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Kent Clifford died recently at the age of sixty-eight. He was a Vietnam veteran and a longtime real estate broker. But he will be remembered more for being part of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. More specifically, for being the commander of Metro’s intelligence bureau during the time depicted in the movie Casino. There’s a lot more to that story.
In 1973, the Clark County sheriff’s office and the Las Vegas police department merged to become Metro. Ralph Lamb had been county sheriff for more than a decade, and he remained sheriff until 1978. That year, he lost his reelection bid to John McCarthy, who commanded Metro’s vice and narcotics bureau. With Lamb being questioned over various scandals, McCarthy ran as a reform candidate. One of the scandals had involved the organized crime unit. One of its officers, Joe Blasko, had been feeding information to Tony Spilotro, widely considered the Chicago mob’s overseer in Las Vegas. Lamb fired Blasko, who became part of Spilotro’s burglary ring, known as the Hole in the Wall Gang.
When he took office in 1979, McCarthy renamed the organized crime unit the intelligence bureau and appointed Kent Clifford to run it. He was thirty-three years old and had been a detective in McCarthy’s narcotics unit. Clifford got rid of a lot of the old staff and brought in new people. Along the way, Clifford faced a bunch of accusations … that he had ordered a subordinate to beat up a drug suspect … that he had approved selling cocaine on the streets. None of the charges was ever proved. But it was a sign of how controversial and difficult Clifford’s job was.
Then there were the mobsters. Many will remember Clifford for events surrounding the Bluestein case. In 1980, Detectives Dave Groover and Gene Smith were staking out Spilotro’s hangouts and wound up tailing a speeding car. Their encounter ended in the death of the driver, Frank Bluestein, a maitre’d at the Hacienda Hotel. Bluestein’s friends accused Metro of executing him and planting a gun on him. In the end, investigations and lawsuits found the police had done nothing illegal. But the story spread that someone in the mob had approved contracts to kill the two detectives.
Clifford said if Spilotro approved the contracts, he probably did it without approval from the mob bosses back home. Clifford responded by going to Chicago and trying to see the bosses—Joey “Doves” Aiuppa, Joey the Clown Lombardo, and Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo. He was unsuccessful. According to Clifford’s account, he finally went to the office of Allen Dorfman. Dorfman ran the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, had ties to the Chicago mob, and reportedly helped set up Spilotro in Las Vegas. Clifford talked to Dorfman, who put an attorney in touch with him. Later that night, he got a call assuring him there would be no attempt to kill the policemen, and he returned to Las Vegas.
If that story sounds wild, well, it was a wild time. Richard Bryan (our narrator) was attorney general then and had to deal with some of these issues. In the end, federal, state, and local authorities combined to drive organized crime out of Nevada’s casinos. Kent Clifford did his part. As policemen are supposed to do, he served.