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Jury finds man guilty in slaying at Imperial Palace

A decade after the slaying of a Canadian poker player in a Strip casino, a jury convicted the killer Tuesday.

Greg Chao, 41, was found guilty of first-degree murder and robbery with use of a deadly weapon in District Judge David Barker’s courtroom for slaying of Donald Idiens, a 53-year-old land developer.

On Dec. 8, 1997, Idiens was playing poker at the Mirage with Las Vegas resident Phil Barber, who had been friends with Idiens since they were in elementary school.

“That was the last time Phil Barber saw his friend Don Idiens alive,” prosecutor Pam Weckerly said.

Idiens left the poker table, but was expected to return because he left $822 in chips on the table.

But at 9 a.m. the next morning, maids at the Imperial Palace found Idiens’ body in the 17th floor stairwell. He had been beaten and was wearing nothing but socks and underwear. A plastic bag had been tied around his head.

Authorities connected Chao, a convicted felon who had owed money to loan sharks for gambling debts, to the killing via DNA evidence found later in Chao’s hotel room. Idiens’ blood was on the floor of Chao’s hotel room, Weckerly said.

Defense attorneys Tim O’Brien and Dan Silverstein emphasized that evidence of another person’s DNA was found with that of Idiens, and the other DNA was not Chao’s.

The chief defense argument was that police allowed leads to grow stale during what the attorneys called an inadequate investigation that focused only on Chao as a suspect.

“When a person is killed in a Strip hotel, you close that case quickly and as quietly as possible,” O’Brien said.

He cited a letter written by Barber to the police after Idiens’ death naming people, who might have been involved or known more about the slaying. The letter also refers to a mischaracterization of Idiens by an MGM manager as an “enforcer” in town to collect big debts, O’Brien said. But the defense didn’t learn about that letter until after Barber’s death in 2004, O’Brien complained.

A jury deadlocked after the first trial in 2005 for Chao, who fought extradition from Canada for seven years. In that trial, O’Brien had also argued someone else could have murdered Idiens in Chao’s room. He said Chao lent the room to Idiens that night and returned and found nothing amiss.

Prosecutors said they spoke to the other people mentioned in Barber’s letter, which they said was written before Barber knew that Idiens’ blood was found in Chao’s hotel room.

Witnesses from the Mirage told the court that Idiens left the table to “collect a debt from an Asian guy from Canada,” Weckerly said in closings. He was seen on surveillance cameras going into the Imperial Palace 10 minutes later.

About an hour later Chao was seen leaving the Imperial Palace and going to the Mirage where earlier that day he lost $4,800.

“After Don Idiens’ disappearance, Greg was able to buy in (at a poker table) at almost $6,000,” Weckerly said.

Chao’s penalty hearing is to begin Thursday. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Silverstein said they plan to appeal.

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