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An Early Grave
By Gary C. King
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Gary C. King Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Las Vegas, Nevada, has not always been comprised of gambling joints, glamour, and glitz. Its beginnings were, in fact, quite meager. With its boundaries situated on the eastern perimeter of the Mojave Desert, the southern edge of the Great Basin Desert, and the northern perimeter of the Sonoran Desert, Las Vegas is, without question, one of the hottest and driest cities in the United States. It was founded by Mexican explorers and traders in 1830 who were in search of a shortcut between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. Surrounded by miles of scorching sand and omnipresent arid heat, they had veered off the Old Spanish Trail and were many miles from the nearest watering hole when, in the middle of nowhere, they stumbled upon a series of artesian springs bubbling up out of the sand and caliche. As they pressed onward they soon discovered an oasis made up of cottonwood trees, mesquite trees, tall grass, and a number of small creeks that flowed outward from the springs. They aptly named this oasis Las Vegas, which means "The Meadows."
In 1843 explorer and cartographer John C. Fremont surveyed the area. His surveys, in part, kicked off the momentum that brought the railroads to town. By 1905, Las Vegas had become a true railroad town, a stop along the route from Salt Lake City to the West Coast.
In 1930, the U.S. government decided to dam up the Colorado River and create one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. Their project was Hoover Dam, and their creation became known as Lake Mead. While the rest of the country was mired in the Great Depression, Las Vegas, for the most part, prospered. And grew.
Although Glitter Gulch and The Strip had not yet materialized, politicians in Carson City, Nevada's capital, were working fervently to enact laws that would legalize gambling and make getting a divorce in the Silver State an easy, not to mention quick, matter. As a result of the new laws, casinos began to pop up in the downtown area and, by the 1940s, New York and Chicago crime families decided they wanted their share of the prosperity that Las Vegas was enjoying. Meyer Lansky soon sent Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel to Las Vegas, where Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel. The Strip, for all intents and purposes, was born. There are no signs on the highways leading into town proclaiming that Las Vegas was built by criminals, though truer words couldn't be written.
As the Flamingo prospered, several rival entrepreneurs, many of them underworld bosses, decided that they, too, wanted a piece of the action. Over a ten-year period the Tropicana, the Stardust, the Sands, the Riviera, the Desert Inn, and Caesars Palace all opened on The Strip. Las Vegas's sudden prosperity had a price, a negative element that would long be remembered. Most of the new ventures had been financed by mob money, which brought with it a somewhat violent era. Bugsy Siegel had by this time been rubbed out by the mob for skimming profits from the Flamingo and for sending his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, on shopping sprees to Europe where she deposited much of the money into Swiss bank accounts for him. Similarly, Gus Greenbaum displeased his bosses at the Riviera, and his body was found, along with his wife's, in their Las Vegas home, their throats cut. Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, characterized by actor Robert De Niro in the movie Casino, ran things at the Stardust for a while with Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro and nearly lost his life to a car bomb outside a Tony Roma's restaurant on East Sahara. And more recently Herbert "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein, a one-time lieutenant of Spilotro's, was murdered in his townhouse when the Los Angeles mob decided it wanted to take over the loan sharking business and auto insurance scams that they believed he was running.
But Las Vegas is evolving. The mobster element is still there, to be sure, though markedly less visible than it was twenty years ago, and nowadays the politicians and the corporations have assumed a new posture for themselves and for Las Vegas. Las Vegas has become known, today, as a Disneyland for adults, although it has become more "family friendly," too. It has also become known as the setting for one of the most diabolical and intricately plotted murder schemes in the annals of this city's crime history, if the prosecutor's charges are correct.
On Thursday, September 17, 1998, a thick, grayish brown cloud of smog and dust ringed the far-reaching boundaries of Clark County, Nevada, and the Las Vegas Valley, just as it did on most days in recent history, and the temperature was still in the scorching low one-hundreds. Gone were the days of clear dark blue skies, now only faded memories for the few life-long native Las Vegans who remain here, but an accepted fact of life for the hundreds of thousands of new transplants who have settled here in their quest for a better life. Some call it progress. Those who know what it used to be like here call it a shame. Although he was not a native Las Vegan, Lonnie "Ted" Binion grew up here in the desert dust and was one of those who knew what Las Vegas used to be like.
Ted Binion, a slightly built man, lived in the fast lane, in many respects much like his infamous father, Lester "Benny" Binion, and possessed some of the same bravado. Binion was also a cowboy in many respects. He loved horses, and had been an accomplished horseman even before he turned ten years old. But unlike his father, who lived to the ripe old age of 85, Ted lacked much of Benny's insight and common sense and couldn't see trouble coming when it was only around the corner. He was smart, though, in other ways. He loved history, and was a whiz at math with an uncanny ability to analyze gambling odds and come up with the house take in seconds, all without the use of a calculator or even a pencil. He also loved to schmooze with the patrons at the Horseshoe, and could be seen on any given day sitting at the bar trying to put the make on women whose husbands were gambling away the family fortune. Ted had a knack for always being able to find trouble, and he took one of life's routes that led him down the highway to hell. Despite his tremendous wealth and a sense of fairness toward those he liked, despite his being known to help others who were less fortunate, Ted had difficulty in helping himself and eventually became his own worst enemy. Although he performed his job well, there were many occasions when he would be above the casino floor smoking pot, utilizing the "eye in the sky" to keep watch on the gaming action and the casino dealers. The dealers always knew when he was there because of the pungent, telltale odor of the marijuana smoke. But his lifestyle had a price. By the time of his untimely death, Ted looked older than his fifty-five years, and his teeth had become stained an ugly brown from the years of smoking tar heroin and marijuana. His lifestyle led to a number of decisions that would first cost him his status in the gaming community as a casino giant and then, ultimately, would cost him his life.
When Ted Binion's longtime gardener, Tom Loveday, showed up on Thursday morning, September 17, he couldn't have known that something terrible was amiss behind the walls of Binion's 8,000-square-foot palatial home. Binion's expansive gated ranch-style home resides in an older, upscale Las Vegas neighborhood, centrally located near Rancho Drive and Charleston Boulevard, only minutes from downtown where the Horseshoe is located. Thursday was Loveday's regular day to mow the grass. It was about 9 a.m. when he arrived and at first it didn't seem any different from any of the other 500 or so times that he had taken care of Binion's grounds during the last fourteen years. It didn't take him long, however, to begin to sense that something wasn't quite right.
He knew that Sandy Murphy, Binion's live-in girlfriend for the past three and a half years, always parked her shiny black 1997 Mercedes in the garage. This particular morning, however, Loveday noticed and thought it peculiar that her car was parked in the side driveway. He noticed, too, that Binion's three dogs, Pig, Buddy, and Princess, were not themselves. Instead of following Loveday around the yard as they usually did, the dogs remained close to the back door, unable to gain access to the house through the doggie door that was now either locked or jammed shut from the inside. It appeared that they wanted to go inside, but no one would let them in.
Loveday walked around the perimeter of the house, a stroll that afforded him, at best, a cursory examination. He first noticed that the living room curtains were closed — he had never seen the curtains closed at any time on past workdays. As a result he could not see into the den where Binion spent most of his time when he was at home. He looked through the kitchen door near where the dogs were staying put, but he couldn't see anything there, either. The house was too dark. Similarly, he went to Binion's bedroom window and peered in through the opened drapes. Binion's bed was made and there were no articles of clothing on the floor. Knowing that Binion and Sandy Murphy had separate bedrooms, Loveday made his way around to Sandy's room. On Thursdays it wasn't unusual for Sandy to open her bedroom window and talk to Loveday. Her drapes were open, too, and, like Binion's, her bed was made. Where was everyone? he wondered. Where was the maid, Mary Montoya-Gascoigne? She had usually shown up for work by the time Loveday got there. Although concerned over his observations, Loveday decided that he had learned all that he could from his scrutiny of the premises and went about his business.
On occasion, since Sandy hung out with exotic dancers, Loveday would see large-busted girls who liked showing off what they had walking around the house, often wearing only T-shirts. The girls Sandy hung out with were a vain lot, and Loveday would sometimes see them with bandaged noses following plastic surgery. Sandy was certainly pretty enough with her voluptuous lips, dancer's legs, buff body, and those brown bedroom eyes. Ted Binion had particularly liked her ass, and was known to point out that she had a "nice ass" to his friends. The way that Sandy flaunted it she didn't need to be told. She knew it was a nice one. At five-feet eight-inches tall and weighing in at one-hundred eight pounds, Sandy, her hair no longer blonde but now a light brown, closer to her natural color, was certainly an inviting young woman. Sandy had even told him that Ted hadn't made love with her for a long time due to his drug use, and blatantly said to Loveday that she needed sex. She had even invited him in to smoke marijuana with her, but he had declined the offers. Sandy was Ted Binion's girl, and no one in his right mind dared to mess with Binion's girl. However, there was no Sandy and no flirting on this particular day. Nothing was going on at the Binion house that day that Loveday could see or hear, no scantily clad young women were running around the house and there were no apparent signs of other visitors. It was quiet — all too quiet for the Binion residence.
Loveday finished his work and left Ted Binion's home sometime between 1 and 1:30 p.m. He wouldn't know until later why he had sensed that something was wrong.
Sometime after Loveday left the grounds, Sandy Murphy emerged from the house with one of Binion's associates, Rick Tabish, and they drove to Horseshoe Gaming's administrative offices without an appointment. Sandy wanted to see Kathy Rose, Ted Binion's personal secretary. The receptionist told her that Rose was in a meeting, but Sandy asked her to interrupt the meeting so that she could give Rose a check that needed to be deposited into Ted's account.
Rose came out of the meeting and met Sandy in the reception area. Sandy looked tired, almost haggard, like she had been up all night. She certainly did not look the showgirl type, as she normally appeared. After greeting her and giving her a once-over, Rose thought it was odd that Sandy would be bringing in a check for Ted. She had never done that before. Sandy explained to Rose that Ted was sleeping. Besides, she said, she left the house to go out and get something to eat which made it convenient for her to drop off the check. Afterward, she said, she was going to go home to check on Ted. Sandy told Rose that Ted had obtained a prescription drug to assist him in getting off heroin once again. After losing his gaming license for good because of his associations with known mobsters and because of his drug problems, Ted had become depressed and had started smoking heroin again. Sandy explained that she had in fact stayed up all night with him at his request.
A short time later Sandy called Kathy Rose again, and asked her for the phone number of one of Binion's associates. She didn't say why she needed the number, but Rose gave it to her anyway. Rose heard the sound of a male voice in the background on Sandy's end, and did not press her further about why she wanted the phone number. In retrospect, Sandy's contact with Rose that day had seemed out of character, even strange, because she rarely had an occasion to speak to her, much less see her in person.
A short time later, at 3:55 p.m. the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's emergency communications department received a 911 call from a woman who was obviously distraught and quite hysterical.
"My husband has stopped breathing," was all that she had said, and then had abruptly hung up. Although the call was immediately disconnected, the dispatcher was able to trace it to 2408 Palomino Lane, Ted Binion's residence.CHAPTER 2
Las Vegas Fire Department paramedic Kenneth Dickinson was the first to arrive at Palomino Lane. Two other emergency medical technicians accompanied him, and a second team of paramedics arrived moments later. They parked on the street in front of the expansive gated home, and walked up the driveway where a hysterical young woman came running toward them screaming nearly unintelligible words when she met them. Between her sobs and carrying on, they were able to discern part of what she was saying: "He's not breathing! He's not breathing!" One of the paramedics, Steven Reincke, remained outside for a few moments and tried to calm down the hysterical woman while Dickinson and the other technicians entered the house. In the process Reincke learned that her name was Sandy Murphy.
"What is your relationship to the patient?" Reincke asked.
"I'm his wife," Sandy responded.
"When was the last time you saw your husband?" Reincke wanted to establish a timeframe for his report.
"It was this morning," Sandy sobbed.
Reincke left Sandy with another technician and entered the home.
Inside, Dickinson and Reincke found a man lying on his back in the den in the southeast quadrant of the house. It was Ted Binion, all right. There was no mistake about that. Ted's remarkable moon-shaped face was known all over town. He was lying on a small mattress atop a throw rug in front of the television. A comforter had been draped over his lower legs, and there was an empty medicine bottle labeled Xanax lying on the floor beside him. His skin appeared ashen and gray, and he wasn't moving. Their first thoughts were that he was dead. Reincke walked over to the body, reached down and felt for a pulse in one of Binion's carotid arteries. There was none. The body was cold to the touch and it was apparent that rigor mortis was present in the area of his jaw though strangely absent from the rest of his body.
In the next moment Sandy Murphy ran into the room, dropped to the floor, and attempted to embrace the body. It was all the paramedics could do to keep her off and away from the deceased, but they finally managed to escort her out of the room. One of the technicians remained with her in an attempt to console her as she continued rambling on hysterically.
Dickinson and Reincke promptly hooked up Binion's body to a monitor, but he was a flatliner. There was no need for a chest rub or other attempts at resuscitation. It was clear to them that Binion was dead, and had been for some time. Just how long was difficult to say, but they guessed that it had been several hours.
One of Binion's neighbors, Janice Tanno, saw the activity and wanted to know what was going on and if she could help out in any way. Shocked at the news of Binion's death, Tanno wanted to know how he had died. She was informed that at this point the cause of death had not been determined.
Sandra Murphy, meanwhile, was still hysterical. Amid all the crying and emotional outbursts, it was difficult to comprehend anything she was saying. At one point she composed herself enough to stop babbling and stated, "I don't want to hurt Teddy." Although little attention was given to the statement at that time, investigators would later wonder why she was speaking in the present tense. Why would she make such a statement? Had she merely repeated something she had said to someone earlier — perhaps during an attempt to refuse to do something that someone else wanted her to do — indelibly embedded in her mind? It had seemed like a strange thing to say, but then, people often say unusual things and act strangely under these circumstances.
Excerpted from An Early Grave by Gary C. King. Copyright © 2001 Gary C. King Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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