Published Friday, July 3, 2015 | 3:13 p.m.
Updated Friday, July 3, 2015 | 9:55 p.m.
Ralph Lamb, the “cowboy sheriff” whose long law enforcement career in Southern Nevada later sparked a television drama, died this afternoon. He was 88.
Known for championing traditional policing tactics and favoring the pursuit of criminals over administrative duties, Lamb was sheriff from 1961 to 1978.
He led the merger of the sheriff’s department with city police in 1973 after a state mandate forced the consolidation. The result was the current Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which is responsible for policing the city of Las Vegas and unincorporated areas of Clark County.
During Lamb’s final year in office, Metro had 778 commissioned officers with a $27 million budget. Today, the department has more than 2,000 commissioned officers and a $539 million budget.
Despite his old-school tendencies, Lamb directed several innovative initiatives, such as approving the installation of the first computers in patrol cars, the transition from using revolvers to semiautomatic pistols and the introduction of motorcycles into the department’s fleet. He also oversaw the opening of the first police substation.
The cowboy sheriff had his critics. In 1978, he lost the sheriff’s race to John McCarthy. A year prior, in 1977, he faced tax-evasion charges after IRS agents alleged he didn’t report more than $79,000 of earnings between 1970 and 1972; that case ultimately was dismissed.
Never fully out of the Las Vegas limelight, Lamb garnered headlines again in 2012 when “Vegas,” a CBS drama based on his life and career, premiered. Actor Dennis Quaid portrayed him in the show, which was canceled after its first season.
Among Lamb's most colorful anecdotes from his time as sheriff: arresting 74 Hells Angels, giving them haircuts and dismantling their motorcycles in the 1960s, according to a Los Angeles Times story. Another time he unabashedly delivered words to mobster John Roselli, who he had grabbed by the tie, in the middle of a crowded casino lobby.
“Ralph Lamb was not just a piece of Las Vegas, he was a piece of Americana,” former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said when reached by phone this afternoon. “He was probably the last cowboy sheriff in the United States. He led with an iron fist, but it was a fist tempered with mercy and justice.”
As a prominent defense attorney, Goodman recalled representing reputed mob overlord Nick Civella, who was known to have operated the Kansas City outfit. Lamb would hear of Civella’s plans to visit Las Vegas, primarily to dine at Larry Ruvo’s Venetian Restaurant, where his favorite dish was Angie Ruvo’s recipe for pork neck bones. Lamb would await Civella’s arrival at the airport, spot the mobster and turn him away.
Goodman finally asked to meet with Lamb to arrange a system under which Civella could at least dine in Las Vegas without visiting the city’s casinos.
“He wanted to meet me at 5 a.m. at my office, and he was there at that time,” Goodman said. “We walked in and he sat behind my desk, made sure he was not being recorded, and we reached an accord that my client could visit Las Vegas for this purpose. We shook hands, and the sheriff was a man of his word. It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. We were on opposite sides of the fence for many years, we put up our dukes against each other, but we became best of friends. I was a sound admirer of his.”
Goodman added, “When you talk of dynasties in Las Vegas, or in Southern Nevada, the Lamb family was an all-time dynasty in Southern Nevada.”
Sen. Harry Reid issued a statement Friday evening offering condolences to the Lamb family, which he regards as a group of Nevada leaders. Reid attended school with Lamb's brother Larry and served in the state Legislature alongside his other brother, Floyd.
"Sheriff Ralph Lamb had a monumental impact on Nevada," Reid wrote. "He was a traditional Western lawman who brought southern Nevada law enforcement into modern times. At a time when Clark County was rapidly growing, Ralph kept our community safe and helped make southern Nevada what it is today."
Author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, who scripted the "Vegas" TV show, called Lamb "the last cowboy."
"Having worked with him on a book, a movie and a TV series I was lucky to have had a front seat to a legend," he said. "There will be no more Ralph Lambs."
Former Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, who applied to the Metro Police academy in 1978 when Lamb was in office, agrees. He remembers Lamb — one of his mentors — as a an officer at heart who commanded great respect from his employees, was tough on crime and wasn’t afraid to jump into the action during police activity.
“When Ralph Lamb was sheriff, he was the most powerful man in the state of Nevada,” Young said.
And he was someone you could count on if a need arose.
“He was simple, humble, right to the point,” Young said. “If he gave you his word, it was his word.”
Young said he would grab lunch or coffee with Lamb on a regular basis — a guaranteed time to hear dozens of Lamb’s stories about the old days, when Las Vegas was much smaller and policing much different. Lamb, who stayed connected to the law enforcement community, never shied away from giving advice, especially about the increasingly tough role of sheriff. He would often tell Young, “Don’t ever keep swinging, Billy!”
But law enforcement wasn’t his only passion. A true cowboy, Lamb cherished riding horses on his ranch and was instrumental in helping bring the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas.
On Friday, Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo took to Twitter to express his thoughts about Lamb’s passing.
“The community loses a great (one) today,” he wrote. “Our condolences and support goes out to the Lamb family with the passing of Sheriff Lamb. Sheriff Lamb will be missed by all.”
If it weren’t for Lamb’s vision, the department wouldn’t be where it is today, Young said.
“Those of us who succeeded him as sheriff, we all tried to be like him in certain ways,” said Young, who served as sheriff from 2003-07. “Every sheriff wants to be tough, looked up to, feared and respected. Ralph Lamb had all those characteristics.”
Lamb, one of 11 children, was a Nevada boy who was born in Alamo, nearly 100 miles north of Las Vegas, and moved to Las Vegas when he was 11. During his later years, he lived on a ranch on Lone Mountain Road.
Funeral services for Lamb have not been announced. He will be buried with police honors, Metro officials said.