Benny Binion, the creator of the World Series of Poker has been implicated in a mysterious 40-year old murder case, hundreds of miles north of Vegas, in the Idaho mountains.
In 1980, the little mining town of Clayton, Idaho was a two-bar town — it still is to look at it on Google maps. In 1980 a mysterious gunman shot Dan Woolley in the parking lot of one of those bars, crossed the road to the other bar, announced he’d killed a man, and ordered a drink.
When he’d done with his bitter brew, he walked into the night, leaving nothing but the story and a name: Walter Mason.
Mason was ID’d by witnesses. The town knew him. And as an ex-rodeo cowboy, a horse had trodden on him and given him a distinctive face. He knew Dan Woolley personally. Though new in town, Mason had friends there.
The police brought Mason in on October 10th of this year. He was living in Texas. The ax fell after his new daughter-in-law came across details of the murder on Facebook and put the story together. Living as Walter Allison, he admitted promptly to the crime when the cops showed up. Though he claimed it was self-defense.
One version of the story is that he got into a fight over a woman. The fight moved outside, and Dan Woolley joined the fray, either coming to Mason’s defense or (in Mason’s story) to lay him low. Mason left briefly to grab his gun, and in the following scuffle shot twice, winging a bystander and hitting Woolley in the face.
Woolley’s son Brett told reporters he believes that Binion’s gang gave Mason his new life and kept him from the law after the murder. While Binion’s daughter suggested it was his rodeo connections.
It could easily have been both.
The Binion connection
Mason certainly knew Binion, but it remains unclear if, why, or to what extent Binion was behind Woolley’s killing.
Binion’s hands were never exactly clean. Almost no one who built casinos in the ’50s could come away without a little mobster on them. But Binion was in deeper than most.
His rap sheet starts in 1924. Before that, he was accused of running moonshine as a bootlegger during prohibition but went uncharged. Among the felonies listed in his F.B.I. file are two murder convictions.
He found himself in the dock for plenty more than that though. For example, his goons offed rival Ben Freiden in 1936, allegedly. The story goes that Binion shot himself in the arm. Then he turned himself into the police and claimed that Greedo shot first. Binion was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
According to Garry Cartwright’s Benny and the Boys, Binion once even put a $25,000 bounty on a man’s scalp.
Cowboys and robbers
Binion’s son-in-law, a rodeo fan who was around in Mason’s heydey, confirms that Mason probably knew Binion. “The Horseshoe had cheap drinks, cheap food, and everyone congregated down there,” he said.
Binion also regularly paid entry fees for cowboys in the National Finals Rodeo. He was sometimes called “the patron saint of rodeo.”
Rodeo riders have famously short, badly-paid careers, are tough, and live on the road making them hard to trace. So the idea of Benny Binion having a rodeo clown act as muscle isn’t far fetched. Cartwright confirms that Binion loved to keep rodeo cowboys around. If Mason was one of them, he might have fallen under the gang’s protection.
Unfortunately, as Mason is 87-years old and beset by health problems, a complete and conclusive trial are unlikely to be forthcoming. And Binion passed away in 1989, taking his secrets with him.
So, the case will almost certainly have to remain a tantalizing mystery.
Featured image: Flickr