Death in the Desert Cashes in on Locally Tinged Story of Vegas Icon Ted Binion


A movie based on the real-life death of Las Vegas casino tycoon Ted Binion and reputed femme fatale-turned-wife of Laguna Beach art gallery owner Sandy Murphy was released today on Video On Demand.

Directed by Josh Evans (Everybody DiesChe Guevara), the fictional Death in the Desert stars Michael Madsen of Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight fame in the role of Ray Easler.

Production company Osiris Entertainment freely admits Easler is based on Ted Binion, the son of famed Las Vegas casino magnate Lester Ben “Benny” Binion, owner of Binion’s Horseshoe.

The younger Binion took over as casino manager at age 21 and went on to become one of the most colorful figures on the Strip. He lived the high life, chased women, was the target of an attempted kidnapping and became a drug addict and dealer.

His addiction led to the loss of his gambling license—as well as the decision to bury his fortune in the desert to protect it from government seizure. The quest by others to find that $7 million to $14 million booty played a role in the events that followed.

Binion’s Sept. 17, 1998, death was initially believed to be a suicide by overdose. But Las Vegas homicide detectives later concluded his death was staged. His girlfriend, former Miss Bellflower runner-up and topless dancer Sandra Murphy, and her lover Rick Tabish, who was caught trying to dig up the treasure, were convicted in 2000 of Binion’s murder.

However, Murphy and Tabish were later granted a new trial and acquitted. The roller-coaster ride of events are detailed in Cathy Scott’s true-crime book Death in the Desert: The Ted Binion Homicide Case, which inspired the movie. (The screenplay is by John Steppling.)

Madsen has been praised for his performance opposite of Shayla Beesley, whose Kim Davis character is based on Murphy, and John Palladino, whose Matt Duvall stands in for Tabish.

“Sandy Murphy’s Complicated Life” is a 2010 Orange Coast magazine story by Matthew Heller on the subject’s transition from Vegas headline grabber to one living the quiet life golfing, boating and surfing with her husband, Coast Gallery owner Kevin Pieropan, in Monarch Beach.

But a decade after her conviction, Murphy was still awaiting full vindication. The case’s gray areas explain why the names are changed in Death in the Desert—to protect the innocent and the once perceived guilty.