Sleazy does it - the Las Vegas way of death

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FEW PEOPLE who knew Ted Binion were entirely surprised when he was found dead at his Las Vegas home last September with the remnants of a lethal cocktail of heroin and the anti-depressant Xanax still inside him. After a lifetime of drinking, drug-taking, schmoozing with gangsters and chancing his luck with a large cast of colourful, mostly disreputable characters, the wonder was that he had lived so long.

As the troubled heir to a well-known Vegas casino-owning family, Binion's name had been in and out of the papers for years - escaping a mob hit here, having his casino operating licence suspended there, getting arrested for drug trafficking or assault or kidnapping, and forever feuding with his brother and sister over the family business, the venerable downtown Horseshoe Club.

But as the months have passed, Binion's death has turned into an ever- deepening mystery, with each new revelation bringing nothing but surprises. Like the fact that a bag of diamonds and more than $80,000 (pounds 50,000) in cash have gone missing from his home. Like the fact that, three days after his death, his best friend was caught digging up a stash of solid silver that he had buried in an underground vault beneath his desert ranch. Or that that same friend was recently caught in bed with Binion's girlfriend, a former topless dancer now angling for the lion's share of his multi- million dollar fortune.

What started out as a routine drugs overdose case has come to look a lot more suspicious. And last week Las Vegas prosecutors announced what many have suspected for a long time: Ted Binion did not ingest the fatal drugs willingly or even accidentally; he was murdered.

The case has turned into quite a sensation around Vegas, not least because most of the lawyers, judges and prosecutors pursuing it are long-time habitues of The Horseshoe who knew Ted since he was a young tearaway running the gambling floor on behalf of his cowboy-turned-fugitive father Benny.

The story the town wags are telling bears an uncanny resemblance to an old James M Cain mystery. The theory is that Binion caught his girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, two-timing him with his friend Rick Tabish and announced his intention to disinherit her. According to this version, the lovers did him in before he had could amend his will, in which Murphy was named as the chief beneficiary.

Tabish and two of his friends were arrested on charges of theft after they were caught digging up the silver at Binion's ranch, but neither he nor Murphy have been officially accused of anything else.

They both deny any wrong-doing - Tabish insists he dug up the silver in accordance with Binion's express wishes in the event of his demise. They were forced to admit to a relationship after they were found together in a police raid on Murphy's flat, but they have refused to say whether they were seeing each other before Binion's death.

The plot thickens. Murphy has been blocked by court injunction from taking possession of the house where Binion died. Her friend Linda Susan Carroll has vanished after telling police she had important information about Binion's death.

And the lawyers are lining up for a final showdown. Oscar Goodman, a well-known defence attorney for mob figures in Vegas, called Binion "one of the best guys I ever met", but is now representing Sandy Murphy. Tabish's lawyer, Louis Palazzo, just happens to work out of Goodman's office. And both men are staunch pals of Harry Claiborne, a former federal judge impeached over a tax evasion scandal who delivered the eulogy at Binion's funeral.

"Frankly, I've never seen a guy with so many dear friends be treated so poorly by them. It takes an adding machine to count all the close associates, old pals and father figures Binion had in his life," Las Vegas's savviest newspaper columnist, John L Smith, wrote recently. "Like a lot of people who are stupid rich, Binion had all the friends money could buy, and his money is at the heart of this story."

That money originated with the late Benny Binion, a Texan bootlegger and numbers runner who escaped from Dallas just one step ahead of the law and set up the Horseshoe Club in the late 1940s. When Ted was growing up, he was forever put on guard against possible attacks or kidnap attempts by his father's gangland rivals - one of whom, Herb "The Cat" Noble, was arrested in Arizona with a 1,000lb bomb and a map of the Binion property.

Thanks to The Horseshoe's success, Ted never had to worry about money and turned into a wild party-goer, drinker and heroin addict. Drug problems and underworld associations lost him his casino operating licence twice, and through the intrigues of his sister Becky and his brother Jack he was effectively locked out of the family casino for the last year of his life.

Several times he was accused of assaulting and even kidnapping casino customers he happened to dislike, and in 1997 he was arrested for burglary and assault after a fight at a petrol station. His friends included Herbie Blitzstein, a low level hoodlum connected to the Chicago Mob, and soon after Blitzstein was murdered two years ago Ted had his house and car sprayed in gunfire, apparently as some kind of warning.

At his funeral, Binion's coffin was adorned with a pair of cowboy boots, and the Catholic priest played the apocalyptic song by The Doors, "The End". "None of us are as bad as our public perception," former Judge Claiborne said to the assembled crowd of politicians, lawyers, gamblers and crooks. "He lived an exciting, full life. He got the most out of it."