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Sandy Murphy’s Complicated Life
Convicted of murder in 2000 and branded as Las Vegas’ most notorious femme fatale, she has resurfaced a decade later as the happily married owner of a Laguna Beach art gallery. And at 38, she’s out to clear her name.
When she was an inmate at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center northeast of Las Vegas, Sandy Murphy used to dream about living near the Pacific Ocean and surfing every day. Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, she had spent much of her youth on the shores of Orange County. “We used to surf at Salt Creek,” she recalls, referring to the Dana Point beach.
To many who watched her televised murder trial, one of the most sensational in Las Vegas history, Murphy appeared to have about as much chance of enjoying the Salt Creek surf again as she did of winning a casino jackpot. In May 2000, after lurid testimony about sex, drugs, domestic abuse, greed, and a vault of silver buried in the Nevada desert, a jury found her guilty of murdering casino owner Ted Binion, her millionaire boyfriend who was found dead on the floor of their luxurious home just off the fabled Strip. Prosecutors alleged that Murphy—whose full lips and willowy build could make her a stand-in for Angelina Jolie—and her secret lover, Richard “Rick” Tabish, conspired to kill Binion for his hoard of silver, his house on Palomino Lane, and other assets.
“Ms. Murphy, your involvement in these crimes is horrific and strikes at the very core of trust between significant others,” Clark County District Court Judge Joseph T. Bonaventure said in September 2000 when he sentenced her to at least 22 years in prison on 12 counts, including murder, burglary, and larceny. She had, he pronounced, committed the “ultimate betrayal.” At age 28, she was looking at spending much of her life behind bars.
What a difference a decade makes.
Murphy now lives with her new love, art dealer Kevin Pieropan, in their Monarch Beach home, and spends her days at the airy Laguna Beach gallery they own, surrounded by fine art. In her free time, she plays golf, goes boating and, yes, surfs. “I go to work every day, I have a very happy life, and I love my husband,” she says.
Murphy owes her remarkable comeback in part to the jury that acquitted her of murder in a retrial a year after the Nevada Supreme Court overturned her convictions in 2003, citing judicial errors. She was released in December 2004 after serving four years of her sentence. But she also has shown a singular tenacity and sense of purpose in fighting her legal battles and rebuilding her life since her release. “When you’re truly faced with serious adversity—at least the kind I was faced with—you come to a point where you’re either going to lie down and die, or you’re just going to stand up and fight like a soldier.”
And now, 10 years after her conviction, Murphy is only a few legal steps from achieving what she yearns for more than anything else—complete vindication.
Murohy’s upbringing does not foreshadow the tumult of her adult life. Her father, a repo man, and her mother, a homemaker, still live in the modest Downey home they bought in 1974. “My parents were the epitome of what good parents should be,” she says. “My mom was home every day after school; she was always involving me in extracurricular activities; she was on the PTA. … My dad went to work every day. Everything is about family.”
At 17, Murphy was runner-up in the Miss Bellflower pageant. But she did not graduate from high school, having missed classes because she had started an aftermarket auto accessories business with a family friend. By the time she blew into Las Vegas in February 1994, she’d had a few minor skirmishes with the law, including a drunk-driving conviction.
What happened to Murphy in Nevada is classic Vegas noir: Young Murphy lost her money—at least $12,000 in savings—at the casinos. While trying to make it back by working at a strip club—just selling lingerie, she says—she met Binion, a club patron and her senior by 28 years. Binion, whose father, Benny, built Las Vegas’ famed Horseshoe Club in the 1950s, soon moved her into his 8,500-square-foot home with imported white marble floors and a 1,000-square-foot master bedroom. He gave her a Mercedes sports coupe and a credit card with a $10,000 limit, and they dined at the finest restaurants in town. But all was not well at Palomino Lane. When a Binion friend saw Murphy with a bruised face and a clump of hair missing, she told him that Binion had beaten her. “She took a lot of crap from him,” Tom Loveday, Binion’s gardener, told author Jeff German. Binion, who had a hard-core addiction to heroin, used the drug even more frequently after losing his gaming license in March 1998.
As their relationship soured, Murphy met Tabish, a ruggedly handsome, financially troubled contractor from Montana with a criminal record that included convictions for aggravated assault and cocaine dealing. Binion had hired Tabish to haul sand from his property outside Las Vegas, and Tabish became a regular visitor at Palomino Lane. “[Binion] became distant with [Murphy], shoving her away, and here I was,” Tabish would testify. “I fell in love with her.”
On Sept. 17, 1998, a distraught Murphy called police, saying only, “My husband [sic] has stopped breathing,” before the phone connection was lost. Paramedics found Binion in his den, lying on a yoga mat, an empty bottle of Xanax beside him.
Prosecutors alleged that Murphy reveled in her luxurious lifestyle with Binion and, when it looked like he was going to cut her out of his will, she and Tabish sedated him with heroin and his prescription anti-anxiety drug, then suffocated him. “They did it for greed. They did it for lust. They did it for money,” Deputy District Attorney David Roger told the jury at the first trial. Murphy’s attorneys insisted that Binion died of an accidental overdose.
Both trials were broadcast live on Court TV, and at least four books have been written about the case. In the 2008 TV movie “Sex and Lies in Sin City,” actress Mena Suvari of “American Beauty” played Murphy, wearing skirts so tight that one critic wrote they looked spray-painted on.
Today, the case continues to fascinate. In November, the Discovery Channel premiered the documentary “Death in the Desert,” and this year CBS revisited it on “48 Hours Mystery,” with footage of Murphy saying her vows at her 2009 wedding to Pieropan, golfing, and boating on the ocean. The show also included an interview with Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton, a friend of Binion’s, in which the singer says: “I don’t believe we will ever truly know what happened to Ted.”
In distressed jeans and a white hoodie, Murphy looks a far cry from a femme fatale as she greets a visitor to her Coast Gallery on Coast Highway. Her reddish-brown hair is tied in a ponytail and one hand clutches a hammer she has been using to hang paintings. There’s luxury on the gallery walls—one work by the Italian artist Pino is for sale at $125,000—but Murphy no longer is living in the fast lane. “We’re not casino owners and this isn’t a 24-hour town,” she says. “It’s just a totally different life.”
Murphy, now 38, has a girlish, perky side, which she reveals in her breathless, unguarded way of speaking, her vocabulary laced with words such as “gnarly” and “heavy.” She likes to use euphemisms—“vacation” for her incarceration, and “hiccup” for the murder case against her—and at one point even describes Binion as “the love of my life.” She still has the wholesome, girl-next-door looks that made her stand out at Downey High School—honey-colored eyes, arched eyebrows, and high cheekbones.
But there’s also something worldly, wise, tough, even haunted about Murphy. Of her time with Binion, she says, “I had seen and experienced a lot of things—and they weren’t always nice.” She also has lost “a certain amount of innocence” as a result of her “ordeal” with the criminal justice system. “That’s probably the hardest part. You can’t unring the bell. Even though sometimes you’d like to, it’s impossible to do.”
Murphy didn’t waste any time planning her comeback. As soon as the first jury announced its guilty verdicts, she returned to the county jail and called Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, asking him to handle her appeal. “I started rockin’ and rollin’, like, immediately, within the first two days after I was found guilty,” she says. Dershowitz, whose high-profile clients have included Claus von Bülow and O.J. Simpson, took the case.
“She wrote me a 30-page letter that was so compelling, so passionate, and so persuasive that, although I get hundreds of letters every month from inmates, I responded to it,” he says. “She practically wrote a brief.”
The jury had found Murphy and Tabish guilty of first-degree murder, and of conspiring to steal silver bullion and coins worth $7 million from the cache Binion had buried in an empty lot he owned next to a Pahrump, Nev., casino. Nye County sheriff’s deputies arrested Tabish at the site of the vault as he and two other men were digging up the silver two days after Binion’s death. But the prosecution’s murder case was purely circumstantial, relying heavily on the testimony of pathologist Michael M. Baden. He testified that two small red lesions on Binion’s chest indicated that the millionaire died as the result of burking, a technique in which one person obstructs the victim’s nose and mouth while another sits on the chest. (Burking owes its name to William Burke, who, along with a partner, used the method to kill women in 19th century Scotland so the corpses could be sold for dissection.)
“Mr. Binion died from traumatic asphyxia, trauma to the body that prevented him from breathing,” Baden concluded. He also said the levels of heroin and Xanax in Binion’s body were not lethal.
Another key witness, attorney James Brown, testified that Binion called him the day before his death to change the terms of his will. Brown quoted Binion: “Take Sandy out of the will, if she doesn’t kill me tonight. If I’m dead, you’ll know what happened.”
“I think just listening to [Baden] and then listening to the others, he had just a little more credibility,” the jury foreman told reporters.
Because of her notoriety, Murphy spent her first six months in solitary confinement at the penitentiary. Working with Dershowitz on her appeal, she says, “gave me an escape. … I was reading the documents every day, spending time in the [prison] law library.” On July 14, 2003—more than three years after her conviction—the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the trial was unfair because Judge Bonaventure had made two errors: First, he had included an unrelated charge in the trial alleging Tabish tortured a businessman to get him to sign over his interest in a sand pit; and, second, he allowed Brown’s statement about the will into evidence without instructing the jury that it should be considered only as offering insight into Binion’s state of mind, and not as evidence Murphy actually wanted him dead. “The admission of the hearsay statement without a limiting instruction unfairly prejudiced both [Murphy and Tabish],” the Supreme Court said.
The 2004 trial was quite different from the first. This time, the defense team—which now included flamboyant Bay Area attorney Tony Serra—tore into Baden’s testimony, calling several experts to testify that the marks on Binion’s chest were probably dermatitis, skin cancer, or even a burn from a cigarette rather than shirt buttons being pressed into his skin during a burking. And this time, Bonaventure allowed Brown to say only that Binion called him the day before his death and that, as a result of the conversation, he tried to take Murphy out of the will. With Brown’s testimony stripped of any reference to Murphy’s state of mind, Dershowitz explains, “The prosecution couldn’t argue from it that she wanted Binion dead.”
On Nov. 23, 2004, Murphy burst into tears as the jury acquitted her and Tabish of murder. The decision seemed to hinge on those mysterious chest lesions, according to the jury forewoman: “We pretty much felt that they weren’t button marks.”
The same jury found Murphy and Tabish guilty of three counts related to the buried silver robbery. But with credit for time already served, Murphy was released from prison a month after the acquittal. Tabish became eligible for parole on April 2.
Returning to life after years behind bars can be “a little overwhelming,” Murphy says, recalling that prison “taught me how to have a foul mouth and do some things that were unbecoming a lady. It took me a while to kind of detox and learn to deal with people in a different manner when I first got free. I got used to living a certain way for survival.”
A wealthy benefactor named Bill Fuller paid her legal bills. “He really believed in me,” she says. After her release, he helped her acquire a home in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, and gave her a job with his mining company. She also worked in the mortgage business and took regular trips to Southern California to visit her family and enjoy the ocean. In September 2006, she was dining at Mastro’s Ocean Club in Newport Beach when she ran into an old friend and Nevada casino owner who introduced her to Kevin Pieropan, the owner of Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach. Murphy and Pieropan began dating and, in February 2007, she moved into his Monarch Beach home. She had no experience in art sales, but he hired her to help with his gallery. “I have a great love of art,” she says, and selling it “comes very natural to me.”
The Laguna Beach art business is not for the faint of heart. Several galleries have closed during the ongoing recession. “There’s high overhead and it’s fiercely competitive,” says veteran gallery owner Marion Meyer. “It’s more a labor of love than a money-making business.” But Murphy, the former aftermarket auto accessories saleswoman, still has her entrepreneurial streak and has brought the work of artists such as Michael Cheval, a popular New York-based surrealist, to the Coast Gallery. “We have the most diversified portfolio [of art] in Orange County,” she says while giving a tour.
“She’s got a tremendous drive and a good work ethic,” says Richard Moy, a Lake Forest foot surgeon and client of the gallery. “And she understands the business.”
Murphy now is not only Pieropan’s wife—they were married in April of last year—but a full partner in the gallery. She has taken up oil painting, for relaxation. One abstract work, inspired by a visit to Tuscany, shows a barren, blood-red landscape beneath stormy skies. “I sell all my works,” she says. “They never last more than a week.” Despite having only two days off a month, she raves about her lifestyle, which includes cooking fresh lobster at home and surf fishing on the beach. Her social circle has intersected with those of Gretchen Rossi and Alexis Bellino of Bravo TV’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
Amid all this domestic bliss, though, Murphy has not put the Binion case completely behind her. “I’m not going to let somebody say that I did something I didn’t do,” she says. Sitting at her cluttered desk in the gallery, she slams her hand down for emphasis. “I just want to clear my good name. Once and for all. I just want to be a vindicated person. One-hundred percent.”
Prosecutors never alleged Murphy was with Tabish in Pahrump when he dug up Binion’s silver, but charged her as a co-conspirator, largely because she helped bail Tabish and the other two alleged robbers out of the Nye County jail. Defense lawyers contended that Binion told Tabish to remove the silver and that it was ludicrous to think Tabish would excavate a lot with heavy equipment on the busiest street in Pahrump and not expect to be noticed. “I was not trying to steal the silver,” Tabish testified. “You’ve got a Burger King right next to you. As people are driving up getting their hamburgers, we’re out there.”
After the second trial, in March 2008, a three-judge panel of the Nevada Supreme Court voted 2-1 to affirm Murphy’s convictions on the silver robbery charges. And in a 4-3 decision, the full court of seven judges denied her a rehearing in November 2008. That appeared to exhaust her legal options because, under Nevada law, only a person who currently is “under sentence of death or imprisonment” can file a habeas corpus petition for relief from their conviction.
But in a lawsuit she filed against the state in December, Murphy says the law should apply to her because of the stigma of being a felon for the rest of her life. She argues that she is entitled to a habeas proceeding in federal court at which she would present evidence that she is innocent of the silver theft. “Because I’m not incarcerated, they’re saying I’m not entitled to [habeas relief]—which is in violation of my constitutional rights,” she says. “I’m willing to litigate that issue all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court.”
Murphy also says she is entitled to damages from the state because she served more than 100 days in prison than she was supposed to. The damages could amount to at least $250,000—at a rate of $2,500 for each day of excessive incarceration. But if the state would agree to pardon her, she says, she would drop her lawsuit and the damages claim. “Just vindicate me on [the silver robbery charges] and you don’t have to spend any more of the state’s money on an issue that you’re probably going to lose on.”
When he sentenced Murphy in 2000, Judge Bonaventure told her: “It is this court’s hope that after your period of incarceration, you will have awakened from the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ dreamlike state you have attempted to portray in this courtroom.”
Some might say Murphy is still in that state. The Las Vegas Sun newspaper, for one, already has predicted that her latest effort to clear her name will “wind up as more of a passing footnote to the Ted Binion saga than an additional chapter.”
Murphy harbors no self-doubt. “They used to tell me, ‘You think you’re ever going to get out of prison? Why are you even wasting your time?’ If I would have had thought that, I would have died a long time ago.”
Ultimately, the taint of the Binion case may never leave her. “Money. She sees money,” Binion’s sister Becky Behnen said with a scowl on “48 Hours Mystery.” “She’d say things to me like, ‘I wouldn’t be with any old man unless he was rich.’ ”
But Murphy already has beaten the odds. And she still believes she can clear her name completely. Care to bet against her?
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.