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Crime News Sin City Murders

Ace Poker Player Beaten to Death, Dumped in Las Vegas Hotel Stairwell By Gambler with Debts

After a man was found dead in just his socks and underwear in a casino stairwell, investigators learned the body belonged to Donald Idiens and eventually traced the crime to Greg Chao.


By Joe Dziemianowicz

On the morning of December 9, 1997, housekeeping staff at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas made a shocking discovery. There was a dead man in just his socks and underwear in a 17th floor fire escape landing.

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“He appeared to have blunt force injuries to his head,” said James Buczek, a retired homicide detective for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

“It was obvious that he was moved to that location because there was no blood around there,” Buczek told Sin City Murders, airing Sundays at 7/6c p.m. on Oxygen.

Detectives determined that the body was dumped in the stairwell between 4:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., according to Paul Shubert, a retired assistant director of security at the property.

As investigators worked the case, they received word that Donald "Don" Idiens had gone missing after playing poker at the nearby Mirage Hotel and Casino. Phil Barber, the friend who reported him missing, identified the victim found in the stairwell as Idiens.

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Crime scene image of a door featured in Sin City Murders Episode 110.

Who was Donald Idiens?

A 53-year-old land developer from British Columbia, Canada, Idiens was a beloved family man and outdoorsman with five children. He was also a poker ace who earned part of his living from the game.

Barber described Idiens “as the best poker player he had ever seen,” said Pam Weckerley, Chief Deputy District Attorney for Clark County in Nevada.

Idiens had unique skills. “He was able to read people at the poker table. He could pick up on tells,” said Anthony Curtis, a gambling expert and publisher. “If you can do that, it's like you can see their hands.”

At the Mirage, Idiens had been playing at medium-stakes tables not covered by security cameras. He had been paged and took a call at a house phone and never came back, Barber told investigators.

Idiens left $822 in chips on the table, suggesting he planned to return, according to Sin City Murders.

Detectives learned that Idiens’ business affairs were rocky. He was in deep debt and facing “a financial crisis because some of the units in his new housing development hadn’t sold yet,” said Weckerley.

Investigators considered the possibility that Idiens had borrowed cash to pay off his debt and “came to Las Vegas in an effort to try to recoup some of that money,” said Buczek.

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What did Donald Idiens die from?

The medical examiner determined that Idiens had approximately 13 wounds, as well as defensive injuries on his hands and arms.

The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, and the manner of death was homicide, Weckerley said.

Before Idiens left the Mirage poker table, he'd had a run of luck. Barber believed he was carrying as much as $8,500, said Buczek.

Detectives checked the security footage from the exterior of the Mirage and spotted Idiens leaving the casino at 5:17 p.m.

They looked through surveillance footage for signs of Idiens entering the nearby Imperial Palace. He was last seen at the elevators leading to Imperial Palace guest rooms.

Crime scene image of a toilet featured in Sin City Murders Episode 110.

Room tested for blood "lit up like a Christmas tree"

As they worked the case, detectives consulted with housekeeping staff at the Imperial Palace for possible leads.

A hotel housekeeper reported that a guest room bathroom on the 18th floor had been excessively dirty. When crime scene analysts used luminol in room 18136 to detect blood, “it lit up like a Christmas tree,” said Buczek.

Detectives believed they had found the murder scene. A DNA match would be needed to confirm that.

In the meantime, investigators focused on the person who had been in room 18136. The guest, listed as "Joe Galloway," checked in on December 1 and out on December 9, the morning that the body was found. He paid in cash.

After a thorough search, detectives believed that "Joe Galloway" was a fake name, according to Tom Roberts, a retired sheriff for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

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Detectives caught a break when Shubert decided to review room service slips that had been signed for between December 1 and 9.

Investigators found two slips for room 18136 signed for by Greg Chao. Further digging revealed that this guest had signed in using that name but had convinced the desk clerk to change the name to Joe Galloway when he checked out.

He had told her that he wanted to put it in his boss’ name, according to Sin City Murders. The desk clerk was quickly cleared as a suspect in the murder.

Greg Chao, a subject in Sin City Murders Season 1, Episode 10.

Who is Greg Chao?

The search for Greg Chao led investigators to Vancouver Island, the same area where Idiens lived. Chao was found to have an extensive criminal history that included extortion.

“Chao was a gambler and he was deeply indebted to loan sharks for money that he had borrowed up in Canada,” said Buczek.

Detectives believed that if Idiens and Chao didn’t know each other, they knew of each other from the small world of poker. “The case hinges on connecting the dots” between the two men, said Roberts.

Investigators determined that Chao had been in the U.S. during the time of the murder. They also learned that Chao “wasn’t permitted to leave Canada because he was on probation for an extortion case,” said Weckerley. He was arrested and taken into custody when he returned to Canada.

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Connecting Don Idiens and Greg Chao

Detectives discovered that Idiens and Chao both played cards at the same poker room on Vancouver Island. Investigators focused on locating Chao on the Imperial Palace surveillance footage.

“We ended up looking at over 125 videotapes and putting together a collage of the suspect,” said Shubert. The evidence gave investigators a detailed record of Chao’s movements before and after Idiens’ disappearance.

On the morning Idiens’ body was discovered, Chao was spotted on the Mirage’s cameras. “He has a lot of money all of a sudden,” Weckerley said. “He’s able to gamble thousands of dollars playing poker and blackjack at the Mirage.”

As evidence mounted against Chao, detectives looked to DNA evidence to strengthen their case. Results showed that blood in the room where it was believed that Idiens was killed possibly belonged to the victim, said Roberts, but “it’s not a solid match.”

Las Vegas investigators went to Vancouver Island to interview Chao. He immediately lawyered up and refused to answer any questions, Buczek said.

Greg Chao, a subject in Sin City Murders Episode 110.

Greg Chao arrested and tried twice

In January 1998, a warrant was obtained for the arrest of Chao for Idiens’ murder. Having him extradited to the U.S. took years.

During the delay, DNA testing technology advanced. When evidence was retested, the blood from room 18136 was determined to be a match for Idiens’ DNA.

Chao’s trial began in 2005. Prosecutors made the case that Chao and Idiens were acquaintances. In 1997, Chao went to Vegas to win money to pay back loan sharks. When he hit a losing streak, he looked to Idiens to fix his problem.

“Chao knew Donald was in possession of thousands of dollars,” said Roberts. He paged Idiens and lured him to room 18136 at the Imperial Palace where he killed him, stole his money, and stashed the body in a stairwell.

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During the trial, Chao’s defense team presented the possibility that someone else killed Idiens, such as a business associate. The case ended in a hung jury.

In 2007, Chao was retried. “We called several more Canadian witnesses in order to illustrate for the jury that none of these people had a hand in the homicide,” said Weckerley.

Chao was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

To learn more about the case, featured in the show's “Death in a Casino Stairwell” episode, watch Sin City Murders, airing Sundays at 7/6c p.m. on Oxygen.