The Cowboy Sheriff

The last of the Old West lawmen created progressive law enforcement while doling out cowboy justice
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The last of the Old West lawmen created progressive law enforcement while doling out cowboy justice
Ralph Lamb

In 1927, Ralph Lamb was born a poor, fourth-generation, Nevada cowboy. In 2015, he died, having earned in his 88 years rank among the legends of Nevada, cowboys, law enforcement, Hollywood, and even the Mob.

Lamb’s law enforcement career began when he returned home from Japan after World War II. He went to the local sheriff’s office looking for a job, and—so the story goes—was put to work that afternoon. Without any formal training, he served as a deputy sheriff before being elected Sheriff in 1961, where he served his brand of justice until 1979, making him the longest-serving sheriff in Clark County history.

Coinciding with Lamb’s initiation into the force was the Mob’s arrival in Las Vegas. In 1945, the notorious “Bugsy” Siegel moved to Vegas to gain control of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, though his outrageous spending is believed to be the reason he never made it to the opening of his grand achievement, having been shot to death a few months earlier in 1947—the year Lamb signed on.

“People … think the only time I was there was from 1960 to ’80, but I’d been there a long time before that,” Lamb once said in a television interview. “I’d been working on these ‘hoods,’ watching them and keeping records on them. Then I got to be sheriff, and I got my own crew there, and we continued right on doing what we’d been doing before.”

Today, Clark County is home to more than 2 million residents. By contrast, 15,000 residents lived in the county in 1945. To say that Lamb witnessed the tremendous growth of Las Vegas doesn’t cut it. Lamb was in the thick of it, going head-to-head with Mobsters, biker gangs, and whoever else thought they could operate outside the lines of the law. When they did, Lamb was quick to rectify their misgivings, and had no problem getting tough if that’s what the situation called for.

One particular tale of Lamb’s policing was reported in the papers, regaling the sheriff for “slapping the cologne” off revered gangster and former handyman to Al Capone, “Handsome Johnny” Rosselli, before sending him to jail. Lamb himself has told reporters of being threatened by the Mob, only to let them know if they hurt his family, he would personally kill 10 of them each day. Amazingly, Lamb claimed to have never shot anyone in his years at the department, preferring to convey his messages with his fists.

It’s the stuff of legends and the reason the 2012 television series Vegas was based off Lamb’s life and times as the Clark County Sheriff. Written and created by Nicholas Pileggi of Good Fellas (1990) fame, Vegas stars Dennis Quaid as Sheriff Ralph Lamb.

In a television interview on his role as Lamb, Quaid remarks, “Playing a real-life character during that time period in Vegas is fascinating because that was the real building of Las Vegas back then and [Lamb] wielded considerable power by personality and election.”

But for all of Lamb’s Hollywood-worthy tales of tough justice in the entertainment capital of the world, his contributions to law enforcement are equally notable. In his years as sheriff, Lamb is credited with creating the modern police force Las Vegas now knows by organizing a merge of the city and county police departments, bringing a forensics team to Las Vegas, hiring the department’s first minorities (female and ethnic), putting the first computers in police cruisers, and, among other improvements, introducing motorcycles to the fleet, even though he probably wouldn’t have been able to handle the 250 head of cattle that escaped the corral behind the Stardust Hotel the same way on a motorcycle as he once did from his horse.

Lamb’s reign as Cowboy Sheriff came to an end when he was indicted for tax evasion in 1977 for, among other amounts, $30,000 he took from long-time cowboy friend and Vegas entrepreneur, Benny Binion. Lamb was eventually acquitted of all charges, the judge deciding the loans were gifts and not subject to taxation, but the political damage had been done, and Lamb lost re-election in 1978.

As the son of a rodeo man (Lamb’s father was fatally injured while attempting to rescue a young cowboy on a runaway horse at a rodeo in Tonopah in 1938, when Lamb was 11 years old), Lamb grew up horseback and had a ranch in the area. He’d host ropings and rodeos on the grounds, competing with local cowboys and even the likes of hotel and resort mogul, Steve Wynn, who kept his horses at the ranch. Rodeo remained a constant in Lamb’s life and he was competing into his 83rd year, when loss of eyesight forced him to quit.

In 2014, a year before his passing, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas—or, The Mob Museum, as it’s more commonly known—honored Lamb with an exhibit featuring the toughest law enforcer in the history of the city and its Mob. The exhibit included Lamb’s custom saddle and gear, cowboy boots, photographs, and awards, celebrating the cowboy cop who forged a modern police force with his Old West ways.

Ralph Lamb Cowboy