Binion case heating up, this time over his estate

Two years after Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish were acquitted in their retrial of killing casino boss Ted Binion, one of the most publicized criminal cases in Las Vegas history is back in the news.

The case, from the start, has had it all: the alleged murder of the scion of one of the city’s most famous families; a decades-younger girlfriend accused in his death; drugs; a palimony suit and alleged will change the day before a mysterious death; stolen silver and missing antique coins, and protracted legal battles over mountains of money.

This time the attention is on the stepped-up legal battle between Murphy and Binion’s family over the USD 55 million estate that he left after his Sept. 17, 1998, death.

Murphy opened a new front in the high-stakes court fight late last month by filing a lawsuit accusing the estate – run by Binion’s older brother, former casino mogul Jack Binion, and Las Vegas attorney James Brown – of selling the USD 1 million home that she shared with Ted Binion for three years „under the reasonable market price“ and disposing of her valuable personal items.

The Palomino Lane home was sold under a court order in late 2002 for USD 750,000 to local real estate investor Patrick Haddad.

Murphy, who was 26 at the time of the 55-year-old Binion’s death, contends that Binion added her to his will two months before he died, giving her the sprawling 6,000-square-foot home, its contents and USD 300,000 in cash.

The estate, however, argues that Binion cut her out of the will the day before he died and that Murphy is entitled to nothing from his estate.

District Attorney David Roger – who obtained murder convictions, later overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court, against Murphy and Tabish at their first trial in 2000 – said he is not surprised that things are heating up on the civil side.

„This tragic case was always about greed and money,“ Roger said. „It apparently will never end.“

Prosecutors contended at both trials that Murphy and Tabish, who were involved in a romantic relationship behind Binion’s back, pumped the casino executive with drugs and suffocated him at his home to gain access to his wealth.

But Murphy and Tabish maintained that Binion, a well-known heroin addict who drank heavily, died of a drug overdose.

Although Murphy and Tabish, who is serving time in prison on unrelated extortion charges, were acquitted at their second trial in 2004 of killing Binion, both were convicted of stealing the silver he had buried on land he owned in Pahrump. They are appealing those convictions before the Nevada Supreme Court.

Eight years after his death, some of the valuables Binion kept at his home and elsewhere – including a USD 300,000 collection of antique coins and currency and a bag of rare Carson City-minted silver dollars worth millions of dollars – are still missing.

Murphy filed suit over the sale of the home last month after informal talks to settle the estate fight collapsed. Those talks occurred between Murphy’s attorney, Michael Cristalli, and Binion attorney, Mark Ferrario.

The attorneys were attempting to resolve two other lawsuits linked to the estate fight that have been sitting in District Court since 1999 while the dramatic events of the high-profile criminal case were playing out.

Murphy – who, according to Cristalli, now lives a quiet life working in the mortgage business in Southern California – filed a USD 2 million palimony suit against the estate in May 1999, just weeks before she and Tabish were arrested and charged with killing Binion, the son of legendary Horseshoe Club founder Benny Binion.

Ted Binion’s chief heir, his then-19-year-old daughter Bonnie, filed a wrongful death suit later that year against Murphy and Tabish, accusing them of carrying on a secret sexual relationship while plotting her father’s death.

„I don’t think the estate is in any way, shape or form willing to entertain a realistic settlement offer,“ Cristalli said. „Sandy just wants what she’s entitled to.“

The new lawsuit, however, has encouraged the estate to also escalate the legal wrangling.

„We don’t believe Sandy Murphy is entitled to any of the estate’s proceeds,“ Ferrario said. „It’s our intention to pursue the wrongful-death case. We believe we will demonstrate that Murphy and Tabish were responsible for Ted Binion’s death under the standards that govern a civil case.“

Those standards are considerably less than those followed in a criminal case.

Prosecutors looking for a conviction in a criminal case must convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of a defendant’s guilt. But in a civil trial, a plaintiff needs to present only a preponderance of evidence to win a favorable verdict. That’s how O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, but was later found to have been responsible for their demise in a civil wrongful-death action.

All of the Binion civil cases are in front of District Judge Michael Cherry, who has been overseeing a separate probate case set up to distribute the assets outlined in Binion’s 1998 will.

But Cherry, who is preparing to take a seat on the state Supreme Court in January, will not get a chance to issue a final ruling on who is entitled to Binion’s millions.

The cases are being turned over to Senior District Judge J. Charles Thompson, who was the No. 2 man in the Clark County district attorney’s office when Murphy and Tabish were originally charged in Binion’s death.

Ferrario suggested that sworn depositions in the wrongful-death case could occur in the near future.

„The next phase of the case will be the discovery phase,“ he said. „We are moving forward.“

One person who is not looking forward to the renewed legal battles over Binion’s death is his sister, Becky Behnen.

Although she is not a party to any of the litigation, she has had to live with the horror of her brother’s untimely death for more than eight years.

„There never seems to be any closure to Ted’s death,“ Behnen said. „I just wish it all would go away.“