Jury finds pair guilty in death of well-known Vegas casino heir

LAS VEGAS - Ted Binion's girlfriend and her lover were convicted Friday of killing the casino heir after a trial that captivated this gambling community with tales of love, drug addiction and buried treasure.

Sandra Murphy and Rick Tabish were convicted of first degree murder and could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The jury found the two lovers guilty on all charges, including robbery, grand larceny and burglary. Tabish was convicted on 11 charges and Murphy of six.

Binion, who lost his casino license because of drug use and association with a mob figure, died Sept. 17, 1998. The prosecution said he was forced to ingest a lethal dose of heroin and the prescription anti-depressant Xanax, then was suffocated.

Murphy, who was Binion's live-in girlfriend, and Tabish, who became her lover, were charged with murder nine months later.

Prosecutors claimed the pair killed Binion when he threatened to cut her out of his will, then ransacked his home of cash and other valuables before trying to loot a buried vault of a fortune in silver.

Neither Murphy nor Tabish showed much emotion as the verdicts were read by the jury foreman.

Murphy's attorney, John Momot, later said his client expressed ''disbelief, disappointment.''

Louis Palazzo, Tabish's attorney, said his client was ''absolutely shocked.''

Both attorneys said they would appeal.

Binion's sister, Becky Behnen, who doggedly pursued the case, wept. Later she congratulated prosecutors and as Behnen left the courthouse, a group of about 50 onlookers applauded.

The case, which gained international attention, had all the classic ingredients for murder - ''money, love, greed, lust'' - said prosecutor David Wall.

Two days after Binion's death, Tabish and others were arrested after they broke into an underground vault in the Nevada desert where Binion had buried $7 million in silver bars and rare coins.

The jury deliberated eight days before returning the verdicts late Friday afternoon.

Judge Joseph Bonaventure set a penalty hearing for Tuesday.

Prosecutors would not comment after the verdict and jurors could not because they must decide the penalties.

The six-week trial included some 150 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits as prosecutors sought to convict Murphy and Tabish in a case built mainly on circumstantial evidence.

Defense attorneys contended Binion, 55, died of an accidental drug overdose or committed suicide.

Binion's death ended a stormy 3-year relationship with Murphy, whom he met in 1995 while she was performing as a topless dancer at a local strip club.

And it began a bitter civil court battle between Murphy and the powerful Binion estate over her share of his $55 million will - $300,000 in cash, his $900,000 home and its contents, and proceeds from a $1 million life insurance policy.

Murphy and Tabish were arrested in June 1999, charged with killing Binion and stealing from the estate of the youngest son of casino legend Benny Binion.

Defense attorneys contended Murphy and Tabish were scapegoats targeted by the ''Binion money machine'' in a bid to blame someone for murder and prevent Murphy from cashing in on the estate.

Prosecutors claimed Murphy, 28, and Tabish, 35, a Missoula, Mont., contractor, began an affair in early 1998 and Binion ordered her bounced from his will when he learned of it.

The day before his death, Binion called his attorney and longtime friend, Jim Brown, telling him to take Murphy out of the will ''if she doesn't kill me tonight. If I'm dead, you'll know what happened.''

Later in the day Binion met with former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, giving her $40,000 in her race for Nevada governor. And he filled a prescription for 120 Xanax tablets prescribed by a neighbor who was a doctor, hoping the anti-depressants could help him in his battle with heroin. That night he summoned his drug dealer, Peter Sheridan, who delivered 12 balloons of black tar heroin.

The next day Murphy told a maid not to come to work because Binion, on a heroin binge, had been sick all night and they were going to sleep in.

Witnesses testified she went to lunch at a posh restaurant, then returned to find the lifeless body of Binion in his den.

Hysterical, Murphy called 911, saying Binion wasn't breathing.

Responding paramedics were unable to revive the gambler and an autopsy determined death was due to a lethal dose of heroin and Xanax. An empty Xanax bottle was found near the body.

It would be six months before the Clark County Coroner's office would rule the death a homicide, and three more before Murphy and Tabish were charged in the death.

The Binion estate hired former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Homicide Detective Tom Dillard to pursue the murder theory, prompting defense claims the ''Binion money machine'' had targeted Murphy and Tabish.

Prosecutors contended Murphy and Tabish wasted no time in latching onto Binion's valuables. They claim the pair ransacked his home immediately after his death.

Then, 36 hours after Binion died, the plot took another bizarre twist. Tabish, one of his employees, Michael Milot, and David Mattsen, a foreman at Binion's ranch, were arrested by Nye County Sheriff's officers for breaking into a concrete vault buried near a heavily traveled road in Pahrump, Nev., 60 miles west of here. The vault contained about $7 million in silver bars and rare coins Binion had removed weeks earlier from the basement of his family's downtown Horseshoe Casino.

Tabish claimed he was acting on Binion's earlier instructions to safeguard the silver lode.

Tabish, Murphy, Milot and Mattsen were charged with burglary, grand larceny and conspiracy in the silver theft. Milot and Mattsen are to be tried later on those charges.

Meanwhile Murphy was busy in civil court, chasing her share of the Binion estate through her then-attorney, Oscar Goodman. Goodman, a nationally known criminal defense attorney, quit as her lawyer when he began his successful campaign to run for Las Vegas mayor.

Murphy won the right to her share of the estate when a judge ruled that Binion had to be present and sign a new will before it could take effect legally. That decision is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Under Nevada law, Murphy is not eligible to share in the estate if convicted of first degree murder in Binion's death.

When they were arrested, both Murphy and Tabish were ordered held without bond. She was later released on $300,000 cash bail paid by a wealthy Irishman she met in a swank restaurant.

Murphy upset the court when she appeared at one hearing with her house arrest ankle bracelet painted gold to match her outfit.

She was later sent back to jail for violating provisions of her house arrest and ordered held 10 days by Bonaventure for ''attitude adjustment.'' When released from jail, she and Momot complained that a pair of her black panties was missing, setting off another round of publicity in a case that made almost daily headlines.

Momot, who complained of pre-trial publicity, hired two public relations specialists to help field media inquiries.

Murphy was returned to custody weeks later for another violation of her house arrest and an exasperated Bonaventure ordered her to remain in jail pending the outcome of the trial.


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