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California and the West

Colorful Gambler's Baffling Legacy

Mysteries: Even in death, Ted Binion leaves controversy, not only over his demise, but over a fortune in silver bars buried in the desert.

September 23, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Binion lived the old-time gambler's life. His Las Vegas was a town not of roller coasters and faux pyramids, but of hard drinking and drugs, topless bars and mobster associates; a town where big-time bettors could walk anonymously into his family's legendary Horseshoe casino with a suitcase full of cash and put it all down on a single craps bet.

The swirl of controversy that followed him virtually his entire life persists even in death for the 55-year-old Binion, who was buried Tuesday after being found dead last week in his Las Vegas home of an apparent overdose of prescription drugs.

Even before authorities were able to determine whether the death was accidental, the latest twist in Binion's "made for TV" life came this weekend: Three men were arrested on charges of digging up millions of dollars worth of silver bars and coins that Binion had buried in an underground vault in a small desert town 63 miles from Las Vegas.

"It's vintage Ted Binion," his lawyer, Richard Wright, said after returning from Binion's funeral. "He never did anything easy. There were always complications with Ted."

Indeed, Lonnie "Ted" Binion lived a storied life as one of the children of famed Binion's Horseshoe founder Benny Binion. He was a popular character in old-time gambling circles, but his demons--drugs, alcohol, and associates in organized crime--ultimately helped force his estrangement from members of his own family and the industry itself.

Earlier this year, Binion lost a protracted battle with state gaming authorities, who revoked his gambling license after years of on-again, off-again suspensions.

The final revocation came after evidence that Binion had relapsed into drug use and had violated a ban on contact with the family's casino, said Nevada State Gaming Control Board Chairman Steve DuCharme, whose panel recommended the action. But Binion's suspected mob ties may have contributed to his problems as well.

"That was certainly another spoke in the wheel," DuCharme said.

Binion became notorious for his associations with several reputed mobsters, including Herbert Blitzstein, who was shot to death in his Las Vegas home last year. A few months after that suspected mob slaying, Binion's own home and car were sprayed with bullets.

Binion's recent problems spurred speculation that his overdose on drugs prescribed for stress relief may have been a suicide.

Wright, Binion's attorney, said he has contacted local police regarding certain "unanswered, suspicious circumstances" surrounding the death.

He declined to say what those suspicions are. "I don't really want to go into them because there may be innocent explanations, but I know he did not intentionally take his own life," Wright said. "I had just seen him three days earlier, and he was making plans to move on with his life. . . . I'm just hoping it turns out his death was accidental."

Media reports in Las Vegas have suggested in recent days that Binion's girlfriend, who discovered his body Thursday afternoon in front of the television, was romantically linked to one of the three suspects in the alleged theft of the silver.

But police downplayed the possibility of foul play Tuesday as they awaited the results of toxicology tests on Binion's body. "We've heard the innuendo [about a romantic link], but that's all it is," said Sgt. Ken Hefner of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department's homicide unit.

"He suffered no trauma. It appears he died of an overdose. We just don't know if it was intentional or accidental," he said. "But we have no reason to think that his death [and the purported silver theft] are related."

Silver Bars Buried in Desert

Binion had a vast collection of silver, including bars and 19th century coins, which he stored for years in a 10-foot by 10-foot vault at the Horseshoe casino, Wright said.

After an unsuccessful attempt to sell the collection, Binion decided to move the silver from the casino--now owned by a sister after a prolonged family feud--and store it elsewhere: underground.

About five months ago, he arranged to bury a huge vault about a dozen feet underground on a lot he owned along the main thoroughfare in the town of Pahrump, Nev., near a row of casinos and restaurants.

"Ted was eccentric. He believed this was the safest way to preserve it," Wright said with a laugh. "He figured if anyone tried to dig it up, they'd then have to break into it and it would attract all sorts of attention, so that was his security measure."

Binion was right.

Sometime after 3 a.m. Saturday, the Nye County Sheriff's Department got a call about an odd disturbance--heavy machinery was being used to dig up dirt in the middle of town. Deputies responding to the scene found three men and a truckload of tens of thousands of pounds of silver that had been unearthed. Authorities valued the silver at $13 million to $15 million, although others close to Binion said it was worth only about $4 million. The silver was taken to Las Vegas for storage by an armored guard service.

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