Much of the fun came after the shift, meeting in the dirt lot next to the downtown Las Vegas First National Bank across from the courthouse. One or more of us would make a beer run to the Shopping Bag grocery store, which is long since gone. We’d pop the lids, take a sip or two and tell stories. I was young and just in the process of building up my own catalog of war stories, so mostly I listened and laughed.
Those after-shift meetings in the late 1960s rounded the sharp edges off the day. It was the Ralph Lamb era, the age of cowboys and mobsters that’s now been polished up for TV, but our stories weren’t the stuff of television. It was poor form to tell a story centered on your courage or toughness. That was boasting and an insult to your audience. Stories were often about bungled moments—the stupid burglar who used his own credit card to break into a motel room and left it behind, the detective who opened his badge case to identify himself and spilled a half dozen business cards on the floor, the lieutenant in charge of records who slammed his finger in a filing cabinet, and seeing his own blood, fainted. Human stuff.
We’ve heard the expression, “Once a cop, always a cop.” I like to think that when I gave up the badge and handcuffs, I moved on with life, becoming a private detective, then a casino dealer, a part-time martial-arts instructor, and now a college professor and writer. But three decades later I still wake up from dreams in which I’m in a patrol car on the Strip craning my neck and looking for bad guys. Other times I’m a detective or narcotics agent handcuffing a suspect. I wake up and I understand that some things can never be put to sleep. I was once a cop. I am always a cop.
When I resigned from the sheriff’s office, I was a freshly minted sergeant. I quit because I’d been on the graveyard complaint desk for five months, answering phones and screening out nuisance calls from the important ones. I supervised a capable dispatcher and an equally capable PBX operator, who for whatever reasons couldn’t get along with one another. During those eight-hour shifts I longed to be in a patrol car or a detective working a case. My immediate boss, Lt. Roy Steindorf, regularly woke me up after about three hours of sleep demanding that I explain some conflict or other between the dispatcher and the operator. One morning I couldn’t go back to sleep. After hours of tossing about, I climbed out of bed, went to the kitchen table and scratched out a resignation. That done, I slept.
It was a hasty decision, and sad. I loved being a cop, loved those moments that tested me, such as the high-speed pursuit on Christmas Day 1968 down Flamingo Road from the Paradise intersection to Pecos Road—90, 100, 105—in the rain, the roadway slick, wheels barely touching asphalt. I was chasing a white Plymouth Road Runner with three suspects; Flamingo was two lanes back then, and oncoming cars didn’t always yield. The rush of wind on the hood of the car sharpened my senses to a pitch that only combat can excite.
The Road Runner spun out just east of Pecos Road, I continued the pursuit on foot after two of the suspects. They ran toward a house under construction some 200 yards away. I caught one as he climbed over a block fence. The other also tried to climb, but didn’t have the strength to make it. I cuffed him and climbed over after the other. He lay on the ground, panting. I grabbed him by his pants and collar, lifted him atop the block wall and dumped him back on the other side just as Deputy Augie Knudson arrived from an adjacent patrol area.
The third suspect knocked on the door of an off-duty deputy. Eddie Pitchford, a recently promoted detective, opened the door. The suspect asked him to call a cab, saying that his car had broken down. Eddie handcuffed the bad-luck guy and called for a patrol car.
Instead of eating warmed-up leftovers from Christmas dinner at my in-laws’, I recorded the serial numbers of the stolen bills, writing them down by hand, some $2,400 in mostly ones and fives. I got home a little past 1 a.m after a 16-hour shift with no overtime pay. The arrest made Page 2 of Section B in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. I’ve got the yellow clipping somewhere. What it doesn’t say is that the bandits got probation, mostly, I suspect, because the judge and the defense attorney were once law partners.
Out on the streets we had our own form of justice. We were cowboys, playing John Wayne-against-the-assholes. It was serious play. We knew who many of the bad guys were. When we spotted a guy like Gramby Hanley—who was later convicted for the murder of Al Bramlet, the secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union—we’d pull him over and have a chat.
“Assume the position on the hood of the car.”
He’d pitch a fit. “It’s a roust,” he’d say. “I didn’t do anything.”
“We’re making sure of that.”
A half-hour later we’d hand him his license and tell him to drive carefully. The law can’t just grab a Gramby Hanley anymore. There are no more vagrancy statutes to employ, there are too many cameras, too many civil-rights attorneys. Maybe it’s better this way, but society doesn’t seem any better for it.
I miss being the law. Who can explain the way you feel after weeks of an investigation when you catch the burglars, one 17, one 19, who hit Rebel Britches, a jeans store that was once in the shopping center at Maryland Parkway and Twain? We recovered dozens of pairs of jeans from the attic at the 19-year-old’s house. In the midst of the arrest, the dad, a showroom musician, walked in and told me if I ever touched his boy again, he was going to shoot me. That sounded more like a challenge than a threat. Some weeks later when an indictment naming the son for selling heroin was issued, I requested the privilege of serving the warrant. When I pulled up to the house, the father was working in his yard. I told him my purpose and said, “Time to get that gun.” Instead of going for a weapon, he walked me inside and told his son to cooperate. A father’s love has limitations.
Something in your perception shifts when you become a cop, some odd sixth sense takes hold of you. We had an expression for it: JDLR, “Just Don’t Look Right.” No court of law would endorse it as probable cause, but it was a real thing. This was especially true the day I arrested a fugitive named Michael James Fury.
Early in my shift, I spotted him and a cohort driving on the northbound lane of Las Vegas Boulevard in a green Jaguar XKE. I didn’t know who he was, but something wasn’t right. JDLR.
I made a U-turn at Flamingo Road, ready to pursue them, but the dispatcher called and sent me off elsewhere, and I had to let my hunch go.
Near the end of the shift, I was sent to the Rivera to investigate an attempt to use a stolen credit card. All I had to do was take a report and let the detectives handle it. Routine. Instead, I ran the name on the card. The card’s owner was a Los Angeles woman, but Fury had signed his name and shown the clerk his driver’s license. I traced him to the Frontier on the opposite side of the Strip, where I checked the room registration. The room was occupied by two men who’d listed their car as a Jaguar XKE with California tags, the very XKE I’d seen earlier. The plate came back in the name of the woman whose credit card was in question.
And there was a hold on the occupants of the car because they were wanted for murder.
Two security guards and I went up to the room. Using a key, we opened the door and rushed in. I took Michael James Fury down as he headed to the bed where he’d stashed a pistol under the mattress. His partner in crime, having seen me enter the casino, had taken off in the XKE and was later apprehended, armed of course. In the end, Fury turned state’s evidence and testified against his partner, who was the actual murderer. Case closed.
How can I explain what alerted me that day when the two of them drove in the opposite lane on the Strip? A furtive look? A fleeting recognition?
Every old cop has a similar tale. Cop radar. You can’t take it to court. You can’t convince anyone it even exists, this the third eye of the law. In those dreams I have where I’m a cop again, I no longer have it.
Some young cops out patrolling the streets know what I’m talking about. They recognize when something Just Don’t Look Right, but now they need probable cause or a traffic violation to pull a car over. They’re better paid these days and, unlike those of us who served under Lamb, they can wear goatees and moustaches. But I really wouldn’t want to be them. I doubt being the law is as fun as it was back in the days when Gramby Hanley could be stopped and found in contempt of cop—that long-ago time when we operated without camera phones and attorneys screaming police harassment. Those were the days when the bad guys knew not to mess with the law.