Las Vegas has long been a refuge for the infamous. Our history is riddled with many tales of notorious men strolling our gaudy streets and enjoying the illusion of anonymity.
Although some eventually made the post office walls, the police blotters and occasionally even the newspapers, others managed to thrive in those shadows, elusive as ghosts in the neon.
Consider R.D. Matthews, who died recently at age 92, one of the most formidable apparitions from our gambling past. He was a ranking and respected member of what journalists once called the sporting crowd, which was a playful euphemism for the gamblers, hustlers, party girls and killers who lived by night on the edge of polite society.
Russell Douglas Matthews passed away in near anonymity — just a two-line obituary in a Dallas newspaper. It might have been the way he wanted it, but that quiet exit doesn’t do justice to the mystery that accompanied his long and reputedly violent life as a trusted friend of the late downtown casino legend Benny Binion. The fact you’ve never read much about Matthews in the local press makes a statement in itself.
He was born in Aspermont, Texas, on July 26, 1920. Matthews enlisted in the Marines after Pearl Harbor and was awarded a Navy Cross and Purple Heart. He is said to have inflicted more than his share of wounds in underworld wars after returning home. A member of the notorious Hollis de Lois Green gang of Texas, he was a Dallas bookmaker, nightclub manager and was known on the street as a stealthy enforcer.
Matthews was so well- acquainted with the inside players associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that he rated mention in the Warren Commission Report and was interviewed at length in 1978 by the House Select Committee on Assassinations. (His attorney was Binion friend and future U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne.)
Matthews intrigued investigators because of his intimate familiarity with the gambling underworld in Dallas, Las Vegas and Cuba, where he had lived for a time after the war. He also had a long friendship with Jack Ruby. But, then, Matthews knew most of the players in the Oswald-Ruby matrix.
Back in October 1963, Ruby placed a call to the Matthews home. A day later, according to one account, Ruby was in touch with Oswald. The connection has intrigued officials and fascinated assassination theorists for decades.
Not long after returning from the war, Matthews reacquainted himself with the Dallas underworld, where being an expert with a firearm guaranteed employment and respect. New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison once described Matthews as “a longtime heavy in the Southwest, having been linked with Benny “Cowboy” Binion, the Dallas racketeer now in Las Vegas.”
Officially, Matthews worked for Binion starting in the late 1970s, but multiple sources confirm they knew each other well decades earlier in Dallas, where Cowboy Benny was known as a rackets king and Matthews’ reputation for getting things done was well- established. Matthews, who wore an eye patch but never seemed to miss much around the Horseshoe, was considered a dear friend and protector of the Binion family.
His street reputation was so well-known to the Las Vegas sporting crowd that a single slap from the then 80-year-old Matthews sent maverick casino man Bob Stupak into a panic. The incident occurred in August 2000 at Piero’s restaurant at a time Stupak was at odds with the new ownership of the Horseshoe led by Becky Binion Behnen.
No stranger to controversy during his extremely colorful career as the owner of Vegas World and big-idea man behind the Stratosphere tower, Stupak was so unnerved by the encounter with Matthews that he only stammered at my question and quickly declined comment.
R.D. Matthews was a ghost of Las Vegas past, but even as an octogenarian he was capable of stepping from the shadows and haunting the present.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.