‘Quintessential Western Sheriff’

Ralph Lamb | April 10, 1927–July 3, 2015

Ralph Lamb

Lamb, 1978. | Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

He was a hard-liner and tough as nails. He was the kind of guy who, because he was so tough, could do whatever he thought was right without the fear of any consequence. When we went at each other, it was with a mutual respect and, on my part, a lot of admiration. I would never accuse him of committing a foul. We engaged in our respective positions in fair play.

He met one of my clients one time too often at the airport. My client was Nick Civella, who was supposed to be the head of the outfit in Kansas City. Nick had a love—there’s no other way to put it—for the neck bones that Angie Ruvo would cook at the Venetian. He couldn’t get those in the Midwest, so he would actually put on disguises to come to Las Vegas. He wasn’t interested in gambling or seeing shows: He just wanted those neck bones. So the sheriff was at the airport and, sure enough, he made Nick get on the plane back to Kansas City. Nick was steaming, and he called me up. “I want to sue this guy for everything he’s worth,” Nick said. “He’s violating my civil rights.”

I had no problem suing the sheriff if it was a righteous cause. I always prepared a complaint in advance if I was going to sue somebody; I was ready to do it the day after the deadline that I gave them to correct the situation. So I had a complaint all prepared against the sheriff for violating Nick’s civil rights. I called him up and said, “Sheriff, this is Oscar—” He said, “I know who you are.” I said, “That’s good, because I’d like to meet with you about one of my clients.” He said, “Who?” I said, “Nick Civella.” He said, “When do you want to meet and where?” I said, “How about tomorrow at 5 in my law office?” He said, “I’ll see you then.” Now, I’m thinking tomorrow at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, of course, but he said, “5 o’clock tomorrow morning.”

So I got there at about a quarter to five and he was waiting for me in front of my office. It was right out of a movie. I opened the door and he walked up to the second floor, right to my office, right to my desk, right to my chair, sat down at my desk in my chair and started to feel under the desk to see if I was bugging him. I said, “Sheriff, I don’t do business that way.” He said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want my client to be able to come here and have some neck bones.” He said, “That doesn’t sound unreasonable. Sure. Have him come in and all I ask is to let me know when he comes to town and let me know when he leaves. He doesn’t have to do anything as far as registering. He can have his neck bones, and you don’t have a lawsuit.” So that was the end of it. I tried to be reasonable. I know my reputation was such among the law enforcement people that I wasn’t, but I always thought I was being reasonable.

Lamb introduced the work card law, which required all casino and race and sportsbook workers to go through a background check. In the old days, the race and sports books weren’t in the hotels and casinos. They were basically little stores on Las Vegas Boulevard. There was a raid that took place at one of them, and I represented Elliott Paul Price, a very cordial fellow, well respected in Las Vegas. The sheriff went in and they took his work card, which precluded him from working at the race and sports book. I said, “You can’t take a person’s right to work away from them without a hearing and without notice.” He sort of gave me one of these “Pshaws” and couldn’t have cared less about what I was saying. I sued the sheriff, and I won. Basically that began the law that gave people rights in this very privileged industry of gambling. It was one of the seminal cases of my career. From that I gained the confidence of guys such as Rosenthal and Spilotro and other people in the industry, and my practice began to flourish.

The sheriff was the greatest. When we got together at gatherings, he always used to say that he made me a rich man. I held him in the highest esteem and over the years, we developed a fondness for one other. He’d come up to Oscar’s, the restaurant I own in the Plaza, to have a drink, and I’d say, “You’d better watch yourself, Sheriff. I’m the only guy that can drink that way—you can’t do it.” And the next thing I knew, he’d disappeared.

When my wife, Carolyn, was running for mayor, he would check in with us once a week and ask her how she’s doing. I was honored that, at his funeral, Carolyn and I were the only nonrelatives who were invited to the room where the family was sitting before the service started.


Oscar Goodman is a longtime attorney and a former mayor of Las Vegas.

He was the quintessential Western sheriff. He lived the part because he was the part. He never was a phony, and people knew not to mess with him. If he was wrong, just as we resolved the Civella case, he resolved it. But if he thought he was right, he would fight you tooth and nail and do what he thought was the righteous thing to do. You have to admire a guy like that.

You think of him as a tough guy, but the truth of the matter was he was a tough guy, but he was also a nice guy.

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