Forget the Sopranos. Meet the Binions.
For the most dramatic (and pathetic) tale of a mobster’s family coming apart at the seams, turn off your TV and read on: You won’t believe how the children of a notorious Dallas gambler and racketeer have made a mess of his legacy.
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BENNY BINION MIGHT NOT RECOGNIZE HIS OLD JOINT. His name still flashes in gold lights above Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, but the atmosphere at Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Casino is distinctly sanitized, as if someone has given a bubble bath to a wild boar. A pedestrian mall stretches in front of the Horseshoe, the Golden Nugget, and the remaining gambling houses of Glitter Gulch, and a roof with laser lights blocks the sun and stars. Potted palms rigged to spray a mist on passersby have been positioned between kiosks that sell T-shirts and cheap souvenirs. You won’t find fountains, topless chorus girls, roller coasters, pyramids, or cheesy replicas of New York, Paris, or Venice downtown, as you do along the far more fashionable Strip—and forget about a string quartet in tuxedos playing Bach, like the one in a lobby bar at the Bellagio—but an acoustic guitar player named Buzz Evans entertains the lucky souls who venture there after dark, mostly Asian tourists with cameras and young couples who look like they’ve just jumped off a boxcar. All this refinement is part of what the chamber of commerce calls the “Fremont Street Experience,” a misguided attempt to make Glitter Gulch seem hip to the times. It misses the point. In the words of Oscar Goodman, the former mob lawyer who was elected mayor of Las Vegas earlier this year: “People don’t come here looking for Disneyland; they come looking for Bugsy Siegel.”
When Benny, a gambler and racketeer with few peers in Texas or anyplace else, left Dallas in 1946 for the more forgiving atmosphere of Sin City, he couldn’t have envisioned the multi-million-dollar legacy he would one day leave his children. And he couldn’t have imagined what a mess they’d make of it. Two of Benny’s five kids have died of a drug overdose—one an apparent suicide, the other a victim of foul play. In his day mobsters didn’t use drugs; they just sold them. Greed, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder are traditions in this company town, but the current generation seems to have forgotten that it’s only business. Following the death of Benny in 1989 and of his wife, Teddy Jane, in 1994, an all-out war erupted among the Binion siblings for control of the Horseshoe. Jack Binion squared off against his sisters, Brenda Michael and Becky Behnen, while little brother Lonnie “Ted” Binion was forced to watch from the sidelines. Ted’s gambling license had been suspended…for hanging out with mobsters! Who was he supposed to hang with, the Moral Majority? Ted’s suspension was merely another symbol of change in the nature of families, crime and otherwise. He carried a pistol, just like his daddy, only to him it was an ornament. The battle of the Binions was fought with court pleadings and depositions instead of machine guns, but in some respects it was dirtier and less honorable than the bloodlettings of yore. You don’t have to be Tony Soprano’s shrink to understand what happened here: The Binions had met the enemy, and it was them.
The battle concluded, at least temporarily, in the summer of 1998, when an out-of-court settlement was reached. It followed, and was no doubt hastened by, an order from the Nevada Gaming Commission that forced Ted to sell his 20 percent interest in the casino. Nearly all of it was bought by Becky, the youngest of Benny’s kids. A month later, Ted was found dead of an overdose of heroin, a drug he had used since high school. At first police officers thought the 55-year-old had either killed himself or accidentally overdosed, but the evidence now suggests that he was the victim of a bizarre, almost comically inept plot by the paramour of his live-in girlfriend to murder him and steal his fortune. Ted’s demise was a final crushing blow to the Binions. He’d been Benny’s favorite—his carbon copy, only without the edge and tempering that made the old man a natural survivor. In the wake of Ted’s death, one of Las Vegas’ last family-owned casinos is a shadow of its former self. So is the family.
BEFORE THERE WAS a Strip, and long before gaming mogul Steve Wynn began replicating the Seven Wonders of the World and installing slot machines in their every nook, Binion’s Horseshoe was a haven for hard-eyed, no-nonsense gamblers. It was the cornerstone of Glitter Gulch—the noisiest, rowdiest, most wide-open casino in downtown Las Vegas. The doors never closed and the action never stopped. Benny boasted that he offered the world’s best odds, and he never flinched from covering a bet. Texas high rollers, in particular, were attracted by his steadfast policy of no limits and no frills. “The size of your limit is the size of your first bet,” Benny pledged. The story of the man who walked into the Horseshoe with $1 million in a satchel and lost it on the pass line at the craps table is now part of Vegas folklore. Binion’s Horseshoe didn’t merely win a million dollars that night, it won a permanent reputation as the only pure gambling joint in town.
There was no health spa at the Horseshoe, no Swedish masseuse, no barbershop, no entertainment. “I don’t want to see my money blown out the end of some guy’s trumpet,” Benny explained. The drinks were generous—Benny pioneered the tradition that players drink free—and the food was cheap and utilitarian. His late-night $2 steak became a classic casino come-on. There was no fancy dining room or French chef, just a man in a stained apron who stirred up pots of greasy, fiery chili using an old Dallas jailhouse recipe. For years the Horseshoe didn’t even include a hotel. When Steve Wynn told Benny about his plan to build an extravagant two-thousand-room hotel and casino called the Golden Nugget across the street, Benny wrapped a fatherly arm around his shoulder and said, “Great, they can sleep in your place and gamble in mine.”
Benny learned the business in the twenties from Warren Diamond, an old-time Dallas racketeer who operated a no-limits crap game in the St. George Hotel, near the Dallas County Courthouse. Though he claimed never to have set foot in a schoolroom, Benny knew about numbers. In the idiom of the trade, he was a “square craps fader”—“square” meaning “honest,” and “fader” being the one who covers the bet. The margin favoring a craps fader is small, like 1.4 percent, but over the years it made Benny enormously wealthy. By the early thirties he was the king of the Dallas rackets, a title he had to defend periodically with a weapon. His motto was, Do your enemies before they can do you. He earned his nickname, Cowboy, for reasons that had to do with shooting, not riding; he gunned down at least two business rivals and scared away many more. Long after he left Dallas, he continued to control the rackets there and in Fort Worth—and the bodies of rival gangsters continued to pile up.
When Benny hit town, Las Vegas was a woeful cluster of dives on an empty highway to Los Angeles, undiscovered except by Bugsy Siegel and his mobster friends. It was a milieu in which he was very much at home. As he had in Dallas, Benny cultivated friends in high places: judges, politicians, police chiefs. They were essential in this climate. Enforcers like Chicago mob boss Tony “the Ant” Spilotro enjoyed squeezing their enemies’ heads in vices until their eyeballs popped out, and the desert brimmed with freshly dug graves and spent cartridges. “Benny never had to fight a turf war in this town, recalls Harry Claiborne, who was his attorney for more than forty years and is an unofficial godfather to all of his children. “I never knew anybody who didn’t like him.” Before they were friends, Claiborne was the chief deputy district attorney of Clark County, and he had personally prosecuted and sent away for life Benny’s old Texas sidekick, Cliff Helms. “Just after I started in private practice,” Claiborne told me, “Benny came up to me one day and asked if I wanted to be his lawyer. I told him that I knew he didn’t feel kindly about what I’d done to Helms, but Benny stared at me with those cold blue eyes and said, ‘There’s no goddamn law you gotta be in love with your lawyer.’” Later, Claiborne earned the distinction of being one of a handful of federal judges impeached and convicted in this century, which made him an icon in Vegas.
The Binion children grew up knowing that they were heirs to a dangerous business. The home that Benny bought for his family on Bonanza Road was a 4,500-square-foot fortress on six acres, and it was equipped with elaborate security refinements. There were no hidden corridors, which he feared kidnappers would use for their own purposes, but there was a barn out back, and he told his kids to hide there in the event of an air attack. The threat was real: In 1951 police officers arrested Herbert “the Cat” Noble, Benny’s longtime Dallas rival, as he prepared to take off for Las Vegas in his stagger-wing Beechcraft with two bombs mounted in the bomb rack. Not long after, the Cat was blown to pieces by a bomb planted in his mailbox. Everyone assumed Benny was responsible, but nobody ever proved it.
THE WISEGUYS OF LAS VEGAS ALWAYS thought that Ted would end up running the Horseshoe when Benny’s string ran out—that sober, serious Jack was a great accountant but lacked the panache to run such a flamboyant place. Benny’s eldest daughter, Barbara, had died of a drug overdose in 1983, and the other two didn’t seem suitable for the job. Brenda, the middle girl, lived in Amarillo, far from the action. Becky, the youngest, had operated the Silver Star Casino in the late seventies, but only because the Nevada Gaming Commission balked at issuing a license to her husband, Nick Behnen. Behnen was barred from even entering the Silver Star, but everyone figured that he was the real boss.
Ted was a younger version of Benny, or he tried to be. He dressed like him, in boots and cowboy hat, tucked a pistol in his jeans, and drove a pickup truck with his dog, Princess, riding shotgun. In the summer he worked on the family’s more-than-100,000-acre ranch in Montana. (When Brenda used her power as executrix of their mother’s estate to sell the ranch in 1997, Ted was nearly inconsolable.) Wild and fearless and always ready for fun, he was instantly likable. He was also generous and loyal to a fault. “Ted had a lot of strange friends with bad reputations, but Benny was the same way,” says Claiborne. “If you were his friend, you were his friend.” Ted didn’t care for formal education but read American and Western history with a passion and could recite Civil War battles in minute detail. “He was a Renaissance man,” recalls attorney David Chesnoff, another friend. “A cowboy, but probably the most worldly guy I ever met.” From the time he was a teenager Ted collected antique and limited-edition guns, rare and mint coins, and old casino chips; later, he purchased bars of silver and inherited his mother’s coin collection. Eventually his own collection of coins and silver grew to 24 tons and had to be stored in two vaults at the Horseshoe.
Benny’s kids were aristocrats by Vegas standards, young royals who grew up in a home where luxuries were commonplace and in a town where doors opened on command. Ted practically grew up in the casino, learning the trade as a preteen from his father and from some of the shrewdest players in the country. By the time he was eighteen, he was an old hand. “Benny told me that Ted was the best in the business,” Claiborne recalls. He was also a junkie, having moved from pot to opium and LSD and, finally, to his drug of choice: black tar heroin. “Benny was devastated,” Claiborne says. “He hated drugs more than anything in the world, but there was nothing he could do.” Because Ted hated needles, he didn’t inject the drug; he smoked it. “Chasing the dragon,” he called it. Even zonked out, Ted had more brains and moxie than the others. That made him the obvious candidate to assume command of the Horseshoe—someday.
Benny’s string ran out prematurely, however. His good ol’ boy network was no match for two crusading district attorneys from Dallas. First Will Wilson and then Henry Wade had been after him since the mid-forties. In 1953 Wade finally nailed Benny on income tax evasion and gambling charges dating from his mob days in Dallas and sent him away for 42 months.
Benny got out in 1957 but never again held a gaming license. Until he died, he watched the action from a corner table in the Horseshoe coffee shop while Teddy Jane worked the cashier’s cage and Jack ran the business.
To the surprise of some, Jack was more than up to the task. He retained the policy that a gambler’s first bet was his limit and used as a marketing tool the catch phrase “a fair game and fair odds.” Though Jack’s personality was tamer and far more subdued than Benny’s, he had his father’s eye for an advantage. In 1988 he more than quadrupled the size of the hotel by purchasing the Mint Casino and Hotel next door for $27 million. He also shared Benny’s appreciation for characters and scoundrels: As ever, all customers were to be treated as guests. When he learned that an infamous nickel-and-dime player named Goldie had talked a Horseshoe supervisor into sending a limo to her house to deliver a dozen donuts and a pack of cigarettes, Jack asked himself, “What would Benny do?” and decided to forget it. For nearly thirty years he put the Horseshoe ahead of almost everything else in his life. “He is an ungodly hard worker,” says Tom Stephenson, a Dallas writer who ghosted Jack Binion’s Little Black Book on Gambling. “He’s usually in his office by six, and he’s still there that night at ten. I don’t think he ever took a break in his life.”
TED FIRST GOT HIS GAMBLING LICENSE IN 1964. Despite his heroin habit, he began working the casino floor, much as Benny had done—greeting big shots, dealing with troublemakers, endeavoring to keep everyone happy. The slippery slope that eventually took him to his death began in 1987, when he was convicted of drug possession and his license was suspended.
At that time Ted was married and lived with his wife, Doris, and their daughter, Bonnie, in a fine home on Palomino Lane. He also owned a sixty-acre ranch in Pahrump, a small town 53 miles west of Las Vegas. Ted kept large amounts of cash and other valuables at his home and ranch, and he sometimes buried his treasure—the only sure way to protect it, he believed. Heroin wasn’t his only demon: He also had weaknesses for booze, big-breasted showgirls, and underworld types. Maybe because of Benny’s reputation, Ted felt he had to show he was a tough guy. In 1990 the FBI charged him and seven other Horseshoe employees with beating and robbing players suspected of cheating at blackjack. The charges exposed an ugly side of the family business: Each of the supposed cheats was black. Federal prosecutors mishandled the case, so it never went to trial, but Ted again lost his license temporarily.
He got it back in 1993 but lost it again the following year. This second suspension was for eighteen months, but the Nevada Gaming Commission later continued it indefinitely. The problem was no longer merely drugs, it was Ted’s continued association with mafiosi: The commission uncovered evidence that he had made $100,000 loans to reputed Kansas City mobster Peter Ribaste and to an old Chicago thug named Herbert “Fat Herb” Blitzstein, who had once been the top lieutenant of Tony “the Ant” Spilotro. Blitzstein ran a lucrative segment of Vegas’ street rackets, including loan-sharking and an insurance scam run out of an auto repair shop. On one occasion, even though the gaming commission prohibited Ted from setting foot in the Horseshoe, he cashed $11,000 in auto insurance checks for Fat Herb there. Ted seemed fond of Herb and enjoyed hanging out with the hefty hood at topless bars, where much of his business was conducted. Ted must have known that agents were monitoring his moves, but either he was too reckless to care or he believed the friendship was helping, not hurting, his efforts to regain his license. On the list of public officials that Fat Herb claimed to have bribed was Steve DuCharme, a member of the Gaming Control Board who was formerly a Vegas police sergeant. What neither Fat Herb nor Ted knew was that DuCharme was working undercover at the time he took the bribe. Ted parted ways with Fat Herb in December 1996, when the board added the mobster to its infamous Black Book of undesirables, but the damage was done.
A few weeks later, Fat Herb was assassinated in his home by a hitman hired by L.A. mob bosses as part of their move to take over the rackets. Word on the street was that Ted was also targeted, and sure enough, within a few days someone sprayed his home with bullets. Vegas police officers advised Claiborne to get Ted out of town, but there was a problem: a condition of Ted’s suspension required him to submit to three urine tests a week and be available for other random tests. “This was a very vulnerable period in his life,” Claiborne recalls. “He was practically a prisoner in his own home. The gaming authorities were threatening to take away his license permanently. Plus he and his wife had separated. Doris had lived so many years with his addiction that she was worn out. He was no longer a husband, a lover, or even a companion.”
Not to her, at least. By then Ted had a new companion, a topless dancer half his age named Sandy Murphy, a.k.a. the Irish Venus. The daughter of a repo man, Sandy had been a teen pageant princess in the small Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower but had dropped out of high school when she discovered the lucrative possibilities of a career in adult entertainment and fast talk. Ted met her in 1995 at a Vegas topless joint called Cheetah’s Lounge. At the end of the evening he slipped her a couple thousand bucks, but she threw it back in his face. “She’s not like the others,” he cooed to his friends. He was right, though not in the way he supposed. Shortly after Doris moved out of the Palomino Lane house, Sandy moved in—and into a lifestyle of high-limit credit cards (her monthly bill averaged $5,100), expensive jewelry, and European vacations, all paid for by Ted. Sandy had so much cosmetic surgery done that Becky once cracked, “She must be getting made over for her next boyfriend.” Sandy and Ted both loved to party all night and sleep all day. Before long, she was taking over his life. First she remodeled his house, replacing Doris’ bedroom furniture with a handmade set she ordered from Italy and ripping out the carpet and replacing it with marble; then she began handling his banking transactions, monitoring his phone calls, and nagging him to put her in his will. Sandy was famous for her big mouth: She called Ted “old” and “ugly” and openly admitted that she was just sticking around for the money. Ted slapped her around regularly, which she appeared to accept as part of the deal—she referred to the beatings as “my punishment”—but he always made it up to her. For one particularly expensive reconciliation, he bought her a $97,000 Mercedes.
As Ted was to discover, Sandy “chipped around” often with Rick Tabish, a 33-year-old hustler who had come to Vegas in 1997 looking for some easy money, leaving a wife, two children, and some large debts back home in Missoula, Montana. Though his father was a wealthy businessman, he was a blue-collar loser who had failed at every legitimate venture he’d ever attempted. His assets were his good looks and his smooth line, which he used to work his way into Ted’s inner circle. He soon was confiding to friends that he was “laying the pipe to Binion’s girlfriend” and using her to advance his plan to steal the bulk of Ted’s fortune, including the tons of silver and rare coins stored in the vaults at the Horseshoe.
According to an arrest warrant affidavit issued by the office of the Clark County district attorney, Rick had a lot of big ideas. With a $200,000 loan from a Nevada bank, he set up a corporation, MRT Transportation of Nevada, and muscled his way into a lucrative sandpit operation by torturing and threatening to kill one of the partners. By the spring of 1998, the affidavit says, the blue-collar loser had hired his own airplane and pilot and was talking to a broker in Beverly Hills about selling Ted’s treasure. At Rick’s urging, the broker flew to Las Vegas to inventory and appraise the silver while he and Sandy watched. The broker estimated its value at between $5 million and $7 million.
A SHOWDOWN WAS CLEARLY COMING one involving not just Ted’s messy romantic life but the entire Binion family business. Flare-ups had escalated on the Horseshoe’s board of directors, which at the time consisted of Jack, Brenda, and Becky (because of his suspension, Ted couldn’t serve on the board or vote his 20 percent ownership stake). The issue that initially divided the siblings was Jack’s proposal that they expand their casino holdings to other states. Becky and Brenda felt cut out of the decision-making and said no. Though Jack owned 42.2 percent of the stock versus his sisters’ combined 9.6 percent, Brenda controlled another 27.5 percent as executrix of their mother’s estate. Jack found his own investors, however, and opened casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana, using the Binion’s Horseshoe logo. As court documents make clear, Becky and Brenda became convinced that Jack was skimming assets from the Horseshoe to finance his other casinos. They also suspected that he was plotting to stack the board with “more-compliant” outsiders and feared that he was recklessly endangering the business by continuing the casino’s no-limits policy.
Claiborne contacted all of Benny’s children, offering to mediate the dispute. “I warned them,” he says, “that if they took this to the courthouse, it would be the ruin not only of the Binion family but of Binion’s Horseshoe as well.” Claiborne says that Jack and Brenda agreed to meet with him but Becky never responded. In January 1996 Becky filed suit against Jack, asking the court to remove him as president. A judge ruled that Becky and Jack should act as temporary co-presidents and ordered that major decisions be unanimous, effectively deadlocking the operation. For the next year and a half the bitterness escalated and became public. In papers filed with the court, Becky alleged that Horseshoe profits had slipped dramatically since her brother began focusing his attention on his other casinos and that for the fiscal year ending in June 1997 the Horseshoe suffered “unprecedented” losses of $20 million. Jack responded that the reason for the losses was the deadlock that Becky had created. Becky also charged that Jack was flouting gaming regulations, mismanaging baccarat and slot machine operations, and concealing crucial financial information. She said he had posted a $2 million bond for a Mexican high roller jailed on tax evasion charges, then loaned him another $4 million to gamble at other casinos—a loan that was never repaid. She also said he got a high-interest, $2.5 million personal loan from Indonesian high rollers while permitting them to gamble large sums at the Horseshoe.
In April 1998 the Nevada Gaming Commission permanently revoked Ted’s license, ordering him to sell his 20 percent stake in the Horseshoe. Becky had said that the Horseshoe didn’t even have enough cash on hand to buy Ted’s interest, but the order forced a quick resolution of the lawsuit. In a flurry of transactions Jack bought out Brenda and Ted, then sold their interests and his own to Becky, who got complete control of the Horseshoe for the bargain price of $20 million, to be paid over two years. By some estimates, the Horseshoe’s true worth was $80 million.
His ties to the casino forever severed, Ted had to move his collection of coins and ingots from the casino vaults. Sandy, Rick, and some drivers from MRT volunteered to help, and the stash was temporarily stored in Ted’s garage. Ted then contracted with Rick to build a permanent storage site for his treasure, a ten-foot-square concrete vault on a lot he owned in Pahrump. On July 4, 1998, Rick and his crew moved the treasure from Ted’s garage and sealed it in the vault. By Ted’s design, the vault was in plain sight, between a Burger King and Terrible’s Town Casino, on the main highway connecting Pahrump to Las Vegas, where intruders were certain to be spotted.
Just days after the treasure was sealed, Ted revised his will. Though the bulk of his approximately $30 million estate was still to go to his daughter, he deleted the names of a number of old friends and bequeathed to Sandy $300,000, his home, and all of its contents. To make sure the new will was valid, Sandy had her own lawyer look it over. According to the arrest affidavit, she informed friends that she was also the beneficiary of Ted’s $1 million insurance policy. Curiously, the flame of love was exhausted by the time Ted made this change. He and Sandy slept in separate bedrooms, and she admitted to several people—including Ted’s gardener, Tom Loveday—that his drug habit made him unable to perform in the bedroom. “I’m twenty-six and I need sex,” she confessed to Loveday. Sandy barely bothered hiding her affair with Rick. Records seized by prosecutors show that she bought him expensive gifts at Neiman Marcus using Ted’s credit card and flew with him to Los Angeles, where they registered as husband and wife at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
By August Rick was in serious financial trouble. Checks issued by his company were bouncing all over town, an equipment-leasing company had sent a default notice of $67,000, the IRS was demanding back payments of $337,000, his company in Montana had defaulted on a $75,000 loan, and a $200,000 Nevada bank loan was coming due. According to several prosecution witnesses, Rick confided that he planned to kill Ted and steal the treasure and began to recruit co-conspirators, including the foreman of Ted’s ranch. He also contacted a longtime friend in Montana, a former Army Ranger named Kurt Gratzer, and told him of his plan to kill Ted and steal the money, jewelry, and silver in his home and the treasure buried in the vault. Gratzer later told the authorities that Rick promised to give him part of the insurance money and a new car if he would make the hit. Rick advanced several plans. First, he suggested that Gratzer use a sniper rifle. An alternate scheme had him doing it with one of Ted’s antique guns, then rolling the body in a carpet and disposing of it in a rock crusher. When Gratzer nixed these schemes, Rick suggested that they force him to swallow a lethal combination of heroin and Xanax, a prescription drug that Ted took to help break his heroin habit. Gratzer telephoned another friend, a Montana pharmacist, and asked him to research the amount of Xanax needed for such an overdose. Like Gratzer, the pharmacist later told his story to Clark County prosecutors.
In the days just before Ted’s death, according to the affidavit, Rick and Sandy each spread the word that Ted’s drug habit was worse and said that one of these days he would kill himself with an overdose. Sandy was drinking a lot, behaving as if she were high on cocaine and talking a blue streak. Several employees at the Neiman Marcus beauty salon overheard her rambling on about getting $3 million and the house when Ted died of an overdose of heroin, which she predicted would be very soon. Three days before Ted’s death, Sandy and Rick again shacked up in Beverly Hills.
Even so, Ted seemed upbeat. He talked to attorneys about trying to get back his gambling license and to a real estate broker about buying several properties for potential casinos. He talked to a journalist about writing a book and a movie script based on the life of his famous father. He wrote a $1 million check to open a new investment account and donated $40,000 to Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones’s campaign for governor. By this point Ted had guessed that Sandy was having an affair with Rick. He told friends that he was planning to “get rid of the bitch” and unloaded his guns, explaining to his maid that he was afraid Sandy might shoot him. On September 16, one day before his death, Ted called his lawyer and instructed him to “take Sandy out of the will, if she doesn’t kill me tonight.” Later that day, speaking to a ranch hand who was visiting his home, Ted pointed to Sandy and Rick seated in the next room and said, “They got me the best shit that I’ve had in a long time.” The ranch hand assumed that his boss meant heroin. Late that evening Ted’s regular dealer delivered twelve balloons of black tar heroin, and Ted tipped him with thirty tablets from the Xanax bottle he had just had refilled.
The following morning Sandy telephoned the maid and told her, “Ted isn’t feeling well. Don’t come to work today.” About noon, Ted’s real estate broker phoned and was informed by Sandy that he was still asleep and couldn’t be bothered. Police officers now believe that by noon Ted was already dead and that Sandy was busy cleaning up the mess and staging the scene. At 3:47 p.m. Rick telephoned Sandy, and seven minutes later she dialed 911 and reported in a hysterical voice, “My husband has stopped breathing!” The authorities found Ted’s body on a mattress on the floor of his den, partly covered with a sleeping bag. Beside him was an empty bottle of Xanax, and in the bathroom were some narcotics paraphernalia, including a knife and some pieces of foil like those Ted used when he smoked heroin. Police reports at the time indicated “absolutely no evidence…to suggest foul play.”
Nobody who knew Ted bought the cops’ theory. “Ted loved life way too much to kill himself,” said Tony Cook, a former casino manager at the Horseshoe who had known him since high school. “He had such a knowledge of drugs and was such an active drug user, Ted wouldn’t accidentally overdose,” Becky said. Moreover, the scene itself was too pat, too sterile. “As soon as I saw the scene,” Claiborne recalls, “I told them it had been staged.” In fact, several things seemed suspicious, starting with the fact that nobody had ever known Ted to sleep on the floor, much less on a sleeping bag. The bruises and cuts and the position of the body suggested that it had moved after death. Though there were traces of heroin on the knife blade, there was no trace of the drug on the pieces of foil. An autopsy revealed no heroin in Ted’s lungs but high concentrations of both heroin and Xanax in his stomach. This alone should have suggested foul play: Nobody eats black tar heroin.
Prosecutors believe that Rick restrained Ted with handcuffs or thumbcuffs while Sandy mixed up the fatal cocktail in a wineglass. According to this theory, Ted was forced to drink the cocktail and then smothered. The wineglass disappeared, but prosecutors have a videotape filmed the following day that shows Sandy removing a wineglass from a kitchen counter and dropping it in her handbag. A subsequent inventory of the house revealed that a large amount of cash and jewelry were missing, as was a $300,000 collection of rare coins and currency that Ted had kept in his den.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 19—three days before they buried Ted—sheriff’s deputies in Pahrump spotted Rick and two others using a backhoe to break into the vault. All of the silver except a single silver dollar had already been loaded into a tractor-trailer. Rick tried to convince the deputies that he was merely following Ted’s instructions: to sell the silver and set up a trust fund for Ted’s daughter, Bonnie, in case of his sudden demise. When that didn’t fly, he made a crude attempt at bribery, claiming that Ted’s will bequeathed $250,000 to the sheriff. The deputies took the three to jail and charged them with theft. Two days later Sandy bailed her lover out, pledging her Mercedes Benz 500 SL convertible and five pieces of jewelry as collateral.
After her initial hysteria, Sandy calmed herself and went methodically about the task of grabbing what she believed was coming to her. In addition to the $300,000 in cash, the house, its contents, the $1 million insurance policy, and $3 million in savings, she expected a fat check for the literary rights to her story. Things didn’t work out that neatly, however. Ted had indeed obtained forms making her the beneficiary of the policy, but he died before signing them. A probate judge awarded Sandy the items stipulated in the will—Ted’s call to his lawyer was too late—but lawyers for the estate appealed, and Becky filed a separate suit, claiming many of Ted’s personal items. When lawyers at the probate hearing began asking embarrassing questions about Ted’s death and the thousands of dollars in cash and valuables missing from his home, Sandy and Rick both took the Fifth.
While the police did little or nothing, the estate hired a private investigator, former Las Vegas homicide detective Tom Dillard, who turned up a trail of cellular phone conversations and secret meetings between Rick and Sandy, as well as evidence that they had told people about their plot to kill Ted. In December, three months after Ted’s death, the chief deputy district attorney for Clark County, David Rogers, impaneled a grand jury as a tool to continue the investigation that Dillard had started. Over the next three months Rogers called dozens of witness and gathered volumes of information. In March of this year the Las Vegas coroner changed his finding to homicide. In June, the same day Sandy expected an appeals court to validate her take from Ted’s will, she and Rick were arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder and/or robbery.
THE STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL OF BINION’S Horseshoe won’t be officially settled until July 2000, when the $20 million note signed by Becky comes due. The wiseguys are betting that she will default and that Jack will emerge triumphant. Jack’s casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana appear wildly successful, attracting millions of dollars from Texas gamblers.
In the meantime, there are other issues to be resolved. When the Nevada Gaming Commission approved the sale of Ted’s stake to Becky and awarded her a license, it issued explicit instructions that her husband, Nick, had to keep his hands off the business, as it had in 1978 when Becky was running the Silver Star. Many of Benny’s old friends believe that Nick calls the shots at the Horseshoe and refuse to patronize it. So do many Vegas residents who used to be regulars. One of them, a high-stakes gambler named Bob Stupak, sued the Horseshoe because it refused to cash $250,000 in $5,000 chips, including one that he had donated to his church. Though Nick is not an officer of the corporation, Stupak named him as a defendant and charged that he “has done irreparable harm to the Horseshoe.” Nobody is sure how many unredeemed Horseshoe chips are floating around. In January the casino redeemed $10 million in $5,000 chips but refused to cash another $1 million. Another $3 million in chips were discovered in the toolroom of Ted’s ranch. Apparently, he took the chips along with the silver, though nobody knows why.
Benny’s name may glitter in gold, but his soul has gone south. You can get a bowl of Horseshoe Chili for $2.75 at either of the two snack bars on the casino floor, and the late-night steak is still a bargain at $2.99, but Benny would be appalled to discover that somebody has added a Chinese restaurant. The players have lost the wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth intensity that used to make every roll of the dice a life-altering experience. They look haggard and listless, as though they were killing time at a bus station—women with piles of orange hair and tight pants, guys in gimme caps and jeans soiled with the drudge of the oil patch. They look bored or maybe dead. What’s missing is the no-holds-barred élan of the Wild West: dudes with suitcases of cash ready to play the bundle on one hand of Texas Kickass and the delicious possibility that Benny might suddenly appear to air-cool a bottom dealer. The nearest thing these days is a mounted collection of guns once owned by Cowboy and his pals. A Smith and Wesson .38 Special is identified as a piece “owned and carried by Benny Binion during the depression era in Dallas, Texas.” But even that appears suspect. According to old police reports, Benny always used a .45.