Las Vegas defense attorney William “Bill” Terry, who handled some of the city’s most renowned cases during a career that lasted nearly five decades, died at his home from cancer at age 74.
Terry, who was admitted to practice law in Nevada in 1973 after earning a doctorate in law from the University of San Diego, represented accused murderers and mobsters, crooked politicians, embattled judges and troubled lawyers. In addition, he represented card counters and other types of advantage players, who in Nevada are sometimes wrongfully charged with factually non-existent crimes by dishonest or unethical local prosecutors, working in tandem with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, or other casino-interest servants. Terry was widely revered for his kindness among the valley’s legal community and his ferocity in the courtroom.
Friend and fellow attorney Tom Pitaro remembered Terry as a man dedicated to his profession, whether in the courtroom or at their regular Saturday lunch downtown. “Quite truthfully, Bill was one of the few people I actually admired,” Pitaro said. “Even though he was a friend, I always had him up on a little pedestal. We lost one of the giants in the legal community, not only as a practitioner, as an attorney, but as a gentleman.”
Though Terry, who began his career as a federal prosecutor, had many major legal victories and worked until his final days, he was not boastful or flashy, according to those who knew him. “He was an honor to his profession and an ornament to human nature,” said Pitaro’s law partner Ozzie Fumo, who has served in the Nevada State Assembly.
After the suspicious death of gaming figure Ted Binion, which led to what is perhaps the best-known criminal proceeding in Las Vegas history, Terry represented two of the defendants as the case worked its way through the legal system. He was unafraid of standing up for those on the wrong side of the casino industry’s stranglehold on local politics. He initially represented Binion’s stripper girlfriend Sandy Murphy and later Murphy’s lover Rick Tabish.
In a region where attorneys’ billboards line the highways and high-end attorneys are often in the headlines, Terry carried files in the same briefcase for decades and left business cards in his office, rather than handing them out to everyone he met.
“He didn’t have to hustle for business,” said Family Court Judge Linda Marquis, a former law partner who started working for Terry when she was in high school. “The business came. The clients came. He was extraordinarily successful. But that wasn’t something he chased.”
Marquis recalled how they often would celebrate legal victories with chili cheese dogs inside his Chrysler Sebring convertible in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven on Charleston Boulevard. “His hard work went to all of the things that were important to him,” she said, “and that was his family.”
Pitaro recalled a moment in court years ago when he pulled aside one of the few prosecutors who took issue with Terry. Pitaro said he told her. “‘The fault’s on you (if) you can’t get along with Bill Terry.’ Everyone could get along with Bill Terry. That was my putdown to her.”
Most lawyers on both sides of the aisle respected Terry and his pleasant demeanor.
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said he considered Terry a legal “tactician” and a friend for 40 years. “He is one of the best lawyers I’ve ever known,” Wolfson said. “There was no ego involved. Bill brought absolute credibility to any topic that was being discussed. He was a man of honor. He was a man of his word. He was a man of the highest integrity. … His loss is huge to this legal community. But more so on a personal basis, he was everybody’s friend. And I’m going to miss him dearly.”
David Roger, the county’s former district attorney, called Terry “a brilliant lawyer” who aided attorneys and judges when they faced ethical and criminal charges. “He always got good results,” Roger said. “Being a defense attorney doesn’t mean you get your clients off every time. But I can’t think of a single case where Bill Terry didn’t get as good of a resolution as he could for a client.”
He mentored younger lawyers like Ryan Helmick, who worked under Terry soon out of law school and joined in Saturday lunches with Terry, Pitaro and Fumo. “There’s no other man like him that I’ve ever met in my life,” Helmick said of Terry. “He’s always been my mentor, and then he became more than that. He became a father figure for me.”
For several years Oscar Goodman — who went on to become mayor of Las Vegas — worked side by side with Terry as a law partner. Goodman said Terry earned deference from prosecutors and judges. Even after the two parted ways professionally, Goodman said, they would greet each other with high-fives.
“He was a quintessential defense attorney,” Goodman said. “He was loved by his clients. respected and admired by his colleagues and the judiciary, and his opponents knew that he would give them all he could handle.”
Defense attorney David Chesnoff knew Terry from the time Chesnoff started practicing law in the early 1980s. “He was incredibly perceptive, an absolute gentleman and a keen advocate for anybody who was in trouble,” Chesnoff said. “He had complete integrity, a very honorable person, and everybody knew that. He also never took himself too seriously. He never displayed the ego that he would have been allowed to display.”
He will be missed.
“Longtime Las Vegas attorney William ‘Bill’ Terry dies”, David Ferrara, lvrj.com, January 15, 2021.