For seven weeks in the spring of 2000, residents here were mesmerized by the trial of a former exotic dancer and her brawny Montana lover, both accused of killing the heroin-addicted millionaire casino boss with whom she lived.
The Ted Binion case, it was widely noted, had it all: sex, money, politics, drugs, betrayal -- even buried treasure -- knitted together in a mesh of ambiguous circumstantial evidence. It was enough to inspire hours of street-corner debate, a "Dateline NBC" special, a couple of quickie books and live gavel-to-gavel coverage on local TV.
"It was almost like a fictional plot," said Jeff German, a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun and author of a book on the case. "It had everything."
Like any great story, it has a sequel.
Last year, the Nevada Supreme Court threw out the murder convictions and potential life sentences for Sandra Murphy and Richard Tabish, the pair accused of killing Binion -- the big-spending, pickup-driving heir of legendary Horseshoe casino founder Benny Binion -- in 1998. Prosecutors said the pair forced heroin and Xanax down Binion's throat and suffocated him, then conspired to plunder a vault of silver coins the millionaire had secretly buried in the desert.
The court ruled that jurors should not have heard "prejudicial" testimony from Binion's attorney that the victim allegedly told him the day before he died to remove Murphy, his live-in mistress, from his will "if she doesn't kill me tonight."
As the retrial got underway last week in a downtown courthouse just blocks from the Wild West facade of Binion's Horseshoe, Las Vegas geared up to revisit a case that seemed to epitomize its Sin City reputation. A former local TV news reporter who covered the first trial arrived early to grab a seat, though she's no longer on the story.
"I couldn't stay away," she said.
Much of the plot remains the same. While the defense still maintains that Binion died of an accidental overdose after two decades of addiction, prosecutors still allege a coldblooded scheme. In opening statements, prosecutor Christopher Lalli described how Murphy, then a 23-year-old dancer at Cheetah's, a topless joint, met Binion in 1995 and moved into his sprawling ranch-style house near the Vegas Strip the week his wife, Doris, moved out.
Binion lavished a $90,000 Mercedes-Benz on Murphy, paid her $10,000-a-month credit card bills and eventually added her to his will. But in 1998, Lalli said, Murphy started an affair with a new Binion friend and confidant: Tabish, a Montana entrepreneur who had brought his sand-and-gravel business to the area to take advantage of Las Vegas's construction boom.
As the relationship heated up, Tabish's business debts began to mount, Lalli said. Tabish allegedly began asking a friend for advice on how to kill Binion, and Murphy was heard making predictions to her Neiman Marcus manicurist that her boyfriend would soon die of an overdose. In September, Binion, 55, was found dead in his home. Although investigators assumed an overdose, their suspicions were aroused two days later when Tabish and two associates were found at 3 a.m. in rural Pahrump, Nev., unearthing Binion's silver vault with heavy construction equipment.
"He was murdered because his girlfriend was on her way out," Lalli said. "He was murdered because a man from Missoula was in a world of trouble."
The case also offers new twists and turns, all the better to engage the international crew of journalists that returned to Clark County District Court, as well as the viewers tuning in for a second round of live coverage.
Tabish, 39, a charismatic figure whom Judge Joseph T. Bonaventure denounced at his September 2000 sentencing as a "con man," will take the stand in his own defense this time, his lawyers said.
Murphy, 32, who captivated courtroom observers in 2000 with her short skirts, blond hair and frequent sobbing, has reappeared as a calm and conservatively dressed brunette. Since her release from prison, Murphy has also delighted the city's gossip columnists with her highly visible ventures to the Strip's bars and her new relationship with an octogenarian millionaire from Ireland who is financing her defense. Tabish remains behind bars on an extortion conviction connected to the beating of a business associate.
There are new characters, most notably Tabish's attorney J. Tony Serra, a San Francisco lawyer with a scraggly white ponytail who is best known for defending 1960s radicals such as Black Panther Huey Newton and Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson. Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz also will assist in Murphy's defense.
Serra gave his opening statements in a dramatic voice that was alternately hushed and keening. He denied that Tabish's business was failing, explaining the debts as a misleading cash-flow matter. He dismissed seeming abrasion marks on Binion's face as dermatitis aggravated by years of drug abuse. He hammered hard at a defense theme merely broached at the first trial: that the entire prosecution of Murphy and Tabish was motivated by the Binion siblings' attempt to expunge an inconvenient woman from their lives and their brother's estate.
The Binion family, he said, hired a private detective to keep examining Murphy's activities at a time when local police had concluded Binion's death was an overdose. They also brought in a highly paid out-of-town pathologist. The witnesses who offered the most damning testimony, he said, had all received thousands of dollars in reward money from the estate.
"There's going to be reasonable doubt, ladies and gentleman," Serra promised the jury.
Both sides, though, portray Binion as a tragic figure, a high-living mathematical genius with a brilliant mind for gaming who spent his last years struggling with addictions that wrecked his relationships and his career.
Lalli described how Binion, increasingly paranoid, had wired video cameras to monitor nearly every angle of his homes and always kept a gun or two on hand. "He was obsessed with the notion someone would harm him and try to take his property," Lalli said.
Murphy's attorney, Michael V. Cristalli, described Binion as a man who lived for the casino business and lost the battle against drugs when he lost his state gaming license, which forced him to sell his stake in the Horseshoe. In the last months of his life, Binion's daily consumption skyrocketed -- he typically smoked black-tar heroin in handmade aluminum-foil pipes rather than injecting it -- causing him to drop 40 pounds between June 1998 and his death.
"The only thing he loved more than heroin -- besides Sandy -- was gone," Cristalli said.