Desert Companion

A few stories about Ralph Lamb

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Star power: Lamb was a longtime lawman — but also did stints as a bounty hunter and private eye.
Courtesy Mob Museum

Star power: Lamb was a longtime lawman — but also did stints as a bounty hunter and private eye.

A rousing sendoff for the late, the legendary, the larger-than-life Sin City lawman 

 

“You son of a bitch, I’ll kill you,” the desperado yelled through his bloody, splintered teeth at the unknown man who stood behind him.

“You ain’t done too good so far, pardner,” the lanky stranger said as he jammed a large hand cannon into his prisoner’s back.

“It’s all over now. This man is coming with me,” bounty-hunter Ralph Lamb announced to the semicircle of hard-eyed men who were inching toward the front entrance of the seedy cantina. Lamb told them he would blow a hole as big as a Mexican cantaloupe through the belly of his captive if anyone took another step.

The year was 1955, and the Mexican resort town of Acapulco had only recently emerged as a seaside hideaway for the rich and famous. But there were no rich or famous people inside the Si Como No cantina. It was a foul-smelling tequila joint, its wooden floorboards stained with the blood of countless stabbings, shootings and drunken fistfights, events no policia would ever investigate.

“I knew I had no business being there, especially alone,” Lamb told me almost 60 years later, recalling the story in vivid detail. “I would have taken somebody with me, but no one would go. Before I left, I made sure I was paid some of the bounty up front because I knew there was a good chance I might not get back.”

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He had found himself surrounded by bad men in a back alley in Mexico because that same year, Lamb had opened a detective agency, Barlow and Lamb. Before going private, Lamb had worked his way up to chief of detectives for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. His partner Jack Barlow had been the ace investigator for the Las Vegas Police Department. The two were sharp and ambitious and loved being lawmen, but both knew the burgeoning city needed a topnotch detective firm, and that there was a lot of money to be made.

How many readers were aware that the longest-serving sheriff in Clark County history took a detour from law enforcement to work not only as a private dick, but also — if the price was right — a bounty hunter? The incident in Acapulco, for example, unfolded because the fugitive he tracked, pummeled, handcuffed and whisked across the border had a price tag of $25,000 on his head.  

 

WILD TALES

In recent years, much has been written about the most famous lawman in Las Vegas history. “He was John Wayne, Wyatt Earp and Dirty Harry all rolled into one,” Congresswoman Dina Titus said on the floor of the U.S. House following Lamb’s death on July 3. Dozens of postmortem articles were written about the adventures he packed into his 88 years. Some of those wild tales had been recounted in 2012 when CBS launched Vegas, a prime-time series inspired by Lamb’s colorful career.  But neither the short-lived show nor the news reports came close to the true story.

I knew Ralph Lamb for close to 30 years. For most of them we were friendly but not really friends. That changed in 1994, when Lamb took one last stab at regaining the office he dominated for 18 years. At the time, I worked for Altamira Communications, a firm founded by Lamb’s longtime political consultant and trusted confidante, Don Williams. Since Williams served as a chief strategist for Lamb’s comeback campaign, I had a front-row seat. (Lamb placed first in the primary but lost to Jerry Keller in the general election.)

Because of the familiarity and friendship that blossomed during that period, Lamb gave me the go-ahead in late 2012 to begin work on a book about his amazing life. During the last two and a half years, we spent hundreds of hours together or on the phone, talking about people he knew and things he had seen. Always a tough interview, he did not willingly surrender details about the old days. But every single one of those chats left me agog, invigorated and envious. Lamb also gave the green light to his family and friends, letting them know it was okay to open up and fill me in. There is so much to tell …

 

THE TOUGHEST HOOD LAMB EVER FACED

The story has been told many times about Lamb’s thrashing of mob ambassador Johnny Rosselli (Handsome Johnny) in front of a crowd at the Desert Inn. But the sheriff says the dapper gangster was a creampuff compared to a few other tough guys. “Rosselli was the kind of guy who would hire someone to take you out,” Lamb told me. “But there was another guy who would have done that kind of thing himself. Johnny Marshall was the probably the toughest mob guy I ever tangled with.”

Marshall was one of the aliases used by one Marshall Caifano, a Chicago killer who was sent to Las Vegas to watch over Mafia interests, an earlier incarnation of rackets boss Tony Spilotro. Lamb says he personally arrested Caifano a couple of times and tried to question him, but the only reaction he ever got was a stone-cold death stare and a demand that he be allowed to call his lawyer.

In addition to facing down and arresting Caifano multiple times, Lamb said he single-handedly confronted six mob guys and ordered them to get out of town. It was Ralph on one side and six Chicago hoods, including Momo Giancana and Big Tuna Accardo, on the other. They left.

 

LAMB HAD AN INCREDIBLE MEMORY

“A few people over the years heard him speak with that slow cowboy accent and then made the mistake of thinking he was a dumb hick,” says businessman Kevin Buckley, one of Lamb’s closest friends. “They were in for a big surprise.”

During one interview session, Lamb told us about a fugitive he had busted Downtown in the early ’60s. He spotted the guy because he’d read the man’s license plate on a bulletin issued days earlier. To my amazement, during one interview, he rattled off the plate, though the arrest had occurred five decades earlier. He likewise remembered the name of the sleazy bar in Acapulco, and many other minor details from long ago events.

 

LAMB WAS A BABE MAGNET

Ralph Lamb was tall, tanned, strong as an ox, impeccably dressed and movie-star handsome. For 18 years, he reigned over Las Vegas, more powerful than any casino boss or mobster or elected official. That kind of power reportedly can be attractive to women.

Rae Cornell Lamb, still petite and striking today, recalls the first time she saw Ralph Lamb in person. It was 1973 at a tack store. He spotted her. She looked at him. Sparks.

“He was tall and strong and had these piercing blue eyes,” she told me. “I didn’t talk to him that day, but he tracked me down and that was it.”

Rae would learn that the sheriff was still married at the time. Each of his three marriages proved tumultuous, in part because Ralph had a weakness for women. Lamb would never reveal anything to me about his liaisons, but others who knew him have dropped hints about his “friendships” with some of the most famous women of the 20th century … singers, starlets, you name it.

 

LAMB ACTUALLY MET HOWARD HUGHES, MORE THAN ONCE

Famed investigator Bob Maheu is one of the men who tasked Lamb with tracking down the Acapulco fugitive, and Lamb believed Maheu is also the person who subsequently recommended him to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Maheu later became Hughes’ right hand man, though the two never met face-to-face. Lamb, however, met Hughes in person several times in the late ’50s, a few years before Hughes began his descent into drug addiction and solitude.

“We used to meet at different hotels, sometimes out by the pool,” Lamb recalled. “He’d be lounging around in casual clothes and didn’t wear socks.” His primary assignment for Hughes was to keep tabs on various male employees who had been given the job of keeping an eye on assorted women that Hughes had stashed in suites and bungalows all over Las Vegas.

“He had Marilyn Monroe in one part of a hotel and Elizabeth Taylor in another and didn’t want them to cross paths,” Lamb told me, mentioning a few other names as well. Lamb also knew that just as he was watching the guys who were watching the women, Hughes had someone watching him, too.

 

LAMB’S CODE OF JUSTICE WOULD NOT BE TOLERATED TODAY

As sheriff, Lamb said, he didn’t approve of brutality by his officers against suspects in custody, but he crossed many other lines that would have sent him to prison if he had done them in modern times.

Gene Perry, a lifelong friend to Lamb, says the sheriff went to Lincoln County to help a friend of his catch some rustlers who had been stealing livestock. When Lamb caught the two thieves, he’s said to have dished out on-the-spot punishment: Using a red-hot branding iron, he burned a brand on both of their bare asses.

Williams remembers a time in the early ’70s when Las Vegas got an influx of flashy pimps who drove up and down the Strip in fancy pimp-mobiles. Lamb reportedly authorized his men to kidnap the pimps, put a hood over their heads, and haul them out into the desert to a spot where a grave had already been dug. When the hoods were pulled off, the pimps were given a choice of leaving town or staying in the hole.

 

LAMB WAS WILD BEHIND THE WHEEL

Public-relations kingpin Sig Rogich not only ran many of Lamb’s early campaigns, he became one of the sheriff’s running buddies. The two would conduct business over breakfast almost every morning at the Golden Nugget; in the evenings, they would go catting around town. Rogich remembers traveling with the sheriff out to Lake Mead for a fundraiser held on a yacht; this was sometime in the ’70s. Most of the 25 or so donors were casino managers or bigwigs, but the man who owned the boat was suspected by the FBI of having mob connections. 

“All those guys loved the sheriff, so they were out on a yacht in blazing heat. It must have been 120 that day,” Rogich recalls. The sheriff noticed a couple of guys in dark suits standing atop a nearby hill, looking in their direction. “He figured out they must be FBI agents keeping an eye on the host. When Ralph and I drove back to town in that white Oldsmobile of his, he must have been doing 135 mph around that two-lane road twisting around the lake.” The sheriff drove like a wild man all the time, Rogich says, but he gave it extra gas that day in case anyone was foolish enough to try following them. “Can you believe those dumb bastards,” Lamb remarked. “No wonder it took them forever to catch Dillinger.”

 

LAMB HAD EYES EVERYWHERE

Ralph’s sons Cliff and Clint admit that they occasionally tried to take advantage of their status as the sons of the sheriff back when they were kids. But no matter what kind of mischief they tried to pursue, they always — always — got caught.

“He knew where we were and what we were doing at all times,” Cliff told me. “We could never figure out how he knew what we were up to.  It was like he had eyes everywhere.”

He did, too. Lamb developed a network of eyes and ears by befriending bartenders, casino dealers, bellmen, taxi drivers and working stiffs. When they saw something of interest, they let the sheriff know.

 

LAMB WAS LOYAL TO THE END

Perhaps the most moving words spoken at the memorial service for Sheriff Lamb came from casino developer Steve Wynn. Wynn cracked up the crowd with stories of how Lamb taught him how to rodeo. And he caused eyes to mist as he talked about the good old days of Las Vegas.

For years after he left Metro, Lamb worked for Wynn and must have seen a lot of crazy stuff. This was during the time the dapper young casino magnate was a rising star. But if he did, Lamb never told me about any of it. Several times I returned to the subject of Wynn, asked about the people around him, associations he may have had, women he chased. If Lamb knew anything juicy — and he always did — he never gave it up. Not even a tidbit. He never revealed anything that might have been embarrassing to a friend of his.

Ralph Lamb was a colossus in Las Vegas and was able to get away with behavior that would clearly be considered illegal today. He operated by his own code of honor, and it is no accident that longtime residents think of that era as the greatest time to have lived in Las Vegas. The mob never ran Las Vegas. Ralph Lamb did. 

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