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A.D. Hopkins
 

Former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb dies of natural causes

6 July 2015

Former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb died Friday afternoon at age 88.

He was famous twice — once in the 1960s when his word was law in a county colonized by organized crime, and again in 2012 and 2013, when his earlier exploits were fictionalized in a television cop show.

His son Cliff said Lamb died at 2:25 p.m. at MountainView Hospital, where he had been hospitalized for more than a week.

“It’s ironic, he died the same day his father did in 1939,” Cliff Lamb said. “It was just old age. He died with thousands of friends.”

Lamb converted the Clark County Sheriff’s Department from a mostly rural force to a sophisticated urban agency, and was largely responsible for its consolidation with the Las Vegas Police Department into the present Metropolitan Police Department.

Brother Darwin Lamb, a former Clark County commissioner, said that accomplishment helped make him the top lawman the county’s ever seen.

“He was the best ever,” Lamb’s last surviving sibling said. “You could go anywhere and they’d all tell you that same thing.

“Even the crooks respected him. When he told them something, they knew he meant it.”

Former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Richard Bryan said he was personally indebted to Lamb, whom he said helped him get his first legal job at the then-newly formed county public defender’s office. Lamb, he added, was “the last of the Old West lawmen” — a man people wanted to impress.

“Ralph was the most powerful official in the county,” Bryan said. “With the exception of the governor, he was the most powerful man in the state.

“The point is Ralph was the go-to guy. If you needed something, you wanted to get his support.”

ONE OF 11 CHILDREN

Ralph Lamb was born April 10, 1927, in Alamo, a small ranching community about 95 miles north of Las Vegas, in Lincoln County. He was 11 years old when his father was killed in a rodeo accident, leaving 11 children.

“My oldest brother, Floyd, had a ranch by then. He took in me and my sister Wanda,” Lamb said in a 1999 interview.

To make ends meet in those Depression years, the Lamb children helped their mother farm produce and took jobs cleaning the local schoolhouse.

“I can’t say I specifically wanted to grow up to be a lawman,” Lamb said in May. “My ambition was a steady paycheck.”

He served with the Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II and its aftermath, then returned to Nevada, becoming a Clark County deputy sheriff. A former MP, Lamb soon became chief of detectives. He left the department in 1954 to form a private detective agency.

He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 1958, beaten by incumbent Butch Leypoldt. In 1961 Leypoldt was appointed to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, and the County Commission named Lamb as his replacement. Lamb won the election in 1962 and was sheriff for 18 years, longer than any other sheriff has held the job.

Lamb’s most active years in law enforcement coincided with rapid growth in the gaming industry, and much of that growth was controlled by people associated, at least formerly, with organized crime. To keep out the worst of that element, Lamb got the County Commission to pass the “work card law” that required anyone working in gaming to be fingerprinted and photographed and to notify the sheriff if he or she moved to another job.

“We were constantly trying to show the (federal) government we were in control of gaming. That was the purpose of the work card law,” Lamb said in 1999.

The law became controversial because it was expanded to take in such nongaming professions as child care, even as organized crime’s influence in gaming, by most accounts, was dwindling.

But in 2015 Lamb still considered that law one of his best achievements.

“It speeds up things if some law enforcement agency comes here looking for somebody; we can tell them where this individual has been working. And sometimes it benefits the worker himself. Suppose something happens to the worker, and he’s not able to tell you how to contact his family. We can often trace him back through places he has formerly worked, find somebody who has known him a long time, and make the connection that way.”

SHERIFF LAMB IN ACTION

In his prime Lamb was a shade over 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 210 pounds. He wasn’t above getting physical with hoods, most famously with Johnny Roselli, a high-ranking mobster associated with both the Chicago and Los Angeles outfits. In 1966, Roselli, previously a low-key operator, began throwing his weight around the Strip. Lamb sent him the instructions for newly arrived wiseguys: Come downtown, register as an ex-felon and reveal to the sheriff’s men your business in this community.

Roselli declined. So Lamb cornered him in a casino coffee shop, dragged him across his table, slapped him around a while and threw him into a police car for a ride to the county jail. Although Roselli was always immaculately groomed, Lamb ordered a complimentary delousing. Roselli thought the treatment inhospitable and left town quickly.

Roselli later became famous for helping the CIA arrange assassination attempts against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and was murdered shortly before he was supposed to testify before Congress about possible Mafia involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Lamb said he never shot a man in all his years of law enforcement. But it was widely whispered that some of his officers would simply execute particularly troublesome criminals, without trial, and secretly bury them in the boonies. Lamb firmly denied that in the 1999 interview but acknowledged it was helpful that some bad guys believed it.

As urbanization spilled over the Las Vegas city limit, law enforcement in the increasingly urbanized county looked more and more like the tasks of its city counterpart. Meanwhile, jurisdictional confusion multiplied, and people often called the wrong agency to report crimes. Also, although manpower was in constant undersupply, much of it was being expended in duplicating administrative services on each side of the city limits.

So in 1973 Lamb became a key player in consolidating the Sheriff’s Department with the Las Vegas Police Department. Unlike most efforts at consolidation, the enabling legislation to create Metro slid through the Nevada Legislature with ease, and Lamb ended up in charge of the joint agency.

Most people attributed that to Lamb’s political muscle — by then older brother Floyd was an important senator and younger brother Darwin was a county commissioner. But Ralph Lamb gave much of the credit to the late John Moran, who was then Las Vegas police chief and would become Lamb’s undersheriff.

“It wasn’t hard because Moran and I were friends,” Lamb said in the 1999 interview. Even members of the Las Vegas Police Department could see that it would be better if the agency were run by the sheriff, he said.

“The Las Vegas department had several good chiefs who couldn’t keep the job,” Lamb said. “They’d make somebody mad, and they’d get replaced. So an elected head was better.”

MODERN POLICING

Lamb’s administration brought in a modern crime lab, a mobile crime lab and the city’s first SWAT team, which was kept secret until one of its snipers killed a bank robber who was threatening to shoot a hostage. Metro was one of the first police agencies to use in-car computers or semiautomatic pistols as standard equipment.

Always strapped for manpower, Lamb was happy to use volunteers, within limits. He inherited an organized Sheriff’s Mounted Posse of horsemen who were willing to ride up near-vertical mountainsides and pack out corpses from plane crashes. A mechanized version, the Sheriff’s Jeep Posse, also grew prominent during his administration.

“They were mostly businessmen who did this at their own expense. I don’t know how many times they went out and found kids who got lost hiking and so forth. There was no way I could have taken 17 or 18 men off the street for a search operation, so they were absolutely essential. They were heroes.”

This year he expressed the opinion that American law enforcement had become too militarized and distant from the people it represented.

“They’ve lost the personal touch we used to have. They’ve become regimented,” he said.

He agreed with President Barack Obama’s executive order limiting the heavier military hardware available to law enforcement.

“We’re not in a war and that equipment isn’t needed,” Lamb said. “But he should be doing more to help smaller departments, that don’t have the funding, get the equipment they really do need.”

And almost in the same breath, he said Metro is an exception to the disturbing trends. “I think the present sheriff, Lombardo, has done an exceptional job. And the guy before him, too.”

In the 1970s Lamb was sometimes called the most powerful man in Nevada. Through the work card law he controlled who could or could not work in the city’s key industry and many peripheral jobs. And unlike most police chiefs, he was answerable only to voters.

INDICTED IN 1977

In 1977 he was indicted on income tax evasion allegations. Federal prosecutors tried to prove that his lifestyle, which included building a new home with guest house and horsemanship facilities, required more money than he earned as sheriff or reported on his taxes. They asserted that a $30,000 loan from casino operator Benny Binion was never meant to be repaid and therefore was income on which Lamb should have paid taxes.

But U.S. District Judge Roger D. Foley dismissed the charges, saying the Internal Revenue Service never proved anybody paid for the building materials, meaning they were probably gifts and not subject to taxation.

“Many fringe benefits come to a public official which may be accepted along with the honest discharge of duty,” Foley said.

He also ruled it was up to the government to prove the Binion loan was never repaid, and it failed to prove that. In 1999, Lamb said he did pay it back.

Lamb remained a free man but politically wounded. Another wound came the following year when a former Las Vegas cop, who had come aboard Metro with consolidation, was accused of supplying confidential information to crime boss Tony Spilotro. Lamb fired the cop, but that same year, his former vice commander, John McCarthy, ran against Lamb. One of McCarthy’s accusations was that Metro had been “infiltrated” by organized crime. McCarthy didn’t produce a second example, but he won the election by a landslide.

McCarthy would be a one-term sheriff.

“I guess the public didn’t think my department was too bad,” Lamb said years afterward. “Just one term later they elected my right-hand man, John Moran, to replace the guy who replaced me.”

Lamb cited his friendship with Moran as the reason he never sought the office again until 1994, when Moran didn’t run. Lamb lost that election to Jerry Keller, who spoke highly of his onetime campaign opponent.

“He was a man that was bigger than life,” Keller said. “A great leader and a great friend who led that (police) department through challenging moments.

“He was a man who will never be forgotten.”

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman relayed her condolences to Lamb’s family, lamenting the loss of “a great friend” in a written statement.

Former mob lawyer and Mayor Oscar Goodman, whose clients were sometimes banned from Las Vegas under Lamb’s tenure as sheriff, said the two eventually became close friends.

“With his passing passes an era,” Goodman said. “There was a time when he was the strongest force in Nevada.

“He was remarkably sensible. We crossed paths as adversaries, but at the end of the day, we ended up the best of friends.”

RETIREMENT AND TV SHOW

Lamb spent most of his twilight years swapping yarns with friends, reading Louis L’Amour westerns and rodeoing; he specialized in roping events. The corral at his home was kept so clean that friends joked “You go over to Ralph’s place, you gotta bring your own flies.”

He gave up his horses and the horse property only when his eyesight grew too dim to ride.

In 2012 and 2013, Lamb was the central character of “Vegas,” a CBS series based loosely on his tenure as sheriff. Dennis Quaid played Lamb as a cowboy dragooned into the lawman’s role and battling with organized crime characters trying to take over the town.

It was historically inaccurate but a well-made show that got good reviews; however, it failed to capture a large audience and lasted only one season.

Sheriff Joe Lombardo said Lamb will be buried with full police honors.

“Ralph Lamb will be remembered as a great man, an exceptional sheriff, and a legendary member of our community,” Lombardo said. “His legacy will live on.”

Lamb is survived by his wife, the former Rae Cornell; two sons, Clifford and Clint, and two grandchildren; one brother, former Clark County Commissioner Darwin Lamb. He was preceded in death by five brothers, Floyd Lamb, Sheldon Lamb, Bill Lamb, Phil Lamb and Larry Lamb, and four sisters, Myrtle Howery, Erma McIntosh, Fae Mason and Wanda Peccole.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3440 W. Charleston Blvd.
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