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September 22, 2014

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A matter of principle

In part one last Sunday, Dan Chandler disputed the coroner's ruling of suicide in the May 20, 1993, death of his son. Joseph Daniel Chandler Jr. died in his father's Las Vegas home while engaged in what resembled Russian roulette. Chan, as everyone knew him, had a 0.46 blood-alcohol level and crack cocaine coursing through his body at the time.

The Clark County coroner's report on Chan includes no mention of Russian roulette. Dan Chandler believes his son's death at age 30 was an accident. That hypothesis found support from a nationally renowned suicide expert hired in 1997 by Chandler's attorney to review Chan's death.

The expert opinion heartened Dan Chandler. It also meant nothing from a legal standpoint.

Nevada law restricts court appeals on the official cause of death to two years past a coroner's decision. The statute of limitations in Chan's case ran out in late May 1995.

Chandler waited until 1997 to retain attorney David Chesnoff to fight the suicide ruling. Chesnoff realized the two-year deadline had passed, yet soldiered on at his client's behest. A District Court judge jettisoned the case in spring 1998, citing the expired statute.

Going to court three years too late seemed to make as much sense as Chandler walking along the Strip wearing a sandwich board that proclaimed, "It was an accident!"

Unless he wanted money.

In a cynical age the efforts of a father to avenge his son's reputation stoke suspicion of greed. Chandler has heard the murmurs.

The theory first surfaced when he went to court in May 1998. It arose again a month later after he approached the Clark County district attorney about waiving the statute. Suspending the restriction would clear the way for Chandler to argue before a judge that his son did not deliberately kill himself.

The speculation: Chandler, 66, needs the coroner's decision changed to collect on Chan's life insurance policy -- a policy that would remain frozen as long as the official cause of death is suicide.

Chandler's response to the rumor blows in behind a gale-force laugh. "There's no insurance policy. None. If I wanted money, I can think of a lot of ways to get it that are a helluva lot easier than that, let me tell you."

Chesnoff contends that a parent with an insurance claim would make sure to beat the two-year deadline. He adds that he would balk at representing Chandler -- who calls himself financially "well-fed" -- if money were at stake.

In shooing away the whispers, Chandler goes one step farther. If he somehow has overlooked an insurance claim related to Chan's death, he pledges to donate the money to a charity of the district attorney's choice.

As Chandler continues talking, he swats down other possible reasons for his crusade to vindicate Chan. Spiritual redemption for his son. Atonement for himself. Preservation of the Chandler legacy.

"This fight is not a question of money or religion or making me feel better," he said. "I've made my peace. It's just the right thing."

Descent into darkness

And still. Chandler's four-year delay in deciding to oppose the coroner's ruling provokes doubts about his intent. Pressed on the point he fidgets for a moment, then utters a blunt self-admonition that he should have acted sooner.

The answer is a nonanswer born of lingering pain and emotional reticence.

His good friend Dick Crane elaborates. Chan's death sent his father spiraling. But recounting one's misery is not easily done with strangers. No man with any hint of pride just opens up about a yearslong descent into darkness.

So it is left to others to reveal the depth of Chandler's sorrow. The coroner's ruling "didn't hit him right away. He was in shock about Chan for some time," Crane said.

"Then it started eating at him, eating at him. He just couldn't let it go, he couldn't accept suicide. It became this kind of thing, 'If I let you down in life, I'll not let you down in death.' He's doing this for Chan."

Crane and Chandler met in the mid-1970s. Crane then served as chief of the Los Angeles bureau of the Organized Crime Strike Force, the federal agency that stalked Tony Spilotro and his mob brethren in Las Vegas. Chandler worked as a casino host at Caesars Palace.

Crane and Chandler share a love for golf, hunting and rat-a-tat banter. Crane sums up their kinship this way: "We're as close as two men can be without being gay."

Beyond sports and broad humor exists another, more profound bond. Each man has lost a son.

A mountain climbing accident in Colorado clipped short the life of 20-year-old Todd Crane in 1995. His death struck Chandler as if a member of his own family perished. Similar feelings had buffeted Dick Crane two years earlier when Chan died.

"It was an awful time," said Crane, now an attorney and businessman in Los Angeles. The coroner's decision on Chan made everything worse. "I will go to my grave knowing -- and I was with him constantly -- that he wouldn't have committed suicide."

Chan often visited Las Vegas during the 1980s after settling in Kentucky. Crane acted as his Dutch uncle -- rebuking him when he messed up, ordering him to straighten out. On one occasion Chan wrecked Crane's car while driving drunk. On another he got stoned and missed a job interview.

Crane thought of Chan as "a great kid with all the prospects in the world who was just irresponsible." He prodded Chandler to crack down on his son so those prospects might be realized. But Chandler resisted the role of parental enforcer.

"They were great friends, two peas in a pod," Crane said. "But Chan didn't need a friend. He needed a father."

Therein may burn the essence of Chandler's resolve. Lynne Knipping, his ex-wife and Chan's mother, believes Chandler still needs his boy. His buddy. The reason is simple.

Only father and son truly understood the other's circumstance.

To be a Chandler

Chan moved back to Kentucky in the early 1980s after finishing high school in Texas. Knipping had taken an 11-year-old Chan and his younger sister, Erin, to Lubbock a year after she and Chandler divorced amicably in 1974.

Residing in his father's home state would expose Chan to the double-edged blade of celebrity that sliced Dan Chandler a decade earlier.

Chan's last name and his family's standing snared small perks. He could get a table at swank restaurants. He attended the Kentucky Derby every year. He traveled on a whim. He lived off family money and without obligation.

But making Kentucky home also forced Chan to endure comparisons to his cousin Albert Benjamin "Ben" Chandler III -- the son of Dan Chandler's older brother, Albert Benjamin Chandler II.

Dan and his brother are the sons of the late Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler. Their father's resume included stints as Kentucky governor, U.S. senator and commissioner of Major League Baseball. Long before Happy Chandler died in 1991 at age 92 he forged what newspapers in the Bluegrass State still tout as "the most famous name in Kentucky politics."

As early as 1986 Happy Chandler predicted his grandson would become governor. No one had to wonder whether he meant Ben or Chan.

Ben began his political ascent a year after Happy passed away and six months before Chan's death, capturing the post of state auditor in 1992. (Three years later Ben, then 36, won election as Kentucky's attorney general. State Democratic leaders expect him to run for governor sometime this decade.)

Chan, meanwhile, only attracted media scrutiny for his scrapes with the law. A drunken driving ticket here, a public-disturbance citation there. He lurched in and out of alcohol counseling.

The screwups didn't evoke his father's wrath. He felt compassion. Chan's struggles mirrored his own years earlier.

Dan Chandler had stumbled under the weight of his father's legacy in the 1970s. He brokered suspect business deals that brought jail time for him and shame for his family. Now he sensed Chan bowing to the same implicit pressure to be someone. To be a Chandler.

Fleeing his native state for Florida and later Las Vegas enabled Dan Chandler to start life over. But Chan chose to stay in Kentucky. He flailed about in the one state where his misbehavior would set tongues to wagging.

With Chan immersed in those fishbowl environs, Chandler worried about punishing him too harshly or ostracizing him from the family. He sensed that doing either would intensify his son's frustration. Deep down he felt Chan's antics masked a restless pursuit of purpose. Deep down he saw himself.

"I think Chan did feel pressure to live up to the Chandler name," Knipping said. "I think that was something he wrestled with and something Dan understood."

Knipping conceded that residual guilt about splitting up the family -- his parents' divorce troubled Chan as a youngster -- may have caused her and Chandler to go easy on him.

"We probably did love him so totally there was a lack of discipline in his life. He was never required to do or be anything. He had unconditional love."

He still does.

"I've never seen a father love his child more than Dan," Knipping said. "He just doesn't want Chan to be gone. Period."

Love is not in the air when District Attorney Stewart Bell broaches the topic of Dan Chandler. Mild annoyance better describes the mood.

"I would venture to say that I've had more people call me to talk about this silly nonissue than anything else during my five years here," Bell said.

The district attorney has weathered many a media storm since he took office in 1995. No case has stirred greater notoriety than the ongoing murder trial of casino heir Ted Binion.

Behind the scenes, however, the Chandler case dwarfs the made-for-tabloid Binion proceedings in fanning the interest of Las Vegas' power elite. Bell and county coroner Ron Flud agree that the number and persistence of inquiries on Chandler's behalf compare to no other case they have handled.

A partial list of those who have called Bell, Flud or both reads like roll call for the city's high-voltage influence peddlers.

Political adviser Sig Rogich. Public relations consultant Billy Vassiliadis. Nevada Resort Association Chairman Mike Sloan. Real estate magnate and Las Vegas Sun President Brian Greenspun. Casino mogul Michael Gaughan. Professional gambler and golf course developer Billy Walters. Nevada State Athletic Commission Chairman Elias Ghanem. University Regents Tom Wiesner and Thalia Dondero. Clark County Commission Chairman Bruce Woodbury.

Sloan, vice president of Mandalay Resorts Group, divulged why so many prime movers have shown inordinate curiosity in the Chandler case. "Dan is rich in acquaintances and friends, if nothing else," he said.

Chandler, a casino host at the Las Vegas Hilton, tapped that wealth in the wake of a meeting with Bell in June 1998.

Chandler visited Bell in hopes of persuading him to waive the two-year statute of limitations. Wiesner and fellow Las Vegas businessman Voss Boreta accompanied Chandler. Both men are also friends of Bell and helped arrange the meeting.

Bell knew few details about Chan's death. He jotted notes as Chandler bemoaned how the coroner's finding of suicide left an indelible stigma on his son's name. A judgment of accidental death, Chandler intimated, would restore a measure of dignity to his memory. A ruling reversal also would bring peace to Chan's grandmother, who had been shattered by his death.

Chandler assured Bell that his motives were strictly personal and concerned neither money nor religion. The pitch worked.

"I agreed to take a look at it," Bell said in an interview.

Soon after, the prospects for Chandler's request ended as abruptly as his son's life.

"If Chandler hadn't lied to me, I would've done it as a courtesy ...," Bell said. "But it's absolutely, abundantly clear that he lied to me."

'Nothing subversive'

Something happened to convince Bell that Chandler duped him. That something was a coroners convention in South Carolina less than a week after their meeting.

Flud admits to feeling confounded when he learned Bell might lift the statute of limitations. More than once he had explained in detail his decision on Chan's death to Chandler and his attorney. Flud also met with the suicide expert they recruited to pick over his ruling. Nothing he heard from any of them sounded compelling enough to change the finding of suicide.

The coroner said he stopped short of asking Bell to deny Chandler's request. But Flud -- while sympathetic to a parent grieving the loss of a child -- found no merit in waiving the statute beyond indulging Chandler.

"I was not receptive to that because, why? Is it because there was a wrong decision made?" he said. "If there's new evidence, that's one thing. But if I've made the right decision and there's no new evidence, why are we going before a judge?"

Medical experts and psychologists say parents of a child who willfully kills himself often cannot accept a coroner's ruling of suicide, a reaction that usually subsides over time. On that point Flud added a none-too-subtle jab about obliging Chandler while parents of less prominence suffer silently.

"What do I say to all the families that I'm sure would want the same (and who ask), 'Why did we change this one?' Because there are influential people calling for it? Is that right? No."

The matter loitered in the back of Flud's mind as he left for South Carolina a few days after Bell and Chandler talked.

At a national convention of his colleagues Flud bumped into a coroner from Kentucky. Thanks to the larger-than-life legacy built by Happy Chandler, it is only slight hyperbole to say everyone in the state knows the Chandler name.

Flud told his fellow coroner the story of Chan's death. During the conversation Flud touched on the subject that would derail Dan Chandler's chances for a court hearing.

Flud related that one of Chandler's stated reasons for opposing the finding of suicide involved his mother -- Mildred Chandler, Happy's wife and Chan's grandmother. Dan Chandler, Flud claimed, had said that changing the cause of death to accidental would salve Mildred's anguish over the loss of her grandson.

"That's strange," the Kentucky coroner reportedly said. "The grandma's been dead for three years."

Flud relayed the news to Bell upon returning to Las Vegas. Within days Bell confronted Chesnoff, demanding to hear once more the reasons behind his client's request. When Chesnoff mentioned Mildred, Bell pounced.

"When I told him grandma had been dead for three years," Bell recalled, "you had to see the look on Chesnoff's face. There was a pregnant pause and then I said, 'David, I can't help you.' "

Chesnoff denies that he or Chandler attempted to mislead the district attorney. He instead offers a mea culpa for his lack of familiarity with the extended Chandler family.

"I didn't realize the grandmother had passed. It was a misunderstanding," Chesnoff said. "This thing just kind of got tangled. Everyone's intentions were pure here, and I wish it could've been resolved by the court."

Chandler insists he never lied. He acknowledges mentioning his mother's peace of mind to Bell. But he said he would have rushed to clarify the reference if he thought Bell inferred that Chan's grandmother was among the living.

"Look here -- I gave the eulogy at my mother's funeral. Does the district attorney really think I don't know when my own mother died?" Chandler said. "If I was talking about her I was talking about her memory. It never even occurred to me to say something about her being dead."

The two people aside from Bell and Chandler to sit in on their meeting are adamant about what occurred that day. Both Wiesner and Boreta vouch for Chandler.

"In no way did anyone imply that the grandmother was alive," Wiesner said. "There was no question about what Dan was doing. There was nothing subversive going on here."

Wiesner, also head of Big Dog's Hospitality Group, has known Bell for decades. His relationship with the district attorney, as much as anything else, opened the door for Chandler to make his plea.

Wiesner called Bell at least three times after he rejected Chandler. In polite, firm tones, Bell reiterated that Chandler lied to him. End of discussion.

Boreta, the owner of Las Vegas Golf and Tennis, echoed Wiesner's respect for Bell -- and likewise remains puzzled by his obstinacy.

"If he did misunderstand that about the grandmother, he should've asked someone to clear up whatever questions he had," Boreta said. "He's acting like he caught Dan on a murder case. I don't know why he's so standoffish."

But Bell's logic is self-evident. He asks no questions because he has none. His absolute conviction also explains the absence of rancor he feels toward Wiesner, Boreta or anyone else who supports Chandler. Bell simply thinks one man deceived them all. His word is the lone piece of evidence -- he threw away his notes long ago.

"I'm not going to do a favor for someone who was blowing smoke ...," Bell said. "It's just not going to happen."

Chandler has worked as a casino host for a half-dozen hotels since moving to Las Vegas in 1974. These days his Las Vegas Hilton business cards list his position as "Acting Commissioner," a nod to spending 25 years in the gambling business. Chandler prefers a more modest job title.

"I'm a glorified maitre d'," he said with a laugh. "I do whatever you want."

A casino host caters to well-heeled tourists and local customers. A quarter century of tending to an affluent clientele coupled with a last name that carries a bit of historical clout gives a man pull. How much pull becomes evident on a February afternoon inside Chandler's closet-sized Hilton office.

After a couple of phone calls Chandler scores two tickets to that month's NBA All-Star game through his friend Larry Brown, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

A short time later Chandler dials up Sloan, prominent Las Vegas attorney Jay Brown and longtime casino executive Claudine Williams. All of them are out at the time. All of them call back within 20 minutes.

Then Chandler punches in the cell phone number of Boston Celtics coach and President Rick Pitino. Chandler wears an honorary NCAA basketball championship ring given to him by Pitino, who coached the University of Kentucky to the 1996 title. Pitino eulogized Chan at his funeral May 24, 1993.

The coach doesn't answer this day. The Celtics, en route to California, will play the Sacramento Kings that night. Chandler may try to hook up with Pitino before he heads back east.

Between making his calls Chandler fields almost as many from friends and associates. Some talk business, others solicit betting tips. An unapologetic gambler, Chandler resembles an AT&T operator for sports bettors as he runs down his picks.

Chandler plugged into this vast personal network after Bell accused him of lying. An irritated Bell, he surmised, would spike any suggestion of a face-to-face meeting. Chandler clutched one last hope. If enough of the right people spoke about him to Bell, the district attorney might rethink his decision.

Fat chance. The inquiries about Chandler caromed off Bell's set jaw. In those same polite, firm tones he used on Wiesner, Bell told caller after caller that Chandler lied to him. Simple as that. Nothing personal. A matter of principle.

Rogich, Greenspun, Gaughan, Woodbury and Dondero each gave that rough account of their conversations with Bell. Sloan portrayed Bell as "painfully aware of the circumstances on this after hearing from a host of prominent citizens."

But Bell remains unbending even as the calls continue, a rigid stance that Sloan finds hard to figure.

"I don't understand the harm to (the county) if they would do this. If it would help bring about a family's peace of mind, that seems reasonable," he said.

Greenspun talked to Bell and followed up with a note on Chandler's behalf that read, in part, "I wanted this opportunity to tell you that I am convinced he (Chandler) is sincere in his reaction and response. ... He seeks only a bit of peace."

Greenspun also forwarded a letter that Chandler wrote to Bell but had yet to send for fear of upsetting him. In the note a contrite Chandler attempts to untangle the confusion over his mother and begs Bell for "the favor of a lifetime."

"Mr. Bell, only a misunderstanding could have led you to believe that I lied to you about my mother," Chandler wrote. "You are the only person on earth who can help me. You do not owe me anything -- you barely know me.

"But I am asking you as a parent to give me a chance to deal with my son's death the best way I can."

Questions of motive

Tears did not fill Bell's eyes. Just the opposite. He clenched his teeth tighter. Today he asserts that letting Chandler plead his case only would serve to reinforce the coroner's ruling.

Even if he granted Chandler's request, Bell said, the district attorney and coroner's offices still would argue that Chan committed suicide. Bell believes no judge would overturn the cause of death based on the evidence.

"Why are we going to reopen something that we're going to win anyway?" he said.

The dozens of calls that poured into Bell's office influenced him in another, unintended way. He now looks askance at Chandler's motives.

Bell wonders aloud whether Chandler took out a life insurance policy on Chan. He admits to lacking proof to support his charge. "But," Bell said, "it's my job to be suspicious, and he's protesting too much for no money to be involved."

Likewise, an equally pointed question about motives can be aimed at Bell. He appears to have stood up to the city's power brokers when they besieged him with calls. But did he act appropriately in mulling Chandler's plea in the first place?

By his own admission Bell met with Chandler as a "favor." Asked if his office gives the same weight to the requests of average residents -- including parents of suicide victims -- Bell replied that his office "serves the public."

"We look into every question or problem we get. We always try to give an honest answer, but sometimes we can't do what people want because it's not the right thing to do," he said.

As with everything else, however, whom you know helps.

"If someone of the caliber of Brian Greenspun or Tom Wiesner or Mike Sloan calls me and says 'this is a problem,' they certainly have instant credibility with me because I've known them for years," Bell said. "I know that they have the community's best interests at heart, so my ears perk up."

Except, ironically, when they talk about Chandler.

"If I get 10 calls a day every day on this, it's still over," Bell said. "It's 3,000 percent over."

The Chandler case, beyond Bell's isolated mistrust of people he otherwise deems trustworthy, has spawned at least one other intriguing contradiction.

The district attorney supports Flud's decision on Chan. Yet Bell's initial willingness to consider doing Chandler a "favor" wedged Flud into an awkward spot.

The what-if scenario: If the case went to court, anyone unaware of Bell's private intent might have interpreted his public act of waiving the statute as a slap at the coroner.

Flud denies any hard feelings about the Chandler saga, repeating his open offer for anyone to bring him new physical evidence in Chan's death. He also depicts the phone call that touched off so many others -- in which he told Bell about Chan's grandmother -- as a professional duty performed by a diligent public servant.

Simple as that. Nothing personal. A matter of principle.

Yet Flud betrays something other than indifference when he says the whole affair would blow over if Chandler were "a Joe Schmo." Certain that his office made the correct ruling on Chan, Flud maintains that the law should apply just the same to a Joe Somebody -- no matter whom he knows.

"If I change a death certificate based on that (a person's name), I might as well close up my doors and pack up my business," he said. "Is that going to fly in a court of law? Ethically, it's wrong. Morally, it's wrong. Legally, it's wrong."

Which still leaves the head-scratching matter of how one father's apparently innocuous plea set off so much backroom politicking.

Wiesner, for one, suspects that an unseen motive lurks beneath Bell's spurning of Chandler. He knows the district attorney too well and considers him too cagey to believe Bell would pin his entire rationale on, in Wiesner's words, "the grandmother thing."

If nothing else, Wiesner said, he could understand Bell acquiescing to Chandler's request just to rid himself of a headache.

"Stew Bell is a good friend, and I think he would've liked to help," Wiesner said. "But somebody poisoned the well. Somebody poisoned the reputation of Dan Chandler. "

Ordinary sorrow

Chandler's father rose from dirt-floor poverty to become governor of Kentucky. A pugnacious political insider when circumstances demanded, Happy Chandler always took care to swaddle his speeches in populist rhetoric, even after he exited public office.

"My only wish now is that I could have done more for the people of Kentucky," the former U.S. senator said late in life. "They deserve it. You're great people. There are no greater people."

Dan Chandler tried politics once and spat it back out. Or, rather, politics spat him back out. If the race had been the Kentucky Derby instead of the 1968 Democratic primary for Congress, Chandler would have lost by six furlongs.

Chandler never picked up his father's winning political ways, but he learned at least one crucial lesson -- always relate a story to the people.

The philosophy emerges as he rails against Bell and Flud. He is not Dan Chandler, friend of NBA coaches and Vegas kingmakers. He is Dan Chandler, frustrated father in search of justice. He is Everyman. He is You.

"We're being shut out from presenting our side to the judge," Chandler said. "The district attorney and the coroner are saying to taxpaying citizens, 'We got this perch, we got the law. We can shut you down and we're going to do it.' "

Few taxpaying citizens know what it's like to possess a Rolodex as stacked as Chandler's. But most can grasp a father's longing for his son.

The parental bond is Chandler's answer to those who would believe he seeks special treatment. Beneath the top-shelf connections and colorful heritage and triple-extra-large personality, the gnarled roots of ordinary sorrow ensnare him.

"Chan was my best friend," he said, his voice a rasp. "I tried not to beat myself up after he died."

Chandler did exactly that for years. He ate to excess. He drank himself out of a couple of jobs. He neglected his body and developed neuropathy, a degenerative nerve condition. The painful affliction causes his legs to swell. He lumbers with a heavy limp.

Friends finally halted Chandler's free fall last year. They persuaded him to visit a doctor and give up drinking. He got on a diet. He saw a psychologist. His spirit began to mend.

"In therapy I could get into 'the father I should've been' and all that stuff that eats at you," he said.

Today Chandler also finds unlikely solace in a four-year-old audiotape.

Knipping cajoled a skeptical Chandler into joining her for a meeting with "bereavement specialist" George Anderson in 1996. A respected author on matters of the soul, Anderson enjoys a surprising level of worldwide credibility for someone who claims to channel the dead.

On a recording Knipping made of the session Anderson's nasal voice is heard as he "talks" to Chan. Anderson says Chan needs to tell his parents something. He was having emotional problems. He wasn't in the right frame of mind. He was drinking. Confused.

And then: "You have to tell them this was an accident. I did shoot myself. But I didn't commit suicide." Knipping cried softly. Chandler sat bolt upright. They had never met Anderson.

"I know it sounds kinda out there," Chandler said. "But, you know, Anderson told us a lot of stuff he couldn't have known. ... He talked about stuff that Chan would've known."

Time has allowed Chandler to put his life -- and his son's death -- in perspective. He has forgiven himself. He cannot do the same for Flud and Bell.

People tell Chandler to let it go. He can't. Not until he avenges what he believes his son has endured in death: The coroner's ruling that defamed his memory, the district attorney's refusal to grant him a chance at eternal dignity.

"I think this all comes down to the false pride of the coroner and the district attorney," Chandler said. "I think the coroner's hiding something, and I think the district attorney's helping him hide something. What else can it be? How much am I really asking for?"

Happy Chandler wished he could have done more for the people of Kentucky. Dan Chandler only wishes he could have done more for his son. In his heart he cradles the words Chan spoke just before he died.

They are the timeless words of a son to his father, of a father to his son.

"I want to carry on the Chandler name."

Martin Kuz is a reporter for the Sun. He can be reached at (702) 259-4063 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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