Rick Tabish was arrested after police found him trying to open Ted Binion’s vault of silver, worth about $7 million.
LAS VEGAS — A small-town detective described for jurors Monday how he happened upon Rick Tabish and two other men, who were removing more than $7 million of silver from Ted Binion’s subterranean desert vault approximately one day after the millionaire casino mogul died.
Ed Howard, of the Nye County Sheriff’s Department, said around 2 a.m. on September 19, 1998, he noticed a strange sound coming from the empty lot between Terrible’s Casino and a Burger King. He decided to investigate further.
The lot, Howard knew, belonged to Binion, and Binion owned a vault containing a fortune in silver bars and coins buried earlier that summer. After Binion’s death, a superior told him to keep an eye on the plot, which was surrounded by a chain-link fence and concertina wire, to prevent looting.
Howard allegedly caught Tabish and two other men, Michael David Milot and David Lee Mattsen, in the act of burglarizing the vault. Howard later arrested all three.
Prosecutors allege that co-defendants Sandra Murphy and Tabish killed Binion the morning of Thursday, September 17, 1998, tried to make it look like a drug overdose, and then made a greedy grab for cash and valuables in the millionaire’s home.
Detectives found an empty bottle of Xanax and heroin paraphernalia near Binion at the scene of his death. The longtime heroin addict’s cause of death was initially deemed a drug overdose. Six months later, after an investigation by the Binion family, it was ruled a homicide.
Murphy, 32, and Tabish, 39, are charged with six counts, including murder, burglary and grand larceny. A Ingatbola88 jury found the couple guilty of all charges in 2000, but an appeals court overturned their convictions and paved the way for a retrial, now in its third week.
Secrets and lies
Tabish, Matteson and Milot told several lies about what was inside the “belly-dump” tractor-trailer on the empty lot, ranging from old concrete to “ordnance.”
But Tabish finally came clean when a sheriff’s deputy viewed the trailer’s contents and described them to Detective Howard as a “s—load of silver.”
“OK, I lied,” Howard said Tabish told him. Howard then said Tabish claimed Binion had told him to secure the silver for his daughter, Bonnie Binion, in order to keep it away from Binion’s ex-wife, Doris.
Howard also told jurors how Tabish elaborated on his story, placing himself at Binion’s house on the day he died.
“He told me that Ted was going to lay down and take a whole bottle of Xanax and when he woke up he was going to be cleansed,” of his heroin addiction, Howard said.
The trial testimony was the first to place Tabish with Binion while he was still alive on the day of the alleged crime.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Tony J. Serra, Howard admitted that a superior officer recommended against arresting the three for burglary, and that an initial arrest report made no mention of Tabish’s comments about Binion and the bottle of Xanax.
Howard will remain on the stand Tuesday for further cross-examination.
Day of Binion’s death
Ted Binion’s longtime attorney also testified earlier Monday that he initially thought the casino heir had died from a heart attack, but soon suspected that Binion’s girlfriend and her secret lover had conspired to kill him.
Richard Wright told jurors he noticed suspicious behavior in Sandra Murphy and Richard Tabish immediately following Binion’s death on Sept. 17, 1998.
“I asked [detectives] to initiate a homicide investigation if they did not have one in progress,” Wright told jurors Monday.
Wright said he contacted homicide detectives in the Las Vegas Police Department after observing how Tabish and Murphy interacted after Binion’s death, and after he learned that Tabish was caught trying to unearth a vault containing Binion’s fortune in silver.
When the “poker-faced” detectives gave no hint of an investigation in the works, Wright testified that he, along with Binion’s brother and the executor of his estate, Jack, decided to hire private investigator Tom Dillard. Taking the stand as a prosecution witness for the second time, Richard Wright told jurors that a secretary called him on Sept. 17 and told him police and paramedics were in front of Binion’s home and that “something bad had happened.”
Wright said he soon learned from police that Binion was dead from possible self-inflicted wounds and that Murphy was inside the house.
He said his first instinct was to offer his card to Murphy through a police officer. He told the officer to “give that to her and let her know that there was a friend available.”
Murphy was soon taken to a nearby hospital.
“She was crying and seemed hysterical to me,” Wright said.
Wright and Tabish later drove to the hospital after the Montana entrepreneur became concerned that police were trying to interrogate her.
After the two men arrived, Murphy was released into the care of Janice Tanno, a friend and neighbor. Authorities feared she might try to hurt herself.
Instead of leaving with Tanno, however, Murphy went immediately to Tabish’s black Mercedes, Wright told jurors.
He said Murphy, who had been crying and hyperventilating just 15 minutes earlier, no longer seemed as upset, and was conversing with Tabish.
“She was talking about the house and property and she wanted to go home,” Wright said.
But Murphy couldn’t go back to the house she had shared with Binion for more than three years, because it was now under control of a public administrator whose job was to protect the estate from robbery.
After offering to take her to the Desert Inn to keep her away from the media, Wright said Tabish made a comment that seemed out of place less than three hours after Binion died. “I will get you your favorite kind of ice cream,” Tabish told Murphy, according to Wright. Calling Tabish’s subsequent arrest for attempting to remove Binion’s silver collection from the vault the last straw, Wright said he hired investigator Dillard on the day of Binion’s funeral because he reluctantly suspected the pair of foul play, though he wanted to believe otherwise. “I wanted a thorough investigation as to the cause of Ted Binion’s death,” Wright said. “I wanted him to prove or disprove whether Rick Tabish or Sandra Murphy had involvement in causing Ted Binion’s death. I told him I hoped that they did not.” Murphy and Tabish face 20 years to life if convicted. Court TV Extra is streaming the trail live on the Web.