Ted Binion’s death was never that easy to pin down. Right after he died, the coroner’s office called it an overdose. Months later, it was reclassified as a homicide. Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish went through one trial that found them guilty of murder, and another that let them off the hook.
Multiple books on the subject couldn’t come to a conclusion, either. James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street painted Murphy and Tabish as murderers. Cathy Scott’s Death in the Desert posited they didn’t do it.
And now, a decade after the retrial, Scott’s book is the basis for a new movie of the same title starring Michael Madsen as a Binion-inspired character. But the film’s narrative—that Binion was a lost soul who went to the well one too many times with heroin, Vicodin and Xanax—didn’t connect with one of the men who helped put Murphy and Tabish behind bars the first time.
At the time of the first murder trial, David Wall was working in the District Attorney’s office, and he was tapped to second-chair David Roger’s prosecution. From late March 2000 to the middle of May, Roger and Wall pieced together a case that argued Murphy and Tabish conspired to murder Binion. She was in line to inherit hundreds of thousands of dollars in Binion’s will, and Tabish helped build Binion’s underground vault full of $6 million in silver bullion—a vault he was found raiding in the middle of the night just days after Binion’s death.
Wall is careful when he answers any questions. Even though he recently announced his retirement from the firm Eglet Wall & Christiansen, he still has those lawyer instincts. But he offers up a decisive “no” when asked if he thought there was any chance Murphy and Tabish might have been innocent.
The case helped springboard Wall to a judge’s chair in 2002, but you can tell the 2004 retrial that acquitted Murphy and Tabish of murder sticks in his craw. He picks his words carefully, but only after a breathy, bitter laugh. “As a trial lawyer you learn to live with appellate decisions whether you agree with them or not. It’s a reality of the system. It’s part of the checks and balances within the judicial branch,” he says. “Both David and I argued the appeal. We felt comfortable with what we had presented to the [state] Supreme Court.”
Madsen says the exact reason for the movie’s appeal is because it’s so difficult to discern the whole truth surrounding Binion’s death. If that’s true for fiction in general, it plays doubly well in Las Vegas, where the city’s truths and fictions met up years ago in the backroom of a grind joint and produced a founding myth that everyone agrees on—but “agrees” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
We’re comfortable with the gray areas. The Mob Museum is screening Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger on August 13. It’s a documentary that aims to hang the blame for Whitey Bulger’s crimes on the FBI, despite the fact that Bulger is one of the nastiest pieces of business in the last 30 years. It’s no coincidence that Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed is based on Bulger. You need some mud on the truth to get good fiction.
Mud isn’t the same as wholescale revisionism, though.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German, who covered the initial Binion murder trial for the Las Vegas Sun, echoed the prosecution in his Murder in Sin City. McManus also used the DA’s version of events for his work. Wall said he read and liked both books. He hasn’t read Scott’s, and shows no interest in the movie.
“Maybe it would have [bothered me] 10-12 years ago,” Wall says. “I’m a little more removed from it now. Some Hollywood docudramas are not entirely based on facts. I don’t know if it [would be] a better movie for Rick to end up in prison the rest of his life, along with Sandy. I guess I don’t really care that much. We were obviously quite certain of the case that we presented and the jury painstakingly studied and accepted.”