Bright lights, big weirdness

Sex on dirty carpets, betrayal, decapitation, spirit possession, mega-money and a defendant they're calling the "Black Widow." Can Las Vegas' latest lurid trial be good for its image? You bet.

Published March 29, 2001 9:04AM (EST)

It's August 1993, 1 a.m., deathly hot outside and dry as a charred skull. A crowd of sweating tourists stands in the middle of the Strip. Cars slowly cruise past as the group stares up into the glowing sky. They're watching a helicopter circle a massive concrete spire, the top of which is in flames, as large pieces of burning plywood drop 500 feet to the ground. Bob Stupak's half-built Stratosphere Tower is ominously ablaze, a Didionesque vision on an otherwise ordinary summer night.

Or should that be Thompsonesque? Whatever. The banality of evil flourishes here as it does everywhere, but as Hunter S. Thompson fearlessly, loathingly and indelibly illustrated, Las Vegas is also world headquarters for the banality of weirdness; like its friend Los Angeles, there's something eerie and unsettled about the place, always has been. And anyone who really understands the business of Vegas (not that it's especially tough to grasp), knows that badness -- banal or not -- is just as important to this town as bright lights and big weirdness. Never mind the P.R. drivel the visitors bureau spews, the City of Light Bulbs is the Madonna of metropolises: The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

These days, all buffed up and theme-park cheerful, Vegas seems like that nice suburban house, with the nice suburban Freeling family, in 1982's "Poltergeist." The Freeling's movie home was a sunny, happy place built, as it unpleasantly turned out, on top of graves, and the restless ghosts just could not let things be. Perhaps Las Vegas isn't built over corpses (then again ...), but its history is a sordid, murky one, which repeatedly brings agitated spirits to the surface no matter how hard the city's cheerleaders try to promote it as a wholesome family resort. The place's most magnetic quality is still its dark, dark soul; the thing that will never leave Las Vegas. And from a marketing perspective, who'd want it to? Darkness is irresistible.

At the moment, the great caliginous light of the desert is shining on former socialite Margaret Rudin -- dubbed "the Black Widow" by Court TV -- in a garish murder trial that is currently one of the best floor shows in Vegas. Michael Amador, Rudin's lead defense attorney, has called his client's predicament "the single most complex and intriguing case in Las Vegas history," and he wasn't just spouting lawyerly hyperbole (he saved that for later). For sheer tawdriness and salacious details nothing has lit up cineplexes in recent memory that can match this drama -- except maybe the trial that preceded it. (The two combined have -- for years now -- kept crime journalists immersed in plots worthy of Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy or Tony Soprano.)

The Rudin story is being featured in newspapers as far away as London, and here in the U.S., the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Las Vegas Sun and Court TV (both on the air and on the Web), among others, are providing exhaustive coverage of the daily proceedings as well as archived articles, photos, facsimile documents, diary excerpts and transcripts.

The essential facts of the case go like this:

In December 1994, Ron Rudin, a multimillionaire real estate developer, disappeared. It took his wife Margaret (it was the fifth marriage for both of them) two days to report him missing. In January 1995, his decapitated, charred body and skull (with four .22 caliber bullet holes) were found near Lake Mohave outside of Las Vegas, along with the burned remains of an antique trunk. Margaret, owner of an antique shop, did not attend her husband's funeral. In 1996 a .22-caliber pistol fitted with a silencer, which Ron Rudin, who was also a gun dealer, had reported missing in 1988, was discovered in Lake Mead. The defense and the prosecution agree that it's the murder weapon. In April 1997, Margaret Rudin was indicted for murder, but by then she'd disappeared. In Nov. 1999, after being featured on the "America's Most Wanted" TV program, Rudin was arrested in a small town in Massachusetts, where she was living in a dingy apartment with a retired fireman. After unsuccessfully fighting extradition, she was brought to Nevada, where she attempted, but failed, to have the charges dismissed. The trial commenced with each side's opening statements on March 2.

It's been moving ahead -- more or less -- all this month, a fine mess that gets finer and messier by the day. (So messy that the indefatigable Peter O'Connell, who's covering the trial for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, published a crib sheet of the cases' main events last Sunday under the headline "Rudin trial can get confusing" to help those of us who are following it -- or trying to -- keep things straight.)

The proceedings hit one speed bump a couple of weeks ago when, on the morning of Friday, March 16, more than a week into the trial, and the day after her estranged sister, Dona Cantrell-Robinson, had begun her scathing testimony for the prosecution, Rudin stood up in court and requested a mistrial because, she said, Amador, her lead attorney, was not well prepared. Amador agreed with her: "I absolutely made decisions that I think denied her the right to a fair trial," he told Judge Joseph Bonaventure. At which point steam could be seen coming out of Bonaventure's ears: "You know how much money was expended on this case? Thousands and thousands of dollars. And now, nine days into the case, your client says, 'By the way, things aren't going my way. Give me a mistrial'?"

Before lunch on Monday the 18th, Bonaventure denied the mistrial motion, beginning his long ruling statement in almost rhapsodic prose: "A trial lives and breathes, with each one having a life of its own, its own unique personality with all its ebbs and flows." But his tone sharpened as he waded into the deep end of surreal metaphor: An attorney "can offer to fall on his sword on behalf of his client, but to declare an abrupt halt to an ongoing trial, the sword must be one of tempered steel and not silicone rubber." So, onward went the trial, which is expected to last several weeks, though that seems an optimistic estimate given its glacial progress thus far.

But the above doesn't begin to do justice to the story -- calling it grisly, lurid and weird is understatement (did I mention grisly?). And whether or not Rudin's guilty, her behavior has been a defense attorney's nightmare. During the two years she was on the lam, Rudin changed her hair color, her eye color and her name, and concocted a dunderheaded story that had an Israeli terrorist killing her husband. (Yehuda Sharon, a friend of Rudin's, was once in Israeli intelligence. Prosecutors claim he may have helped Rudin after the murder, but he has never been charged.) Recalling her years on the run for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Rudin chirped, "I loved it. It was exciting, I had lots of adventures."

That sound you hear is Michael Amador grinding his teeth.

The ostensible motive is money, with big helpings of betrayal and sex on the side. Ron Rudin was worth about $11 million, the marriage had been a tempestuous one from the start (at the time of his death he was having an affair with a woman named Sue Lyles), and Margaret had surreptitiously installed electronic eavesdropping equipment in Ron's office years before his death. According to police, guns had gone off in the Rudin home on at least two occasions before Ron was murdered. Once, it happened during an argument between Margaret and Ron (Margaret admitted she was holding the gun). Before that, it happened when one of Ron's former wives, Peggy, killed herself. (Investigators who examined the bedroom after Ron's murder found Peggy's brain tissue still on the ceiling after 17 years.)

Now, anyone would be deeply affected by a spouse's suicide, but according to Rudin, Ron believed he was possessed by his ex-wife's spirit. Rudin felt Ron's superstition was significant enough that in her voluntary statement to Las Vegas police, three days after her husband's disappearance, she brought it up as justification for not filing a missing person report earlier.

Rudin: I don't know how you guys are going to take it. Ron believed in evil spirit possession.

Police officer: Huh-huh.

Rudin: And he'd gone to a doctor for years that did de-possession.

Police officer: Huh-huh.

Rudin: Up in Saint George. And so he kept saying he was possessed by evil spirits, and he was possessed by Peggy's spirit. Peggy was a wife he had that killed herself in the house ... I said to him would he go back and see Dr. Graham? So I thought maybe because of all his agitation and his mood he just needed to get away for a couple days. He just needed to go away by himself. And that's why at first I wasn't that upset, because I know that, um, demon de-possession is something that he practices.

Police officer: Can you say it a little louder? De-what?

Rudin: De-possession.

Police officer: De-Possession? And that's something you say he practices?

Rudin answers in the affirmative and the conversation wanders off in another direction.

One of the more titillating, pathetic items of evidence (Court TV's Web site features a facsimile) is an anonymous letter sent to the children of Ron Rudin's mistress, Sue Lyles. The letter, which the prosecution contends was written by Margaret Rudin, informs the children,

Your mother has been screwing Ronald Rudin the realter for over a year. She meets him at vacant houses he owns -- during her work time -- and she screws him on dirty carpet floors. He brags to his friends and laughs at her because he tells everyone he does not get a motel and he does not have to buy her a lunch ...

and so on, promising in the next paragraph "a big scandle." Which is exactly what it's become and why it's a public relations dream come true for Las Vegas.

Though Vegas is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., its expanding population seems to make no dent in its small, sin-filled desert outpost image -- a winning brand indeed. As big as Vegas is, and despite its university and other major city amenities, it can't shake its aura of a wayward cow town where everyone seems to know everyone else and they're all doing nasty things to each other while the local industry turns a profit.

The Rudin case, like so many Vegas tales, adds a potentially lucrative new coat of tarnish to the glistening city that must have Hollywood producers and screenwriters salivating over possible TV or movie deals. It's a story that just won't stop giving.

The warm-up act for the Rudin case was the Lonnie "Ted" Binion murder trial. Binion, 55, a millionaire drug addict, was the son of Lester "Benny" Binion, founder of the Horseshoe casino. In September 1998, Ted Binion (who'd been stripped of his gaming license in 1997 because of his drug use and links to organized crime) was found dead on the floor of his Las Vegas estate by his 26-year-old girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, a former topless dancer.

The assumption then was that he'd "made an ingestion error in regards to the medication," according to a police officer's delicate explanation in a Las Vegas Review-Journal report published the day following Binion's death. In the same article a "shaken Rick Tabish, who was a friend of Binion's," says of his dead pal, "I never had any bad dealings with the man -- what a tragedy ... I know he was trying really hard to change his life."

Binion's father, Benny, is quoted in a profile as calling the 1946 opening of Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo "the biggest whoop-de-do I ever seen." He probably would have had a lot more to say had he been around to see the whoop-de-do trial of Murphy and her other boyfriend, Tabish, who were convicted of murdering Benny's drug-addled son.

Among the highlights of the Binion trial -- also presided over by Judge Bonaventure and reported on by the Review-Journal's O'Connell -- was the filing of a syntactically creative motion requesting the court "to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine how Ms. Murphy's panties managed to mysteriously disappear while in the custody of the detention center in order to get to the bottom of this matter." The bottom was never gotten to in the matter, but the motion was filed because, as O'Connell wrote, Murphy's attorney, John Momot, "suggested authorities illegally seized his client's panties in order to conduct scientific tests on bodily fluids located on the clothing."

The authorities claimed the underwear was simply lost while Murphy was in custody, but Momot wasn't placated and insisted that the nature of the missing item was key: "It would have to be her black panties," he fumed. Meanwhile, Chief Deputy District Attorney David Rogers, who prosecuted the Binion case, found himself an involuntary costar in a seamy outtake from a courtroom drama scripted by Lewis Carroll: "We have murder cases that are waiting to go on trial," Rogers sputtered, "and we are going to take hours of precious court time to find the missing panties?"

On another occasion, Murphy -- who was reviled as an unrepentant clotheshorse during the trial, but had toned down her act to a distinct Church Lady look by the time she was sentenced -- spray-painted her electronic monitoring ankle bracelet to match an outfit.

The myriad connections -- innocent as they may be -- between the Rudin and Murphy cases do nothing to dispel the notion of Vegas as the glittering capital of inbred thuggery, a hot, cheap burg where amoral yahoos party with mobsters while the town's behemoth gambling factories trick hardworking saps out of their vacation money.

Sandy Murphy's first attorney was Oscar Goodman, a personal friend of Ted Binion's, who became famous for defending clients like Mike Tyson, Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, reputed Chicago mob boss Tony "The Ant" Spilotro (who, one report claimed, once put a rival's head in a vise and squeezed out his eyeballs) and La Cosa Nostra financial wizard Meyer Lansky. Goodman left the Murphy case to run for mayor, which he now is. Both Murphy and Tabish are currently appealing their convictions.

On March 13, Murphy fired her top appeal lawyer, Thomas Pitaro, because in his capacity as court appointed co-counsel in the Rudin case, he's associating with two Vegas investigators who worked on the Murphy case -- though only one of them worked for the prosecution -- and are now involved in the Rudin defense.

And the coziness gets even cozier. Earlier, Rudin, Murphy and a young woman named Jessica Williams ("a former stripper with a genius-level IQ," as Court TV identifies her) found themselves sharing the same cell. Williams was recently convicted of driving with drugs in her system after swerving off a highway and killing six teenagers who were doing roadside cleanup; she'll be sentenced on March 30th. However, the three are no longer cellmates, as Rudin complained that Williams and Murphy were behaving "inappropriately." What precisely Rudin meant by "inappropriately" was never made clear and, indeed, no bad behavior was proved, but the three were separated anyway.

See what I mean? It's a story that gives and gives and gives. Then gives more. And more. It just won't quit. But that, after all, is the Vegas way.

As Rudin's trial lumbers forward, the Stratosphere Tower, long ago completed, looms over Las Vegas' constantly morphing skyline. Meanwhile, down below, the business of America's most exciting, dazzling and creepy city continues as usual -- the magnetism of the desert's dark star pulling in free-spending visitors from across the globe.

Of course, most of those visitors are probably not even aware of the Rudin trial or the Binion case or any of the others. They're untouched by (and uninterested in) Las Vegas' eerie soul. They're just average, middle class people like you and me. And the Freeling family.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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