Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

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New lead reopens car bomb mystery

The scene is seared into Beecher Avants' memory.

Twenty-seven years later, and he can almost feel that scorching 115-degree day. It was 3:43 p.m. on July 25, 1972, and the veteran homicide cop felt like he was melting, turning into water.

He can still visualize the inferno. Cars were burning all over the third floor of the parking garage in downtown Las Vegas. And in the middle of all that smoke and fire and heat were the smoldering remains of a Cadillac blown apart by a powerful car bomb -- a blast so powerful it ripped a gaping hole in the concrete and steel-reinforced floor beneath the car.

Killed in the explosion was Bill Coulthard, a prominent attorney and the former head of the FBI's Las Vegas office.

The high-profile killing stunned Las Vegas. And the heat was on for Avants and other homicide detectives. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms jumped on board to lend a hand and a $75,000 reward was quickly posted. A flood of tips, rumors and wild goose chases kept detectives hopping for months.

And nothing panned out. At least nothing good enough to win a conviction.

For 27 years Avants has been haunted by the Coulthard case, always wondering if there was something else he should have done, some clue he missed, some piece of evidence that could have resulted in justice.

But something has finally bubbled to the surface, and Avants is hoping for closure.

Lt. Wayne Petersen of Metro's homicide unit says that someone has come forward with information on the case that looks promising.

"We have new information on people who have already been identified," as those who may have been involved in Coulthard's death, Petersen said.

Because the leads have led them out of the state and because of the FBI's interest in the case, Petersen said investigators are working closely with federal agents to track down the new leads.

Petersen declined to comment on the identity of their informant, but he acknowledged the information seems to be "reliable."

"We are certainly looking at this as being a last ditch effort to bring a resolution to this case," Petersen said. "Obviously the people involved with the case are getting older. If we want to bring them to justice, we don't have forever to do it."

Petersen called the Coulthard case unusual because it has gone unsolved for so long. Oftentimes in cases where more than one person is involved, loyalties will change or someone will use their knowledge if they find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

"Usually it's to our benefit when more than one person is involved because it's human nature for people to talk, thank God. People will always eventually talk and now, maybe that's working in our favor," Petersen said.

"Without this new information coming forward, this case would probably have sat on a shelf and remained unsolved and it may still stay unsolved, but the information certainly gave us a starting point to re-examine the case. We're certainly making the effort to get it resolved."

Avants was working in his downtown office when he heard the explosion. Thinking it was a natural gas line explosion, he headed out to continue working an ongoing homicide investigation. Dispatchers soon radioed to tell him he had better head to the Bank of Nevada building instead. A car bomb had gone off on the third-floor parking lot.

"I got up there, and it was so very, very hot. There were secondary fires caused by the gasoline in the tanks of the cars parked nearby," Avants said. "It was hotter than an oven. You turned to water when you walked up the ramp to where the explosion took place. It was a terrible, horrible scene."

Although Avants thought he recognized Coulthard's Cadillac, it took dental records to positively identify the married father of four.

Authorities did not suffer from a lack of possible motives. Coulthard, 56, ran the Las Vegas FBI office from 1939 until 1945, and as a lawyer, he handled estates, trusts and matters concerning the Bank of America and the Golden Nugget hotel-casino.

Coulthard also was a partial owner of the land on which the Horseshoe hotel-casino stands and was a corporate officer, secretary and stockholder of the 4-Queens hotel-casino.

It seemed as though everyone had a tip on the bombing death.

"When you get a spectacular case, you get everybody and everyone coming out of the woodwork with a story to tell," Avants said. "The sizeable reward had people trying to capitalize too."

Allen Tooley, 80, owned and operated The Annex back in 1972, which was a favorite downtown hangout for attorneys and judges.

Some might think that with Las Vegas' colorful history the bombing wouldn't create such a stir, but it did, Tooley said.

"Everybody was shocked because when the mob ran the town they never knocked them off in town," Tooley said. "They did it in California or somewhere else because they wanted to keep the town clean. This was a big story around town for quite awhile."

Tooley, who contends that more cases were settled in his bar than in the courthouse back then, said that many people thought the homicide had something to do with lease negotiations between Coulthard and the Binion family, which ran the Horseshoe.

"If a person had information they might have been afraid or maybe no one had the information, but the stories were that the Binions were involved," Tooley said. "Benny Binion was no angel. He buried a lot of bodies in Texas, and he confessed to that. He was one tough hombre."

Petersen said the Binion angle was investigated by authorities at the time, and Benny Binion was questioned.

And then there's the theory that Coulthard had angered someone in the courtroom.

Las Vegas attorney John O'Brien worked for Coulthard and was in the office when the explosion shook the building. He doesn't believe any of Coulthard's clients would want him dead.

"Bill was not an abrasive personality," O'Brien said. "No one ever had any cause to attack him in that manner. He was a gentleman and a pro. He was not mean spirited."

Still, O'Brien concedes one never knows what will set someone off.

"You think this, you think that. My personal view is that it wasn't the law practice, but you could step on someone's toe on a busy street and that person could go nuts," O'Brien said.

Rumors only got worse when court reporter Bobby Pinkston was arrested for allegedly stealing the transcripts of a secret grand jury hearing concerning the Coulthard case. Pinkston told the Las Vegas Sun that several "very important people" were involved in Coulthard's death, but he declined to comment further, saying he feared for the lives of his two small children.

According to court records, Pinkston was tried twice. His first trial ended with a conviction that was later overturned on a technicality and his second trial ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors eventually dismissed the charges in April 1974.

Pinkston drowned in Stone Mountain, Ga., almost exactly five years after Coulthard was killed. According to his autopsy, he had a blood alcohol level of 0.32.

Avants said he believes Coulthard's death was related to his business dealings and was a contract killing. He also believes he knows who actually wired the Cadillac.

"There wasn't sufficient evidence to proceed against them, at least according to the U.S. Attorney and the local district attorney," Avants said. "We just needed one more stepping stone to put the whole puzzle together."

Perhaps, if police had been able to arrest the actual bombers, Avants said they may have been able to prosecute those who wanted Coulthard dead.

"Who did the hiring was guesswork," Avants said. "It could've been several people, several prominent citizens. Some are dead now, old age, disease or whatever."

The new information seems to back up Avants' suspicions that the murder was related to Coulthard's business dealings.

"It still looks to be due to his business dealings and at this point we're trying to put a prosecutable case together against those responsible," Petersen said.

Avants said that back in 1972 there were plenty of leads, but none could nail the case shut.

"There were a lot of things to run down. Some of the leads led nowhere, or they petered out. Some had no endings, and others were just lies," Avants said.

The case was "aggravating and disconcerting," Avants said.

"It was a very strange occurrence, that case," Avants said. "I used to talk to myself, running down all of the leads. My wife at the time would tell me I was talking to myself while I was in the backyard doing yard work on the weekends. I was trying to put the pieces together. It was a baffling case."

The case continued to bother him long after he retired from police work and went to work as a district attorney's office investigator and later as a casino security consultant, Avants said.

"This is the one that really sticks out in my mind the most," Avants said. "I'll always wonder what I might have missed that would have put the final cap on it."

Petersen said he thinks there are others who are just as restless -- those responsible for the killing and those who have information about it.

"We hope attention on the case will bring up some feelings in the community, maybe reawaken some memories from the past," Peterson said. "Maybe those responsible will realize they can never truly get away and hopefully they won't be sleeping well tonight."

Avants said he prays that justice is finally served.

"God bless them if they can solve it."

Anyone with information on the case is asked to call Silent Witness at 385-5555, Metro Homicide at 229-3521 or the FBI at 385-1281.

Kim Smith covers courts for the Sun. She can be reached at (702) 259-2321 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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