Comdex '99: The mysterious death of Larry Volk

Police say they finally have solved the puzzle
Written by ZDNet UK on

So, who killed software developer and reseller Larry Volk? That question has vexed Las Vegas police, prosecutors and some Comdex attendees for nearly a decade. But on the eve of next week's show, police say they finally have solved the puzzle.

Volk was killed execution-style while working on his car outside his Las Vegas mobile home on October 1, 1990. Police say a gunman crept up behind him and fired a single shot into the back of his head. Volk took one step forward and fell down.

Nine years later, the gunman has confessed and implicated two others in the crime, according to prosecutors. But in a bizarre twist, the man who pulled the trigger won't serve a day.

Larry Volk was like many other resellers, with one difference. He dealt in a different type of hardware, namely video-poker machines. Nobody programmed them better than Volk, which made him a valuable commodity in Nevada. When he was done, the machines wouldn't pay out on a royal flush jackpot, according to court documents.

The seeds for Volk's downfall were planted in the late 1980s, when he was a programmer for American Coin Co. At its height, the company raked in several million dollars annually and owned nearly 1,000 video-poker machines throughout Nevada.

Still, there was something shady about American Coin's business. In 1990, Nevada's Gaming Control Board began to suspect that the company's poker systems were rigged to generate higher profits.

That's when Volk took a fateful step forward. In the summer of 1990, he told state gaming authorities that American Coin's owners instructed him to rig their machines to boost profits. Investigators say the new code allowed American Coin to rack up $17 million in illegal profits.

Armed with Volk's testimony, the Gaming Control Board revoked American Coin's gaming license and fined the company's principals -- Rudolph LaVecchia and Rudolph LaVecchia Jr. -- a total of $1m (£.6m).

Prosecutors lined up Volk to testify in a criminal case against American Coin. That made Volk a marked man. Not long after American Coin's legal problems began, Volk began to receive death threats. In mid-September 1990, Volk's mobile home was bombed while he was out of town on vacation. Two weeks later, Volk's luck ran out. On the evening of October 1, 1990, he was shot to death in his driveway.

Police investigated American Coin to see if its owners played a role in the murder, but cops couldn't link the LaVecchias to the crime. "It was a frustrating situation," says one former detective involved in the original investigation. "We thought the LaVecchias were involved, but we never could build a case against them." According to court documents, the LaVecchias left Las Vegas in 1989, before Volk's murder. They could not be reached for comment for this article.

With no smoking gun, investigators needed some help. They got it in 1992 from a drifter named David Lemons, who was locked up in a Nevada prison on a weapons possession charge. According to court documents, Lemons in mid-1992 told another inmate that he killed Volk. The inmate shared the story with cops, who then linked Lemon's weapons to the Volk case. Lemons was charged with murder on September 5, 1992.

But due to a lack of hard evidence, a jury acquitted Lemons in 1993. At that point, it seemed as if justice would never be served in Volk's murder. The case's turning point came in September 1997. Back in prison on a burglary charge, Lemons apparently wanted to clear his conscience. He confessed to killing Volk in letters to Nevada's Attorney General's Office and the state's Department of Prisons.

Double jeopardy prevented Lemons from being tried again for Volk's murder. But there was more to Lemons' story -- much more, as it turned out. Lemons' confession implicated two other people in the murder: former Las Vegas real estate agent Soni Beckman and her nephew, John Sipes.

At the time of Volk's murder, Beckman was friendly with American Coin's owners. Sources say she was "desperate" to silence Volk in 1990 so that he couldn't testify against the LaVecchias in the pending American Coin criminal trial. Sources describe her nephew, Sipes, as an "aspiring mobster" who went by the alias Vito Bruno.

In his 1997 confession, Lemons told prosecutors he mowed lawns for Beckman in 1990, and that Sipes paid him $5,000 to kill Volk. In early 1998, Beckman and Sipes were indicted on murder charges.

The case finally was scheduled to go to trial four weeks ago, with Lemons serving as the star witness. But as ZDNet's sister publication Sm@rt Reseller put the final touches on this story, the case took yet another turn. At the 11th hour, Beckman and Sipes pleaded guilty to various charges related to the Volk murder.

Beckman still maintains her innocence but did not want to risk a murder conviction, according to The Las Vegas Review Journal. She faces up to six years in prison but could receive probation.

Sipes pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation to commit murder. He faces up to 16 years in prison when sentenced. Neither Beckman nor Sipes could be reached for comment. And their respective attorneys did not return calls requesting comment.

The Volks case has been a topic of discussion and speculation at Comdex/Fall for nine years. And while it has absolutely nothing to do with the trade show, the case somehow has become part of the show's lore. Whether standing in a long cab line or walking the Las Vegas strip, show attendees year after year trade details and rumours about the Volk mystery.

"I first read about the case in 1991," says John Bishop, CEO of The Better Network, a San Francisco-based reseller. "Each time I come to Las Vegas and Comdex, I wonder if Volk's killer has been caught. Volk didn't sell PCs per se, but he was one of us -- a reseller."

Now the case is finally closed. Or is it? In a not-so-subtle reference to the LaVecchias, Nevada prosecutor Eric Jorgenson recently told local newspapers that investigators would reopen the case if new evidence comes to light.


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