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Crime News Dateline

Questions Linger After Eccentric Casino Heir Dies, Setting Off "Very Strange" Series of Events

Casino magnate Ted Binion was found dead in his home in 1998 surrounded by heroin and drug paraphernalia, but investigators began to suspect that his death may have had more sinister origins.

By Jill Sederstrom

Casino magnate Ted Binion was quintessential old Vegas.

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Catch up on Dateline: Unforgettable on Peacock or the Oxygen App.

A wealthy heir to Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, founded by his father Benny Binion, the 54-year-old loved to drink whiskey, palled around with friends with alleged ties to the mob, had a much younger girlfriend on his arm, and buried millions of dollars of silver in an underground vault in the Las Vegas desert in true eccentric fashion. 

But on Sept. 17, 1998, Ted’s luck ran out after he was discovered dead in his lavish home surrounded by heroin and drug paraphernalia, according to Dateline: Unforgettable

The death sent shockwaves through Sin City and has become an enduring mystery as questions still remain about whether his death was an accidental overdose, suicide, or murder. 

“The story of Ted Binion’s life and death is Vegas lore at its most intriguing,” Correspondent Keith Morrison remarked of why the case was so memorable. “A swirling mix of mobsters, betrayals and smoked heroin, very strange events in the desert.” 

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Who was Ted Binion?

Ted hailed from a family with a deep legacy in Las Vegas. His father Benny got his start during the Great Depression, running underground gambling halls in Dallas, Texas. He moved the family to Las Vegas in 1947 after running into trouble in Texas with a competing gang. 

Benny — who had a conviction for killing a man and was rumored to have killed others — opened one of Vegas’ first major league casinos and settled into the mob-run town. 

“He was a great storyteller,” mob attorney and former mayor of Las Vegas Oscar Goodman recalled of “The Cowboy,” as Benny was known.

Benny’s son Ted wanted to be just like his father and was known for driving a beat-up pick up truck, donning a pair of worn out Levis and learning the ropes of the casino.

“Ted was excellent on the casino floor,” his sister, Becky Behnen, recalled. “He was just a natural when it came to dealing with customers and handling the games.” 

Ted was also known to be close friends with Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein, a known Vegas mobster. 

Who was Sandy Murphy?

In the winter of 1995, Ted met Sandy Murphy, a self-described California surfer girl, while she was on vacation in Las Vegas. They met at Cheetah’s, a topless club where Murphy said she and a girlfriend were selling costumes and outfits to the strippers after losing all their money at the casinos on the first day of their trip.

“The first night that I met him was on a Friday night and he was sitting with a character by the name of Herbie Blitzstein,” Murphy told Correspondent Keith Morrison.“We ended up sitting and drinking. They were a lot of fun and they had great stories and we were there to have a good time and we hit it off and they invited us to come out the next night.” 

By the time her two week vacation was ending, Murphy, who was about three decades younger than Ted, was smitten with the casino magnate and decided to extend her stay indefinitely. 

“I fell in love with Teddy. He was great,” she said. “He’s very charming in his own way and um, he’s kind of a tough guy, which there comes a lot of sex appeal with tough guys.” 

Ted Binion is found dead

The couple had been living together for about three years when Murphy said she came home on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1998 and found Ted dead, lying on a mattress on the floor. 

“My husband’s not breathing,” she frantically told a 911 dispatcher. “He needs someone to come out and help him.”

Ted, who struggled with a heroin addiction, was surrounded by drug paraphernalia, a knife smeared with black tar heroin, and an empty bottle of Xanax.  

Police at the scene noted there were no signs of “foul play.” 

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Ted Binion's Cause of Death

Murphy believed that Ted may have taken his own life in despair. That summer, he lost his gaming license over concerns about his drug use and alleged ties to the mob and was no longer allowed even to set foot inside the family casino he loved so much. In the months that followed, Murphy claimed his drug use had spiraled out of control. 

“There’s a lot of things that happened in the summer of ‘98 that led me to believe that ultimately he didn’t want to be here any more,” she said.

But Ted’s sister wasn’t convinced and believed her brother had been murdered. 

“It’s very easy when you have a drug user, to say he OD’d and uh, sweep it under the carpet,” Behnen said. “I felt that there was foul play involved and I wanted it to be treated as a homicide.” 

Just one year earlier, Blitzstein had been killed in an execution-style hit and rumors were swirling around the city that there were mobsters who wanted to kill Ted for the 24 tons of silver he had stashed in an underground cement vault on an abandoned lot he owned in Pahrump. 

Behnen believed, however, that Binion’s killer may have been much closer to home and wanted investigators to take a closer look at Murphy. 

Did “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein Play a Role in Ted Binion’s Death?

Behnen said the week before Ted died he had confided in her that he planned to end the relationship with Murphy.

“I knew that a blow up was coming,” she said. “Ted had indicated to me that he definitely was getting rid of Sandy. The end was here.” 

At the time of his death, Murphy had been having an affair with Rick Tabish, a Montana man who had struck up a close friendship with Ted and even helped him move his silver into that underground vault. 

Just 34 hours after Ted was discovered dead, Tabish was found by law enforcement officers trying to move the silver in the middle of the night after digging up the underground vault. He claimed he had permission from Ted to remove the silver, which would have been worth just under $20 million in 2022 dollars, but investigators believed he was trying to take the silver and charged him with grand larceny. 

Murphy seemed to be trying to hold onto Ted’s fortune herself and made a video with her attorney of her walking through the Las Vegas house she had lived in with Ted to inventory all the items, fearing that Ted’s family was making a move to remove some from the house. According to Ted’s will, in the event of his death, Murphy was supposed to get $300,000, the house, and everything in it. 

An autopsy would reveal heroin residue was found in Ted’s stomach, suggesting he had ingested the drug rather than smoking it like he usually did. 

“That’s a big piece of evidence. If Teddy would have overdosed on heroin he would have done it by smoking it, he would have never ingested it,” Las Vegas Metro Police Department Lt. Wayne Petersen said.

Investigators also found that a safe on the property had been completely cleaned out, even though Ted had been rumored to hide large amounts of money throughout his house. 

A split of Rick Tabish and Sandy Murphy

A Binion family attorney also claimed that a day before he died, Ted had instructed him to take Murphy out of his will and, strangely, Ted’s housekeeper told investigators Murphy called her the day of the death and told her to stay home that day.

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Petersen also told Dateline: Unforgettable that in the video footage of Murphy inventorying the house, she’s seen taking a wine glass from the kitchen and “surreptitiously” putting it into her purse. Prosecutors believed the glass may have been used to slip Ted a fatal cocktail of heroin and Xanax.

The glass was never found, but Murphy adamantly denied killing Ted and told Morrison she took the glass because she had been drinking that day and didn’t want anyone to judge her. 

“I would never hurt Teddy. I’ve never hurt anyone in my life,” she said.

Investigators also talked with one of Tabish’s friends who alleged that, before Ted died, Tabish had asked him to help kill a wealthy casino owner and Murphy was overheard saying her boyfriend had died of a fatal drug overdose. 

Murphy and Tabish are arrested

In June of 1999, the pair were arrested for grand theft, conspiracy, and murder while they were grocery shopping. 

After eight days of deliberating, a jury found them guilty on all counts. They were each sentenced to life in prison.

But that wouldn’t be the end of the story. 

The Las Vegas Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Murphy and Tabish didn’t get a fair trial, in part, because of hearsay introduced to the jury. In a second trial, Tabish took the stand himself to profess his innocence.

“I did not kill Ted Binion,” he insisted. 

Where are Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish today? 

This time around, Murphy and Tabish were found not guilty of conspiracy and murder, but both were still convicted for stealing the silver. Murphy received a one to five year sentence but got credit for time served and was released. 

Today, Murphy, who never received any money from Ted’s estate, is  living in California with her husband. Together, they have two children and now run an art gallery, according to Dateline: Unforgettable

Tabish served several more years behind bars before he was released in 2010. He moved back to Montana, got into oil services, and started a business building server farms for cryptocurrency. 

Today, rumors continue to swirl about Ted’s death. While some believe it could have been linked to the mob, others believe it could have been a tragic accident,  intentional suicide or the result of a more sinister plot to take the casino heir’s life.