Given the legend that surrounds Ralph Lamb as the “Cowboy Sheriff” of Las Vegas, even in 2014 you almost expect him to enter a room on horseback. With guns blazing.
A Nevada-born country boy who shaped the evolution of law enforcement in Las Vegas through much of its mobbed-up evolution, Lamb, 86, manages to laugh at the Wild West image that somehow survives so far into the new century. He admits he was no stranger to trouble and settled plenty of arguments with his fists, but with a few notorious exceptions the donnybrooks ceased long before he became sheriff in 1961. It was an elected position he kept until 1979, when he was knocked out of office following a federal tax investigation that ended in his favor.
A recent addition to the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, better known in Las Vegas as the Mob Museum, highlights Lamb’s career and his image as a cowboy cop. The exhibit includes his saddle and spurs, as well as acknowledging some of his many contributions to the improvement of the police department.
He didn’t speak to the capacity crowd in the packed former federal courtroom at the exhibit’s opening in early May. Then again, he didn’t have to.
As with so much of the mythology that surrounds the Las Vegas story, there’s enough truth in the depiction of Lamb at the museum to satisfy the masses. His cowboy image was further boosted by the short-lived Vegas police and gangster drama starring Dennis Quaid as Lamb and Michael Chiklis as a composite mob figure representative of the underworld killers the real sheriff encountered in his tumultuous career as the head of law enforcement in a substantially lawless place.
The show didn’t last, but Lamb just keeps rolling along, despite a lengthening list of age-related medical maladies. Once a buckle winning rodeo roper, he’s lost much of his eyesight and can no longer sit a horse. Most days he’s content to ride the range in his living room, where he greets visitors with an impressive handshake and fields calls from reporters and a large circle of friends from the old Las Vegas.
Although he had plenty of Western boots in his closet, Lamb also was responsible for successfully combining the Las Vegas Police Department with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, a move that helped law enforcement mature in the valley.
“If it hadn’t been for his stature and his command of the political process,” says Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, “many of us believe there never would have been that merger that I believe created the finest police department in America.”
Lamb’s Task Force cops, who were on a special assignment to track and corral the hoodlum element, gained a reputation for their sometimes bare-knuckle tactics. More than one defected to the other side during Lamb’s tenure. And Lamb himself wasn’t above roughing up a wiseguy, including no less a gangster than Chicago Outfit representative Johnny Rosselli, when he had it coming.
Although such behavior added to Lamb’s reputation, the department actually became more progressive on his watch. He embraced technological improvements, hired the department’s first female and minority officers, and added a network of substations throughout a county larger than some states.
“He was no Neanderthal,” says former U.S. senator Richard Bryan. “He did bring law enforcement into the latter part of the 20th century. He was in some ways a harbinger of the future and in other ways a throwback to the old frontier justice model.”
As a boy in Alamo, a tiny Mormon ranching community in Lincoln County 90 miles north of Las Vegas, Lamb was one of 11 children. When his father was killed in a rodeo accident on July 4, 1938, Lamb and his six brothers were called on to pitch in and support the family.
After a stint in the U.S. Army in Korea, he returned to Southern Nevada and applied for a job in the police department. With a gun tucked into his belt, he reported for duty.
Through the years he became just as adept at politics as he was on horseback. After winning appointment to replace a sheriff who had been promoted to run the state’s fledgling gaming regulatory apparatus, Lamb won election in 1961 and soon was known as one of the most powerful men in the state.
There was a time some on the federal side of the criminal justice system would have debated which side of the mob museum the Lamb family belonged in. One brother, state Sen. Floyd Lamb, was convicted in an FBI bribery sting. Another brother sat on the clout-heavy Clark County Commission. Another had an uncanny ability to land paving jobs in Southern Nevada. And on it went.
When it came to policing the well-connected members of the casino industry in his era, Lamb was known as a go-along, get-along cowpoke who fiercely protected the status quo. For every tale of roughing up some transplanted hoodlum, there are just as many stories of Lamb befriending such notorious characters as Chicago Outfit legal titan Sidney Korshak and ex-Cleveland bootlegger Moe Dalitz.
But that was Las Vegas.
“He’s the last of a kind,” Bryan says. “There will never be another sheriff like Ralph Lamb, and the times do not permit it. What Ralph did nobody could do today. As good as Ralph was, he was never honored by the ACLU.”
Today, Lamb is a piece of the city’s history. It looks like the legend of the cowboy sheriff is safe.