Las Vegas SUN: 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.
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.
Funeral services for Lamb have not been announced. He will be buried with police honors, Metro officials said.