Defense Strategy #2:
Counter Every Prosecution Expert Witness with Your Own (Continued)
The Second Ted Binion Murder Trial (Continued)
Ted’s Silver Vault and Secret Treasure Stash at Home
Within days of their portentous meeting, no later than late June or early July 1998, Ted hired Tabish to excavate, construct, and install a twelve-foot-deep concrete vault sunk into the ground of a lot Ted owned in Pahrump, a town located sixty miles west of Sin City.
He also paid Tabish to use his heavy truck to move a half-a-dozen tons of silver bars and rare coins worth roughly $7 million back then (or more than $11 million today) from the Horeshoe’s vault to his new one in neighboring Nye County. See USInflationCalculator.com.
Bizarrely, Ted never changed the combination to the vault after Tabish set it for him – although that would be explained during the second murder trial.
In addition to this treasure trove, Ted also reportedly had stashed millions of dollars in cash and Horseshoe casino chips in his home, including in some of the walls and in secret compartments, and even in the boat parked in his garage. He would regularly tell people he didn’t trust banks. See kntv.com.
The Alleged Kidnapping of Leo Casey (July 1998)
A month or less after meeting Ted, Tabish found himself in – yet again – serious legal trouble for which he would pay dearly – i.e., with many years of his freedom. Specifically, in July 1998, Tabish allegedly kidnapped, assaulted, and pistol-whipped a local businessman named Leo Casey, who co-owned a gravel pit with him in Jean, a small town in Clark County located 30 miles south of Vegas.
Authorities alleged that Tabish threatened to kill Casey unless he signed over his ownership share, and that Casey did so after Tabish beat him with a phone book and dangled him over a deep, empty gravel pit.
Casey reported the incident to the county sheriff’s department, which arrested Tabish and an alleged accomplice. The local DA’s Office charged both suspects with numerous felonies, such as extortion, kidnapping, and battery.
Notably, if Tabish had been arrested in California, he almost certainly would have been charged with the following felonies:
- Aggravated Kidnapping (Robbery) under California Penal Code section 209(b);
- Assault with a Deadly Weapon under California Penal Code section 245(a)(1);
- Aggravated Battery under California Penal Code section 243(d);
- Extortion under California Penal Code section 518; and
- Criminal Threats under California Penal Code section 422.
(I’m assuming it was Ted who paid Tabish’s bail and sprung him from jail.)
Tabish would ultimately be tried for these crimes as part of the first murder trial (see below). See LasVegasSun.com.
Ted’s Death (September 17, 1998)
Less than six weeks after Tabish’s arrest, Murphy would claim she returned to the home she shared with Ted and found Ted (then age 55) unresponsive on the floor in the den, wearing only a long-sleeved shirt and underwear. She called 911 and screamed, “My husband has stopped breathing!” Then she suddenly hung up.
Minutes later, EMTs arrived to find him laid out on a rubber yoga mat next to an empty bottle of Xanax. Traces of black tar heroin were also found near him.
Murphy was still present at that time, but was acting and screaming so hysterically that she literally had to be carried out on a stretcher to an ambulance and taken to the ER. Her televised reaction as this was happening was so over the top, that many people immediately suspected she was acting – and not particularly well, for that matter.
Later that same day, she was interviewed by sheriff’s deputies at the hospital after she had been sedated. She claimed that the night before, Ted had indulged heavily in his favorite past time – “smoking” heroin, of course – and that she thought he had been asleep when she left that morning.
The county Medical Examiner, Lawrence Simms, quickly determined that Ted had accidentally O.D.’d from a lethal combination of heroin and Xanax, though he did not rule out suicide as a possibility. After all, Ted had been despondent over losing his casino license six months earlier. See CBSNews.com.
Tabish Attempts to Move Ted’s Silver (September 19, 1998)
Less than 48 hours after Ted’s corpse was taken away, Tabish and two alleged accomplices, David Mattsen and Michael Milot, were arrested by local sheriff’s deputies in the middle of the night as the trio were using a back hoe to excavate the Pahrump silver vault.
This was Tabish’s second major arrest in as many months, and he, Mattsen, and Milot were all charged with burglary, grand larceny, and conspiracy.
In California, these crimes are codified as follows:
- Commercial Burglary (Second-Degree Burglary) under California Penal Code section 460(b);
- Grand Theft under California Penal Code section 487; and
- Conspiracy under California Penal Code section 182 (general conspiracy law).
In light of Tabish’s two prior felony convictions in Montana (again, for aggravated assault and cocaine trafficking), he was facing the prospect of decades in prison.
Cell phone records would later show that while he had been digging up the vault, Tabish had received three phone calls from Murphy. See LasVegasSun.com.
The Murder Investigation
Ted’s older sister, Becky Behnen Binion (hereafter “Behnen”), had been running the Horseshoe for years, ever since she had bought out her younger brother Jack’s shares. (Jack would go on to be an extremely successful casino entrepreneur in the Midwest.)
She just as quickly took charge of what would soon become one of the most expensive murder investigations in the state. Behnen – who always despised Murphy as a sleazy, gold-digging opportunist who never would have looked in Ted’s direction if he hadn’t been a Binion (her sentiments, not mine) – immediately suspected her in his death.
With virtually unlimited money at her disposal – not to mention Ted’s estimated $50 million estate at stake – the first thing Behnen did was hire a highly respected local P.I., Tom Dillard. He proved to be a relentless pitbull in digging up all kinds of interesting information, much of which would incriminate Tabish and Murphy, and which would be used against them at both murder trials.
Dillard quickly learned about their passionate affair – not that they had been taking particular care to hide it. Far worse, he learned that Ted had called his estate planning attorney the day before his death and ordered him to excise Murphy from his will.
Dillard also discovered that Ted’s house had been emptied of its hidden treasures, and not by the authorities. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened to the millions of dollars in cash and chips Ted had stashed therein. But all fingers pointed to Murphy as the suspect, though she would never be formally charged with that apparent theft.
Behnen also hired a Vegas toxicologist, who theorized that the levels of heroin and Xanax in Ted’s body were so high that they could not possibly have been voluntarily ingested, except in a suicide situation. In other words, he believed Ted had died from forced ingestion. See CBSNews.com.
Becky Behnen Builds Her Murder Case Against Tabish and Murphy
Dillard’s investigation convinced Behnen – and quickly thereafter the authorities – that Murphy, with Tabish’s help, had murdered Ted to steal his millions of dollars in cash and silver from his home and underground vault.
As a result, the Clark County DA’s Office and local police began investigating Ted’s death as a premeditated murder. Suddenly, Chief Medical Examiner Simms changed his mind and ruled his death a homicide. (Simms would prove to be a most accommodating pathologist for Behnen and friends.)
In addition, Behnen went on local television and advertised that she willing to pay upwards of $200,000 as a reward for information that resulted in Murphy or Tabish’s conviction for Ted’s death. Not surprisingly, leads began to pour in (as did witnesses).
One of these leads came in March 1999 (six months after Ted’s alleged murder) from an ex-employee of Tabish’s trucking company (and a boyhood chum from Montana) who tipped Dillard off that the couple had stayed at the five-star Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills (where disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein allegedly raped and sexually assaulted scores of women) in August 1998 – one month before Ted’s body was found. See LATimes.com.
Dillard traveled to LA and interviewed numerous employees of the hotel with the blessing of the Clark County DA’s Office (and LAPD), whose own investigators were now – strangely – working hand in hand with him. (This would never have happened in LA County for what I hope are obvious reasons.)
There, Dillard learned that the couple had stayed for a long weekend, taken couples massages together, lounged in a private poolside cabana by the rooftop pool, drank expensive wine, and soaked in their suite’s jacuzzi. Murphy even allegedly charged a bouquet of red roses for her paramour to the room.
The tipster, Kurt Gratzer, was given immunity in exchange for his cooperation. He told the Clark County DA’s Office that around the time of that trip, Tabish had offered him a hundred grand plus a new muscle car to help him murder “a rich casino executive named Ted” – an offer Gratzer declined.
Next, the DA’s investigators learned that shortly after returning home, Murphy – who was allegedly intoxicated and/or high on cocaine at the time – allegedly went on a shopping spree at Nieman Marcus where she had her hair and nails done. She was allegedly overheard by other employees and patrons at the beauty salon bragging about her new boyfriend, “Richard”, and deriding Ted and the decline of their romance.
Far worse, Murphy allegedly told the woman doing her nails that “Ted was going to die of an overdose of heroin within the next three weeks,” and that “Richard” would thereafter be able to excavate all of Ted’s treasure trove in the underground vault. This supposedly happened a week-and-a-half before Ted’s death. See LasVegasSun.com.
Murphy Unsuccessfully Attempts to Inherit Ted’s Assets
While the DA’s detectives and Dillard continued with their independent and often converging homicide investigations, Murphy was busy trying to enforce Ted’s will, which was supposed to leave her his house (valued at just under $1 million), all its furnishings, and almost $400,000 worth of currency and chips.
(It’s unclear who was supposed to inherit the remainder of his estate as by that time, Ted’s estranged wife had divorced him and moved to Texas with their daughter.)
At first, the probate court issued a ruling affirming the will, but Behnen subsequently fought Murphy all the way up to the state supreme court.
Just over two years after Ted’s death, on or about October 10, 2000, the court ruled that Ted had legally changed his will the day before his death. Murphy ended up with nothing – except, of course, the money Behnen alleges she pilfered from the house either before or right after his death, which Behnen estimated to be at least $3 million. See LATimes.com.
The Arrests (June 24, 1999)
On June 24, 1999 (nine months after Ted’s death), police finally arrested the couple, who were both prosecuted on charges of first-degree murder, grand larceny, and burglary.
Under California law, they would have been charged with the following felonies:
- First-Degree Murder at California Penal Code section 190. (Alternatively, First-Degree Murder with Special Circumstances, aka Capital Murder (Murder for Profit) at California Penal Code section 190.2;
- Conspiracy to Commit Murder at California Penal Code section 189(e);
- Grand Theft at California Penal Code section 487; and
- Conspiracy at California Penal Code section 182 (California’s general conspiracy statute).
They were both denied bail and held in the county jail. See LasVegasSun.com.
The Preliminary Hearing (September 1999)
One year after the death, and less than three months after their arrest, the DA’s Office presented their evidence at the couple’s preliminary hearing over a two-week period. The local media reported – and news footage inside the courtroom appeared to show – that Murphy and Tabish were still quite smitten with each other.
The lead prosecutor, David Roger, quickly dropped the state’s bombshell murder theory: the couple had suffocated Ted to death after the drugs they forced down his throat had failed to act quickly enough. They knew that Ted’s gardener would be showing up at 8:00 am that morning for his weekly visit and didn’t want to be there when he arrived. See missoulian.com.
This new theory was based on the purported findings of the famous forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, whose enormous fee had reportedly been paid by Behnen herself. (Again, this would never have been allowed in LA County.)
Dr. Baden was a regular talking head on innumerable true-crime shows (such as Forensic Files) and documentaries, the host of HBO’s long-running Autopsy series, and had testified in more famous murder trials than I can count, including the O.J. Simpson double murder trial five years earlier.
In other words, Behnen had literally hired the most preeminent pathologist in the U.S. to perform an autopsy on Ted’s body after the county’s Chief Medical Examiner ruled his death an accident.
Big surprise – after Dr. Baden arrived at his theory, as indicated above, the medical examiner then issued a new report that coincided with Baden’s. Ted’s death had officially been re-ruled as a homicide.
But it was the specific manner of Ted’s alleged murder which truly raised eyebrows across the country. Dr. Baden testified at the prelim that, in contrast to the medical examiner’s initial findings, Ted had not (involuntarily) consumed enough heroin and Xanax to kill him.
So Dr. Baden theorized that either Murphy or Tabish had held the near-comatose Ted down as he lay on his back, while the other killer covered his mouth and nose with their hands or some other object, while also pressing their knees into his chest.
As a result, Ted, who was otherwise incapacitated from the drug cocktail, suffocated to death. Dr. Baden actually had a name for this bizarre method of murder – he called it “burking”, named for William Burke, a notorious killer in Scotland in the 1800s who favored this method of dispatching his female victims so he could sell their corpses for medical experiments.
The prosecution’s entire case against the couple rested largely on this theory, which Dr. Baden testified was corroborated by broken capillaries under Ted’s eyelids and marks on his chest, which he claimed matched the buttons on his shirt, indicating someone had pressed down so hard on him that they had left indentations on his pectorals. See encyclopedia.com.
The First Murder Trial (March 27-May 18, 2000)
Six months after the prelim, and a year-and-a-half after Ted’s death, Murphy and Tabish’s first murder trial commenced. It would last more than six weeks, with over a hundred individuals called to testify.
Behnen had done an outstanding job of getting her version of events out to the public, including taking out full-page ads in local papers advertising for witnesses, and appearing on local and national TV shows, such as 20/20, where she consistently voiced her adamant conviction that the couple had murdered her beloved baby brother.
She had even reportedly hired a publicist to help her ensure the local jury pool was predisposed to convict the allegedly deadly duo. See LasVegasSun.com.
Evidence of the Defendants’ Motives
The prosecution started out with presenting circumstantial evidence of the defendants’ motives for murdering Ted. First was their lust for each other and desire to remove him from the equation. The second, of course, was money.
Tabish was shown to be heavily in debt, having recently taken out a commercial loan from a local bank for almost $250,000 to expand his trucking business – the unpaid debt had come due less than a week before Ted’s death.
As for Murphy, there was plenty of financial-motive evidence presented in the form of her long-running probate battle with Behnen (which at that point would drag on for another five months).
Finally, the evidence of Tabish’s arrest for excavating Ted’s silver trove was also introduced. So, too, would evidence about him allegedly kidnapping and terrorizing Leo Casey. See missoulian.com.
The Prosecution’s Witnesses
The parade of prosecution witnesses came next, including, of course, Tabish’s former employee, Kurt Gratzer, who testified that Tabish had told him that he was planning on murdering Ted by pumping him full of drugs. Further, he testified that Tabish had bragged about the fact that everyone would simply assume the notorious heroin addict had overdosed.
Also, the Nieman Marcus employee testified that just before Ted’s death, Murphy had been mouthing off about how he would soon be dead by OD’ing, and that she would soon be inheriting some of his estate.
Others testified about how Ted wanted to dump Murphy and cut her out of his will the night before his death, and that he had even hired a private investigator to uncover her affair with Tabish. Further, Ted’s estate planning attorney testified that Ted had told him, “Take Sandy out of the will, if she doesn’t kill me tonight. If I am dead, you’ll know what happened.”
Paramedics who arrived at the scene testified about Murphy’s hysterical reaction, and video was played for the jury depicting the same.
A detective went through cell phone records that proved that less than eight minutes before Murphy had made the 911 call, she had received a call from Tabish’s cell phone.
The coup de grâce, of course, was Dr. Baden’s testimony, which provided a clinical term for the burking murder method – traumatic asphyxiation. He again emphasized that the levels of heroin and Xanax had not been sufficient to kill him, and that he had died by smothering. See encyclopedia.com.
Unfortunately for the defendants, their lawyers were unable to counter the prosecution’s overwhelming circumstantial evidence and parade of witnesses.
And although a heavy-hitter defense lawyer had brought in from another state – reportedly paid for by Tabish’s affluent parents – according to media reports, he proved to be abrasive in his cross-examination techniques, particularly of Dr. Baden. As a result, he reportedly turned off the jurors.
Not surprisingly, neither Murphy nor Tabish took the stand. Instead, they pinned all their hopes on their defense team’s presentation of evidence regarding Ted’s long history of drug addiction, which they had proven had escalated in the months, weeks, and days leading up to his death.
For example, they proved that Ted had purchased a dozen balloons of black tar heroin on the eve of his death, as well as a full bottle of Xanax which contained over a hundred pills.
Stay tuned to get the details of the verdicts, the aftermath, and the second murder trial – again, the very first murder case I ever worked on (as a law clerk). See LATimes.com.
The Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)
As of March 2021, LADALF’s founder, veteran criminal defense trial attorney, will have been practicing criminal law for a full sixteen years – one quarter of that time having been spent fighting in the “gladiator pits” of the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, before going private.
Greatly respected among her peers, prosecutors, and judges, she enjoys an impeccable reputation as one of the finest lawyers in the county – a true believer who always pushes for trial, particularly in murder and attempted murder cases.