a private investigator, Tom Dillard. Dillard dug up incriminating evidence against Murphy and Tabish, a debt-ridden Montana father of two fighting to save his contracting business, who Binion had befriended after a chance meeting in a Las Vegas motel bathroom. According to Dillard, the two had begun an affair behind Binion's back in the summer of 1998. Dillard further found that the day before his murder, Binion had cut Murphy out of his will. Right after Binion died Murphy and Tabish looted Binion's home of rare coins, silver and cash stashed in closets, pants pockets, and even in the engine compartment of a boat stored in his garage.
Based on Dillard's findings, a new theory emerged that the levels of heroin and Xanax in Binion's body were so lethal that he could only be a victim of a forced overdose. Police began to investigate the death as a homicide. Medical examiner Simms later concurred that Binion had been murdered.
On June 24, 1999, police arrested Murphy and the 34-year-old Tabish. They were charged with first-degree murder, grand larceny, and burglary.
During a 13-day preliminary hearing in September 1999, Chief Deputy District Attorney David Roger revealed a new theory to explain Binion's death: He was suffocated. The prosecution brought to the case a New York pathologist of national repute, Dr. Michael Baden, who also had testified in the well-publicized O.J. Simpson case. Baden testified that he believed the levels of heroin and Xanax in Binion's system were not enough to kill him, as the local medical examiner had concluded.
Baden, who had conducted more than 40,000 autopsies in his 40-year career, said congestion under Binion's eyelids and abrasions on his chest and back indicated he was suffocated in a nineteenth-century method called "burking." This occurs when someone sits on the victim's chest while covering his mouth and nose. Prosecutors built their circumstantial case around Baden's testimony. They contended that when Binion's gardener had unexpectedly arrived at the mansion, Murphy and Tabish were forced to suffocate Binion instead of letting the lethal drug cocktail work.
The defense, not to be outdone, brought in a well-known Milwaukee attorney, James Shellow, specifically to demean and discredit Baden. This ploy may have backfired. News reports indicate that Shellow's abrasive style may have alienated jurors, some of whom appeared to bond with Baden.
The defense also called on a pathologist with a national reputation, Pittsburgh's Cyril Wecht, who took the stand to contradict the prosecution's chief medical witness. Wecht, calling on 43 years of experience, disputed Baden's findings point by point. He testified that the ruptured blood vessels under Binion's eyelids were linear in fashion, not circular, which meant Binion was not suffocated. He said the discolorations around the victim's mouth and nose were not a result of being smothered to death, but more likely were caused by shaving. The marks on his chest possibly occurred in attempts to revive him.
The Trial Attracts Publicity
During the six-week murder trial, which began March 27, 2000, more than 100 witnesses testified. The courtroom simmered with legal maneuvering: a discordant parade of character witnesses, conflicting testimony over who saw what where, and a dizzying array of physical evidence. (The Binion family had offered generous rewards for information leading to a conviction.) Reporters swarmed the courtroom, passing on every bizarre turn of the trial to an eager public.
But the real theatrics that caused television ratings to soar took place outside the courtroom. Binion's sister went on the television show 20/20 to declare that Murphy and Tabish murdered her brother. Defense lawyers John Momot and Louis Palazzo made regular appearances on national television shows, spinning the case as a good-versus-evil drama: the bullying Binion money machine versus the kind, loving girlfriend, twice raped as a teen. The defense also hired a public relations team, which ran unprecedented television ads soliciting public input. The team then publicized the poll results (more thought the defendants innocent than before the trial began), and backed a tacky public seance. As cameras rolled, 11 psychics tried to contact Binion. Did he take his life or was he murdered? Binion did not respond.
Although presiding Judge Joseph Bonaventure did issue a gag order during the trial, he never sequestered the jury. He said he wanted to save taxpayer money in the $7,400-per-day trial.
Despite unprecedented publicity, the trial ultimately turned on the conflicting testimony of the famous and handsomely compensated medical experts. The jury evidently believed Baden. Jurors deliberated eight days before finding both Murphy and Tabish guilty of first-degree murder, on May 18, 2000. They were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole—for Murphy after serving a minimum of 22 years and for Tabish after 25 years.
In a companion case that unfolded during the Binion murder saga, Tabish's alleged accomplice David Mattsen and his business partner Michael Milot were tried and sentenced on charges of burglary, grand larceny, and conspiracy in the theft of the silver bars that Binion had buried. (Authorities had arrested Mattsen and Milot as they helped Tabish unearth the loot.)
Two other men, Steven Wadkins and John B. Joseph, eventually pleaded no contest to charges of conspiring to commit extortion, which stemmed from their assisting Tabish in torturing the owner of a sand pit tied to Tabish's contracting business to force the man to turn over his interest in the pit. They were sentenced to 200 hours community service or $2,000 fines.
Also, David Mattsen was found not guilty in federal court on 11 unrelated firearms charges a month before the Murphy-Tabish trial began.
Ruling on the appeal of the contested will, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled on October 9, 2000, that Binion had legally cut Murphy out of his will the day before he died.
The final roll of dice in this Las Vegas-style trial has yet to take place. On October 12, 2000 the defense team filed notice of appeal. It is expected that the Nevada Supreme Court will not act on the murder case before 2002.
—B. J. Welborn
Suggestions for Further Reading
Barandes, Laura. "Binion Jurors Hand Down Life with Possibility of Parole." Court TV Online (May 24, 2000).
German, Jeff. "Analysis: Binion Murder Case Being Fought on Five Fronts." Las Vegas Sun Online (October 14, 1999).
German, Jeff. "Sides Are Ready for Long-Awaited Start of Binion Murder Case." Las Vegas Sun Online (March 30, 2000).
Macy, Robert. "Jury Finds Pair Guilty in Death of Well-Known Gambler." Associated Press Online (May 19, 2000).
Smith, Kim. "Judge Gavels an End to Ted Binion Murder Trail." Las Vegas Sun Online (October 6, 2000).