When he died in July at age 88, Ralph Lamb was remembered as the cowboy sheriff. So he was, but there was so much more to his story.
Lamb was born in 1927 on a ranch in Alamo in Lincoln County. He was one of 11 children, and his father died when Ralph was 11. All of the kids had to work, and Ralph did. He also served in World War II, came home, and wanted to be a lawman. He got a job with the Clark County sheriff’s department and moved up to chief of detectives before leaving to start his own agency. He ran for sheriff and lost, then won the appointment in 1961 when Butch Leypoldt, who had defeated him, became a member of the Gaming Control Board. Lamb would be elected to a full term in 1962 and keep the job until his defeat in 1978.
The stories about Sheriff Ralph Lamb would be legendary, except the word legendary suggests they aren’t true. But they are. Take Johnny Rosselli. He was a gangster, and the rule was that felons had to register with the sheriff’s office. Rosselli didn’t want to. So Ralph went to the Strip and into the coffee shop where Rosselli was sitting. He grabbed Rosselli by the necktie, dragged him out to a cruiser, took him downtown to the jail, and had him deloused. Rosselli got the point. So did everybody else.
That’s one reason Lamb was known as the cowboy sheriff. Las Vegas wasn’t exactly the wild west, but it could be wild, and he was determined to tame it. He was old-fashioned, but very much a believer in keeping up with the times. He brought in a SWAT team, modern fingerprinting, computers—all of the modern components of law enforcement. He even was part of a major government reorganization. In the 1960s and 1970s, many local officials discussed consolidating services as a means of saving money and avoiding duplication. Up north, Ormsby County was consolidated into Carson City, and Reno officials worked on combining some services with Washoe County. In southern Nevada, the Clark County sheriff’s department joined with the Las Vegas Police Department. Sheriff Lamb remained sheriff.
Ralph also understood that being a sheriff involved politics. In this he benefited from his brother Floyd, who chaired the state senate finance committee. Another brother, Darwin, was on the county commission. The Lamb family had a lot of power, and as Metro’s first sheriff, Ralph understood you have to please the people in office who handle your budget and the people who elect you.
Ralph also had his share of controversy. His department often faced charges that it played rough. One of his top officers turned out to be working for Tony Spilotro. Lamb got a loan from Benny Binion that led to an indictment for tax evasion that was dismissed. All of it came together in 1978, when one of his lieutenants, John McCarthy, defeated him for reelection. Lamb ran again for sheriff in 1994 but lost to Jerry Keller, who also had worked for him. Yet Ralph remained available and helpful to Keller and his successors. Ralph had done a lot to build Metro and he wanted it to succeed.
Eventually, Ralph’s success led to a television series about a cowboy sheriff. Let’s just say it wasn’t entirely accurate, and not just on historical grounds. No TV show could do justice to Ralph Lamb and his life. He was, indeed, unique.
Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities
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