Rick Tabish has been described by some around here as a likable fellow, a capable man. He had his share of troubles in the Garden City, but a few people around town—even police officers—will tell you that there once was a time when he showed lots of promise. Today, Rick Tabish, a former Missoula contractor and businessman, is housed at the Clark County Detention Center in downtown Las Vegas, a convicted murderer.
What happened in between? How did a Montana man become a figure in one of the most sensational crime stories in recent memory? It’s a long story with many sides. It’s been described by one attorney as a tale of “money, love, greed and lust.” And it’s a story that, even now, is still unraveling.
It begins in a pricey Las Vegas topless joint in 1994, when Ted Binion, a high-paying customer, meets Sandy Murphy, a young California surfer-girl-turned-exotic-dancer. Binion, charmed by the happy, outgoing, sexy Murphy, almost immediately moves her into his million-dollar estate in a posh Las Vegas neighborhood. He lavishes her with credit cards, limousine rides, expensive meals and a top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz. The day Binion and Murphy met would forever change their destinies—and also the destiny of a man miles away in Montana: Murphy, along with Tabish, would end up in prison; Binion would end up dead.
Fast forward four years later. On the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1998, Tabish, 35, met Murphy, 28, and her attorney for lunch at the Aristocrat, a toney restaurant that catered to Las Vegas’ upper crust. When Murphy returned home later that day, she placed an impassioned call to 911, saying she had discovered Binion’s body in the Palomino Lane mansion he shared with her. Binion was pronounced dead on the scene.
A cloud of grief settled over his home as family members, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, police, fire department personnel, photographers, reporters, and attorneys converged upon the Binion compound. Tabish, too, went to the Binion house that same afternoon to pay his respects.
This wasn’t the death of just anybody. This was multi-millionaire Lonnie Theodore “Ted” Binion. To most people, Ted had been known as the heir to the estate of Benny Binion, himself a Montana rancher, who helped mold downtown Las Vegas’ Glitter Gulch with his landmark casino, the Horseshoe Club. But Ted had also been known as a playboy with an insatiable appetite for horses, topless dancers and crude, Mexican, black-tar heroin.
The Clark County Coroner determined that Binion had died somewhere between 5:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., a few hours before Murphy had telephoned for help. Almost immediately, Binion’s family accused Murphy of stealing Binion’s silver and gold coin collection and other valuables from his home before the police had arrived. Later, they would accuse her and Tabish of overdosing Binion with a mixture of Xanax, Valium and heroin, then smothering him, so they could get his money.
There is a long and crooked line connecting Missoula to Palomino Lane. To trace it, you have to start from the beginning.
His Missoula Roots
Richard Bennett Tabish left his family and two small children in Missoula in 1996, to strike out as a contractor in Las Vegas. He stayed in Vegas on weekdays and returned home to Missoula for most weekends. In Las Vegas, he began to hang out at Piero’s Italian Cuisine on Convention Center Drive, where he was able to make new business contacts. That’s also where, he has said, he met Ted Binion and Sandy Murphy. The meeting would forever change his future.
Missoula is where Rick Tabish’s parents, Frank and Lani Tabish, chose to raise their four boys. Frank Tabish, a native Missoulian, met and married Lani Aldrich, who was from Great Falls, while Lani was attending the University of Montana. Frank had built a successful petroleum distribution business from the ground up. He and Lani had four boys—Frank, Patrick, Rick, and Greg.
Family friends said that Tabish was a typically bright, active, athletic boy who was a star Little Leaguer as a child and a top football player as a teenager. The Tabishes kept their house just off of South Avenue in immaculate condition. And while their friends say they spoiled the boys, especially Rick, they also taught them family values. They all had to take their turns at mowing the lawn and working at their grandfather’s large corn farm.
Rick Tabish was a born leader. According to Tabish’s friends and police officers who knew him during that era, he had had a promising future. His judgment about hanging out with the wrong people in the wrong crowds is what did him in, they said.
In June 1983, Rick Tabish graduated from Big Sky High School. He enrolled at the University of Montana, where his mother had attended college 24 years earlier. He finished just two quarters before dropping out.
Tabish appeared to stray from the straight-and-narrow for a bit, then got back on track, but not for long. Instead of the University of Montana, it was the Missoula County Courthouse where Tabish would appear off and on, for a variety of offenses. In September 1985, he stole a 17th century painting valued at $600,000 from the home of a family friend, a prominent Missoula attorney. Rick, 20 at the time, confessed and received a three-year deferred sentence and served no time in jail. In November 1987, he was charged with aggravated assault after a Missoula man suffered “fairly significant injuries” at Tabish’s hands, according to Dusty Deschamps, a former Missoula County District Attorney who testified at the Binion homicide trial. For that, Tabish drew a six-month sentence and paid $800 in restitution. All but 41 days of his sentence were suspended.
Tabish was questioned by police for various petty crimes, says Detective Rick Newlon with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department. “We brought him in a lot,” Newlon says, noting that while Tabish may have gotten into trouble, “he was a likable, capable guy who made poor choices in friends. He could have been a millionaire. He has the smarts for it. But he got in with the wrong people.”
Finally, the worst of Tabish’s earlier offenses landed him in prison. The offense would cost him his freedom when seeking bail later in Las Vegas.
Tabish was arrested in February 1987 for trafficking narcotics. He was caught with two other men while shipping a quarter-pound of cocaine from Arizona to Montana via Federal Express. He pleaded guilty and received a 10-year sentence, seven of which were suspended. He served nine months in Montana state prison before entering a pre-release center, whereupon he earned parole a short time later. His probation ended in 1997. During the pre-release portion of his prison sentence, he went to work for a rock-crushing business owned by Marvin Rehbein Sr. That’s where Tabish met his future wife, Mary Jo Rehbein.
In the mid-’90s, Tabish launched a series of short-lived businesses in Missoula: Telepro, a telecommunications outfit; Wash Works Incorporated, a truck-washing operation; and MRT Transport, a truck-hauling company. Despite his setbacks, friends described Rick as a hard worker who always had a business deal in the works.
When Tabish arrived in Las Vegas in 1996, he was looking for a new venture, ready to break into the Vegas business scene. A friend of his, Dan Peressini, had grown up with Tabish in Missoula, had moved to Las Vegas and had found some success; Tabish joined him. Once in Las Vegas, he took out a business license for MRT Transportation Nevada, an extension of his Montana trucking service, as well as MRT Contracting and MRT Leasing.
It seemed like Tabish was straightening up. His past, it appeared, was fading behind him. But then events took a turn. As Detective Rick Newlon recollects, “He always had a tendency to want to run with the big dogs and do it in a hurry. He ran with the wrong people. It looked like, for a while, he was cleaning up his act. Then Ted Binion died.”
Viva Las Vegas
Tabish injected himself into the Binion murder case when he arranged to unearth the millionaire’s silver from an underground vault a mile from his 60-acre ranch in Pahrump, Nev., 65 miles southwest of Las Vegas. In the summer of 1998, two-and-a-half months before his death, Ted Binion had hired Tabish and a crew, for $40,000, to build a 12-foot-deep concrete vault underground on a vacant lot Binion owned next to Pahrump’s main highway. Binion was using the vault as a storage room for his silver—a compilation of rare coins he had collected over the years, other coins he inherited from his mother, and bars and bullion he had purchased. When the Nevada Gaming Commission took away Ted’s casino license in 1998—citing his drug use and continued association with reputed mobsters—they also ousted him from the family’s Horseshoe Club, where he previously had had the silver safely stowed in the casino’s basement.
Thirty-six hours after Binion’s death, Tabish and two workers drove their heavy equipment to Pahrump and unearthed, from the vault buried on the desert floor, 48,000 pounds of silver—appraised at between $7 million and $14 million.
Prosecutors contended that Tabish was in financial straits and needed the money, which was why they say he plotted with Murphy to kill Binion, then steal his fortune in silver. Howard Hansell, a vice president at BankWest of Nevada, had testified during the trial that a $200,000 loan he had arranged for Tabish had become past due. However, Hansell testified, the bank had granted Tabish an extension. Tabish wasn’t under the imminent pressure to pay off the note as prosecutors had claimed. But Tabish’s defense attorney, Louis Palazzo, didn’t emphasize that point to the jury. (Tabish has since fired Palazzo for nonperformance.)
One of Binion’s attorneys, Tom Standish, thought it odd that Binion wanted to bury his silver instead of storing it in another vault or selling it. But Binion had fretted about the risk of someone killing him and stealing his silver. Standish testified during Tabish’s trial that Binion had told him he wanted the silver moved “in the event of my demise.” Binion emphasized to Standish, he said, that someone should move quickly to remove the massive silver collection from the concrete vault where Tabish had buried it for him. The attorney went on to say, on the stand, that Binion said it in the presence of Murphy and Tabish, and several times more when he and Standish were alone. “I told him it [burying the silver] was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard,” Standish testified.
The testimony from Standish, a long-time respected Las Vegas attorney, corroborated Tabish’s statement to sheriff’s deputies that he had dug up the silver for Binion and was taking it to his nearby ranch for safekeeping. That’s why, Tabish said, he had Binion’s ranch manager with him while he unearthed the silver. It was corroborating evidence that, if played right, could have let Tabish off the hook. It didn’t. He was convicted anyway. On May 19, the jury threw the book at the couple: Guilty of murder in the first degree, all 17 counts.
At the time of Binion’s death, Tabish’s companies were nearly $50,000 in debt, and the Internal Revenue Service had put a lien on his Missoula home. The lien, however, was for a few hundred dollars. Tabish had sold his companies, including the mining rights to a Nevada sand pit, to a Los Angeles firm.
Tabish and Murphy were taken into custody on murder charges on June 24, 1999 near an apartment the two were sharing. It was a dramatic arrest: An army of detectives took the couple into custody at 6:30 p.m. while they were shopping at Smith’s supermarket in the community of Henderson, 10 miles southeast of Las Vegas. They were driven to downtown Las Vegas and booked in the county jail. It is there where Tabish has remained. Tabish’s attorney pleaded for his release on bail. But because Tabish had prior convictions in Montana, it wasn’t to be.
During the Tabish and Murphy trial, which began on March 27 of this year, defense attorneys no longer denied the affair between Murphy and Tabish, who was married at the time to Mary Jo Rehbein. (The couple recently divorced.) Tabish’s trial lawyer, Louis Palazzo, told jurors, “Fault them for having a relationship. This is no homicide case.” John Momot, representing Murphy, told the jury: “There’s no secret about a relationship here. It existed between Sandy and Rick. So what? She needed someone to talk to. Affection developed. That’s what happens when you love your drugs more than your woman. The only mistress Ted Binion had was heroin.”
After the convictions of Tabish and Murphy, outside on the lawn in the area next to the courthouse—a place the county public information officer dubbed “the grassy knoll” and “Camp Binion”—a prosecutor gave his opinion to reporters on the outcome. “I feel that justice has been served,” Chief Deputy District Attorney David Roger said. “The defendants received a fair trial, but it doesn’t stop here. The defendants will file motions for a new trial and we’ll be hearing about this case for a long time.”
He was right. Since the trial, Rick Tabish has fired his attorney, Louis Palazzo. In his place, he hired local attorney Bill Terry, who specializes in the appeals process. John Momot, Murphy’s lawyer, has been joined by Beverly Hills attorney Gerald Scotti.
Tabish’s parents visited their son in jail the weekend following the sentencing hearing, in which Tabish and Murphy were each given life in prison with the possibility of parole in 20 years.
“This is the biggest railroad job ever,” Frank Tabish told a TV reporter, who had waited outside the jail for the parents. “Our son is innocent.” The same day, Greg Tabish, Rick’s youngest brother, said in a telephone interview, “This is the biggest farce that’s ever happened.”
In July, Murphy and Tabish appeared together once again in District Court, before Judge Joseph Bonaventure, with their attorneys by their sides, and file a motion. They asked for a new trial.
Far From Over
As the Binion muder case raged in the national media, rumors began to surface, and persist, that Tabish had links to alleged Chicago underworld figures, including Joey Cusumano, a reputed mobster listed in the state of Nevada’s “Black Book” of unsavory characters who were banned from casinos. The prosecution was never able to prove a link between Tabish and Cusumano. Instead, Tabish’s father Frank says it was Louis Palazzo, Tabish’s attorney, who had a relationship with Cusumano and had introduced Tabish to him. Palazzo then tried to get Tabish to sign an agreement with the reputed-mobster-turned-Hollywood-producer, he says, for a movie deal about the case. Cusumano would pay for Tabish’s defense in exchange for selling his movie rights for his side of the Ted Binion story.
Frank Tabish discussed the proposal with Palazzo and Cusumano, said he didn’t like the feel of the deal and felt that Palazzo’s energies should have been concentrated on his son’s defense, instead of landing a movie contract. Later, it would be revealed by Tabish’s new lawyer, Bill Terry, that Cusumano and Palazzo went ahead with the deal, without Rick Tabish.
Following his conviction, Terry would argue that Tabish’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated because his attorney wasn’t focused on his defense. Terry also charged that Palazzo had refused to allow Tabish to take the witness stand and call key witnesses who would have portrayed him in a more favorable light. This week, Terry appeared in court to argue for a new trial.
Through it all, Tabish’s parents say he has continually refused to see his two young children, Amanda and Kyle, although he misses them: “He doesn’t want them to see him in jail. He doesn’t want them to have childhood memories of seeing their daddy behind bars. He talks to them on the phone instead. His daughter, Amanda, told him, ‘Daddy, I don’t want you to ever go to Las Vegas again.’”
Even though there were convictions in the State of Nevada’s Case No. 98-4751 against Sandra Murphy and Rick Tabish, the saga is still far from over. The story of Rick Tabish, as prosecuting attorney David Wall once put it, of “money, love, greed and lust,” continues as the appeals process gets started this month. On his standing conviction, Tabish is scheduled for a full and formal sentencing on Sept. 8.