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Grim Reaping: Deadsville

Illustration by Brent Holmes
Illustration by Brent Holmes

Everybody dies. But not everyone dies scandalously. A map of some notable deaths in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas lore is marked by, among other things, death — often of the headline-grabbing variety: the murder of Tupac Shakur; John Entwistle’s last party; Carole Lombard’s plane crash — plus David Strickland, Sonny Liston, Cornell Gunter, Joe Louis, Ted Binion, even Totie Fields — a who’s who of famous or infamous corpses. Just in time for the Day of the Dead, here are a few more notable passings.

1   “Buffalo” Jim Barrier (April 6, 2008, at a Motel 6 on Boulder Highway) A true Vegas character. This former wrestler’s auto-body shop was next to Crazy Horse Too, owned by notorious figure Rick Rizzolo. The two feuded for years before Rizzolo went to prison on tax charges. When Barrier died in a motel the day after Rizzolo’s release, family cried foul — but the coroner ruled he died of heart failure triggered by cocaine.

2   Danny Gans (May 1, 2009, at his Henderson home) “This was not drug abuse,” the coroner announced a month after the Strip impressionist died, attempting to quell rumors that began when Gans’ sudden death shocked the showbiz community. He used Dilaudid to manage symptoms of chronic pain syndrome, and died of “hydromorphone toxicity.”

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3   Dan Wheldon (October 16, 2011, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway) In a tragic accident during the Las Vegas 300, Wheldon died after a 15-car crash. His was one of several cars that went airborne, “the sleek open-wheel racers and drivers inside now nothing more than projectiles in low-earth orbit,” as The Daily Beast put it. He was 33.

4   Marvin Shumate (December 1967, near Sunrise Mountain) The first of two deaths on this list speculatively linked to Horseshoe boss Benny Binion. This involved a cabbie, Shumate, dumb enough to devise a plan to kidnap Binion’s son. Shumate’s accomplice ratted him out to Binion, and Shumate was found gunned to death near Sunrise Mountain. Binion was suspected, of course, but that’s it. The Binion son was Ted, later the victim in one of the valley’s most lurid murder cases.

5   Bill Coulthart (July 25, 1972, in a parking garage, Third and Bridger) The other possibly Binion-related case. A G-man turned businessman, Coulthart was among those who held the lease, up for renewal, for the Horseshoe property — and he was reportedly against renewing. The car bomb that killed Coulthart rattled more than Downtown: The leaseholders later agreed to a 100-year deal.

6   Wardell Gray (May 25, 1955, last seen at the Moulin Rouge) Likened by a jazz critic to “a comet streaking across the heavens,” saxman Gray missed a show at the Moulin Rouge. He turned up on the outskirts of town, neck broken. Was a drug habit to blame? Mob ties? It remains a mystery.

7   Frank Bluestein (June 9, 1980, just off McLeod Avenue) Remember in Casino when cops shoot a guy after mistaking his foil-wrapped hoagie for a gun? It’s based on the death of Bluestein, son of a union boss connected to Tony Spilotro. When cops investigating Spilotro pulled Bluestein over, they say he got out with a gun. They fired. Afterward, contracts were allegedly taken out on the cops.

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.