What are the chances that the same angel-faced teenaged cheerleader would be involved
in two of the highest profile crimes in Las Vegas history? In a city with a fanatical obsession with beating the odds,
Sandy Shaw hit the jackpot—and it cost her twenty-one years of her life.
Fifty year old Alex Egyed was a self-made millionaire and a very angry man.
Leaving his native Hungary in 1956, the hard-working refugee landed on American soil virtually penniless,
endowed only with a quick mind and a festering drive to succeed.
Over the next two decades these attributes, along with a smattering of luck, allowed him to amass a sizeable fortune
via a chain of computer companies—cutting edge technology at a time when cyberspace existed solely in science fiction.
Eventually Egyed settled in Las Vegas, and as is fitting in a city that bills itself as the Marriage Capital of the World,
he there wed Virginia Mallin, a well-known socialite famed for her charitable endeavors;
Virginia had previously been married to the owner of Caesar’s Palace and Circus Circus, two of the hottest hotels on the Vegas Strip.
Tragically, Egyed’s great wealth did not bring great happiness,
or even crumbs of contentment—it was almost as if his blistering ambition once realized in the financial realm
turned inward and began to corrode his very humanity. Plagued by paranoia and suspicion,
the wealthy entrepreneur’s marriage was soon in tatters,
and on September 23rd, 1984 the couple argued at a charity event
and departed the venue in separate cars.
Later that evening Egyed appeared at the mansion the couple shared
in the exclusive Rancho Circle neighborhood
and demanded to speak with his wife; Virginia, busy entertaining friends, rebuffed his request.
His wife’s refusal to rehash the particulars of their doomed union on his time schedule incensed Egyed;
exploding in a deadly rage, the well-respected businessman retrieved a gun he had secreted in the home and proceeded to shoot
not only his wife Virginia but her friends Jack Levy and Betty Di Fiore as well.
His murderous rampage complete, Egyed then turned the gun upon himself,
blasting a bullet into the brain that had brought him
to the pinnacle of a success that he learned too late was meaningless.
Egyed left no suicide note, but the barbarism of his cowardly act will forever be written in history, the sole epitaph of a man poised to be an internet pioneer on par with Bill Gates.
Not every inhabitant of the mansion was slaughtered on that woebegotten night;
police discovered Virginia’s daughter Jessica and her best friend Sandy Shaw, age thirteen,
cowering in a bath tub,
terrified beyond measure. Sandy was festooned with blood and brains—sensing danger, Virginia’s friend Betty
was in the process of hustling the girls out of harm’s way when Egyed appeared in the doorway
and pumped a bullet into her skull.
Sandy was standing so close to the line of fire that as the mortally-wounded Betty crumpled to the ground her body landed atop the petrified youngster.
The wealthy industrialist’s murder spree was a Las Vegas media sensation; Egyed’s vast fortune and Virginia’s charitable ventures
and connection to Caesar’s Palace and Circus Circus served to keep the massacre
on the front page for weeks.
Sadly, although Sandy Shaw had escaped the murder mansion with her life
she was not unscathed by the carnage—a therapist diagnosed
the preternaturally beautiful tween with post-traumatic stress syndrome and prescribed valium to soothe her jangled nerves.
A subsequent incident during which Sandy allegedly witnessed an additional
fatal domestic assault while walking home from school compounded her distress:
“I detached myself from my emotions,” Sandy later explained.
“I didn’t have a sense of life or death—it was all the same to me.”
According to Sandy the benzodiazepine prescribed by her doctor did nothing to quell her anguish
but instead benumbed her emotions;
she now characterizes herself during this time period as a “lost child” and an “unhealthy child.”
Such was the 9th-grader’s state of mind eighteen months after the massacre when she was approached
in the Circus Circus children’s arcade
by a twenty-one year old would-be suitor who introduced himself as Cotton Kelly.
In reality, the shaggy-haired stranger’s name was James Thiede;
a recent transplant from Canada,
Thiede was on the run from an RCMP cocaine trafficking investigation.
Years later both of Thiede’s parents would be indicted for financial crimes related to the family’s international drug distribution empire.
Although he was ostensibly employed
by his family’s cookbook-cum-money laundering enterprise,
Thiede told Sandy he owned an adult entertainment business.
He allegedly obtained the teen’s phone number from a mutual acquaintance
and began to pressure the fetching schoolgirl
to pose nude—at the time Sandy was not yet fifteen years old.
Although Sandy refused his overtures both romantic and pornographic,
Thiede was persistent—over an eight month period he called the Shaw home incessantly,
angering Sandy’s mother,
who was uncomfortable with what she perceived to be
an adult man’s predatory interest in her underage daughter.
Mrs. Shaw contacted law enforcement but was informed that the police were powerless to intervene;
strictly speaking, Thiede hadn’t broken any laws—stalking statutes had not yet been enacted in the state of Nevada.
Annoyed by Thiede’s pestering and the strife his unwelcome advances were creating within her family,
Sandy contacted her friend Troy Kell, age eighteen, and asked for his help in resolving the matter.
Kell considered himself a big brother to and protector of Sandy, whom he’d known since she moved into his neighborhood as a sassy tow-headed tot at the age of six. Kell,
a lanky high school dropout, enlisted his friend Billy Merritt, age seventeen, and a plan was concocted which would end Thiede’s campaign of harassment forever.
On the evening of September 29th, 1986 James Thiede must have believed that Lady Luck, patron saint of Las Vegas,
was making eyes at him;
he’d recently won fourteen hundred dollars at the gaming tables and high-school princess Sandy Shaw had agreed
to accompany him on a date to celebrate his good fortune.
As is the case with most Sin City winning streaks, however, Thiede’s run of luck was about to take a sharp turn into ignominy.
Thiede’s “date” with Sandy was merely a ruse;
during the course of the evening the ostensibly-courting couple
drove past a prearranged spot where Kell and Merritt awaited, posing as hitchhikers.
At Sandy’s urging Thiede picked up the teens; it was a decision that would ultimately cost him his life.
Once the foursome was ensconced in Thiede’s car Sandy announced a need to urinate,
and as anticipated Thiede drove her to the desert to relieve herself. There, as planned,
the cheerleader pretended to slip on the rocky terrain.
Thiede rushed to Sandy’s aid and Kell used the momentary diversion to blindside Thiede—the aspiring pornographer was shot six times in the face with a stolen gun.
The teens then divvied up their victim’s fourteen hundred dollars and left his body to rot in the searing Nevada sun.
It was while Thiede’s corpse decomposed amidst the cactus-strewn wasteland
that a series of events occurred which would cement the crime in the annals of Las Vegas lore
and garner its unforgettable moniker: The Show and Tell Murder.
Although her motive for doing so is in dispute, two days after the shooting Sandy took some friends to the desert
to view Thiede’s body—Sandy claims she needed to view the corpse
to confirm the murder’s reality in her PTSD-addled mind;
prosecutors claim Sandy viewed the corpse as a trophy and had taken friends to view it in a boastful attempt to gain status with her peers.
Like a demented version of the child’s game “Telephone,”
the friends who initially accompanied Sandy to view Thiede’s corpse
then invited more friends
and for six days a revolving band of teenagers ogled Thiede’s rotting carcass
like it was an all-nude showgirl revue—reporters later joked that Thiede’s murder site had more traffic than some casinos.
Inevitably, witnesses to the grisly spectacle began to feel pangs of conscience,
and after Thiede’s body was discovered by horseback riders a guilt-ridden gawker contacted law enforcement
and spewed forth the grim details of the crime.
The lethal trio was soon arrested.
Unmoved by Sandy’s traumatic involvement in the Egyed murders a scant two years before,
police gave no credence to her assertion that she had simply wanted Thiede roughed up, not killed—detectives
believed the true impetus for the murder lay solely with the dead man’s bulging wallet.
Sandy was held on three million dollars bail;
prosecutors at her bond hearing described the cherubic fifteen year old as “a serious threat to society.”
Per the sensationalistic media coverage,
in a few short years Sandy had morphed from an angelic, blood spattered massacre survivor into Las Vegas’ answer to Lady Macbeth.
Unable to afford a private attorney,
Sandy was assigned a neophyte public defender who had never before tried a murder case.
Banking on a jury’s reluctance to convict a beautiful high school cheerleader,
the attorney urged Sandy to refuse a proffered accessory plea which carried a four to twelve year sentence;
alas, this unseasoned legal eagle would soon learn that relying on a client’s attractiveness as a trial strategy
rarely vaults a case into the speedy-acquittal express lane.
Compounding his rookie mistakes, the attorney put his then-sixteen year old client on the witness stand;
predictably, it was a disaster. In the available clips of the proceedings
Sandy exhibits an almost-comical teenage petulance, at one point even aiming a de rigueur hair flip at the media like a Mean Girls character come to life.
The jury was unimpressed by Sandy’s avowal that she’d merely wanted Thiede pummeled;
not only was she convicted of first degree murder but two of the jurors later expressed disappointment that state law
at the time
prohibited them from sentencing a minor to death.
Despite her alluring appearance Sandy was sentenced to life without parole;
her public defender’s plan to convince the jury that youthful beauty equaled innocence
had rolled snake-eyes on the gaming table of jurisprudence.
Although prosecutors alleged Sandy had fired a single shot into Thiede there was never any convincing evidence supporting this claim;
Troy Kell has steadfastly admitted to being the sole shooter,
an assertion which has since been buttressed by Billy Merritt. Under a felony theory of murder, however,
Sandy was acting as a principal rather than an accessory to the crime;
any homicide which occurs during the commission of a felony serves to elevate the crime to first degree murder,
even if the death is unintended.
Regardless of whether the motive for the crime was robbery, as the prosecutor alleges,
or conspiracy to commit battery, as Sandy claims,
a first degree conviction is supported by the facts, Sandy’s angelic appearance notwithstanding.
The subsequent criminal foibles of Sandy’s partners in crime are epic in scope and multitudinous in variety.
Billy Merritt accepted an accessory plea in Thiede’s death and served twelve years;
upon his release from prison he swiftly perpetrated a cornucopia of violent crimes
including rape, stalking and attempted murder via hatchet—he’s since been sentenced to life without parole
as a habitual violent offender.
Like Sandy, Troy Kell refused a prosecution deal and received life without parole; as depicted in the riveting documentary
Gladiator Days: Anatomy of a Prison Murder, he’s currently on death row for the fatal stabbing of a fellow inmate.
Obviously both Kell and Merritt are inherently prone to violence;
does their predisposition to savagery mitigate Sandy’s moral if not legal responsibility in Thiede’s murder?
Or since it was inarguably she who placed Thiede within the purview of these violent criminals is her codefendants’ propensity for criminality moot?
As the youngest female inmate ever sentenced to adult prison in Nevada,
Sandy’s transition from Pop Warner cheerleader to maximum security convict was rocky—she eventually accrued forty-one
disciplinary reports for violating penitentiary protocol, although her misdeeds were uniformly non-violent in nature.
In 1994, after a successful appeal of her sentence on procedural grounds,
prosecutors offered Sandy a commutation to life with parole in lieu of a new trial.
Perhaps recalling the staggering misjudgment of her refusal of the original plea deal, Sandy agreed to the proffered terms.
The possibility of parole seemed to mellow Sandy, or perhaps she simply matured; no longer an impetuous teen,
she became a model inmate,
earning several college degrees while behind bars
and serving as a mentor to younger prisoners.
After several unsuccessful attempts, Sandy finally obtained parole in December of 2007
at the age of thirty-six; she’d served twenty-one years,
more than half of her life—the entirety
of her adult life— in prison; according to KLAS-TV at the time of her parole she was the fourth-longest serving
female inmate in the Nevada corrections system. Although she was briefly returned to prison after failing a drug test in 2012,
Sandy was soon released back into in the Glitter Gulch’s neon-tinged wonderland;
she reportedly works as a receptionist for a local plumbing company where she is described by coworkers as “a highly valuable employee.”
I, for one, am rooting for Sandy Shaw’s successful reintegration into society; there’s no question in my mind that surviving the Egyed massacre had to have been
a transformative event—the evidence of that ghastly evening could not be scrubbed from her psyche
as swiftly as the brain matter was scrubbed from her bloodstained clothes. Add a fugitive aspiring-pornographer
with a taste for jailbait,
sprinkle with two violence-prone teenaged boys, garnish with a stolen gun—and Sandy’s role in Thiede’s murder becomes,
if not understandable, at least forgivable.
Of course, I could be completely deluded; maybe Sandy is,
as many message board denizens insist, a virulent psychopath whose Machiavellian manipulations will undoubtedly
culminate in yet another blood-bespattered corpse. Only time will tell
whether her release is a triumph of successful rehabilitation or another example of the selective justice meted out to the genetically blessed.
Lady Luck may be the patron saint of Las Vegas,
but Lady Justice dwells in Sin City as well—and sometimes in her quest for righteousness even Lady Justice is required to put down her scales and roll the dice.