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October 1, 2014

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VEGAS ON TV:

The dead tycoon, his girlfriend, her lover and stolen silver

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"Murder in Sin City" by Jeff German

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Ted Binion

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Becky Behnen, Ted Binion's sister

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Sandy Murphy

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Rick Tabish

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Jeff German, author of "Murder in Sin City"

The death of Ted Binion in September 1998 had all the ingredients of a yarn tailor-made for Las Vegas.

He was the son of the late Benny Binion, an iconic casino owner whose Horseshoe Club downtown gave rise to the World Series of Poker.

The younger Binion abused illicit drugs and alcohol. He had a beautiful girlfriend half his age who worked briefly as a stripper and cheated on him. He had a hoard of silver bullion and coins that were stolen from their underground vault in the desert. And he was found dead at age 55 in his posh ranch-style home.

The girlfriend and her lover — who had built the vault — were charged with murdering Binion and stealing the silver.

The culmination was a high-profile courtroom drama that attracted national media attention and was detailed by Las Vegas Sun senior investigative reporter Jeff German in his book, “Murder in Sin City.”

The book served as the inspiration for “Sex and Lies in Sin City: The Ted Binion Scandal,” a movie that will air at 9 p.m. Saturday on the Lifetime Network, cable television channel 26.

“This story had everything you could want in a plot,” German said. “It had drugs, love, betrayal, greed and buried treasure, all of this with Las Vegas as a backdrop.”

Binion’s girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, and her lover, Rick Tabish, initially were convicted in 2000 of murdering Binion and of burglarizing his vault for the silver, with Tabish also convicted of beating a sand pit owner.

With Murphy and Tabish arguing that Binion died of a drug overdose, the Nevada Supreme Court granted them a retrial on the murder and burglary charges. The high court ruled that Tabish should not have been tried in the same case for the beating and that the trial judge, Joseph Bonaventure, improperly allowed hearsay evidence.

Murphy and Tabish were convicted of burglary but acquitted of murder in the second trial. Murphy was released from prison in 2005, after which she moved to California. Tabish remains behind bars for the beating. Binion’s antique coin and currency collection, valued at $300,000, has never been recovered.

The film stars Mena Suvari of “American Beauty” fame as Murphy, Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden as Binion’s sister Becky Behnen, Matthew Modine as Ted Binion, and Johnathon Schaech as Tabish.

“Sex and Lies” follows Murphy’s stormy relationship with Binion and her affair with Tabish, a married Montana businessman. When Binion learns about Murphy’s affair, he asks his lawyer to take her out of his will. Within 24 hours, Murphy finds Binion dead in his home.

Behnen tells police she believes her brother was murdered. Tabish is later caught trying to steal the silver. He and Murphy are ultimately arrested and brought to trial.

A 30-year veteran of the Sun, German covered the initial six-week trial for the newspaper and then spent two months writing “Murder in Sin City.” The paperback book, published in 2001 by Avon Books, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Inc., has sold an estimated 50,000 copies. An additional four chapters that German wrote on the retrial and the aftermath will be available as early as today as an E-book that can be purchased online at harpercollins.com.

German, who was portrayed in the movie as the character Jay Green, praised the acting but had some reservations about the script.

“I think Sandy Murphy was portrayed a little too sympathetically in the movie for my taste and the Becky Behnen character was a little too strong,” German said. “But for the most part the story line followed the same course as the book.”

The film shoot was not without its difficulties. Suvari said by telephone that changes were made to tone down the script after Murphy threatened to sue the filmmakers.

“It was a little frustrating, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Suvari said. “I still loved the project, but it was more challenging.”

Director Peter Medak said in a separate interview that most of “Sex and Lies” was shot in New Mexico rather than in Las Vegas because the filmmakers, the Konigsberg Company and Sony Pictures Television, were able to get a lucrative tax break in New Mexico that they could not get in Southern Nevada. He estimated that the film cost $5 million to $6 million to make.

Both Suvari and Medak came away from the project unsure of the extent, if any, to which Murphy and Tabish were involved in Binion’s death.

In playing Murphy, Suvari did not rely on her own experiences with Las Vegas and gambling. (She has won a World Poker Tour celebrity event.) Instead, the actress relied on the book and on televised media interviews with Murphy and footage of her courtroom appearances.

“Sandy wasn’t just a dumb blonde,” Suvari said. “She was an intelligent girl who had a couple of traumatic things happen to her when she was young. She was raped twice as a teenager and lost a lot of motivation. When she came to Vegas she gambled away $13,000 and became somewhat desperate. When she met Binion she genuinely cared for him a lot but it became a twisted relationship. His heroin addiction put their relationship to the test.”

Medak said Murphy’s lawyers contacted Sony Pictures but he knew few details and insisted he did not allow it to influence his filmmaking.

“Film studios are always petrified of lawsuits,” he said.

As for the story, Medak said “nobody really knows what happened in real life.”

“So I wanted to leave it open to interpretation so that the audience could make up their own mind and have conversations or argue about it,” he said. “I didn’t think it was up to me to give the absolute conclusion to it.”

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