Silver Tailings: There’s a New Show in Town

Perhaps you’ve watched the new CBS television series, “Vegas.” The shows main characters Sheriff Ralph Lamb, is based on a real person.

The show depicts his battle with Vincent Savino, a ruthless Chicago gangster who plans to make Las Vegas his own. Dennis Quaid plays Lamb in the series and Michael Chiklis portrays Savino.

Lamb was sheriff for 18 years, longer than any Clark County sheriff. He forged a rural department into an effective urban one, and was largely responsible for merging the sheriff’s office and the Las Vegas Police Department into the single police agency dubbed Metro.

His grandfather died working cattle, when a horse bucked him off. Later, Lamb’s father met the same fate in 1938, while working as a pick-up rider during Tonopah’s July 4th rodeo.

The deceased Lamb left 11 children, one so young that the father died with a telegram in his pocket announcing the boy’s birth. The future sheriff was only 11.

Lamb served in World War II in the Pacific with Army intelligence. He aspired to become a FBI agent, but the family’s immediate need for income put college out of the question even with the GI Bill.

So he hired on as a Clark County deputy sheriff and soon became chief of detectives.

Lamb departed the force in 1954 to form a detective agency with another ex-policeman. Their best-known client was Howard Hughes.

Lamb ran for sheriff in 1958 against Butch Leypoldt, and lost. But in 1961, when Leypoldt was named to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the Clark County Commission appointed him to the unexpired term.

He won the election to a full term in 1962.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.

His most important contribution was helping form the Metropolitan Police Department. In the early 1970s, both the Las Vegas Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s Department struggled with jurisdictional problems.

People called the wrong agency to report crimes in progress, delaying police response. Both agencies were strapped for staff, yet used a lot of it duplicating record-keeping and administrative functions.

Unlike most efforts at consolidation, the Metro legislation 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, since  his brother Floyd was a senator and his younger brother Darwin a county commissioner.

One of Lamb’s efforts at efficiency, however, helped cost him the post that seemed made for him. It was called the Task Force, and was an élite unit of experienced officers, handpicked by Lamb himself.

If burglars became particularly aggressive, the Task Force set up sting operations buying stolen goods and then busting the sellers. Then it moved on to attack some other kind of crime.

It made life miserable for crooks. When a hotel building boom brought in a new crop of hoods trying to gain a foothold in casinos, Task Force officers identified and kept track of them.

Lamb believed it worked like a charm. But many of his officers hated it, seeing the Task Force as an arrogant outfit, hogging the glory and leaving the real work to everybody else.

Then there was Joe Blasko. A controversial Las Vegas officer known for beating up suspects — one died — Blasko ended up in Metro’s organized crime unit after the merger. In 1978 he was accused of leaking information to mob boss Tony Spilotro, and Lamb fired him, but the damage was done.

The longtime sheriff was also weakened by his 1977 indictment for income tax evasion. The IRS attempted to prove Lamb spent more money than he earned as sheriff in such activities as building a home, complete with guest house and horsemanship facilities; proving it would mean Lamb had concealed income and evaded the taxes on it.

They also tried to prove certain loans, including one for $30,000 from casino owner Benny Binion, were never meant to be repaid and were, therefore, taxable income. However, U.S. District Judge Roger D. Foley acquitted Lamb of all charges.

He said the IRS had failed to prove that anybody paid for the building materials, so they probably were gifts, not subject to taxation. Similarly, said Foley, it was up to the government to prove that Binion’s loan was never repaid, and it failed to do so.

But Lamb was politically wounded, and didn’t recover. The following year he lost a bid for re-election, by a landslide, to his former vice-squad commander, John McCarthy.

He made another bid in 1994 but lost.

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