Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Raggio's Death: A Personal Stop in Nevada

We had placed our Eugene, OR, home on the market in 1998 and our Realtor said of the woman coming to view our house, “Her father is the most powerful man in Nevada.”

Our Realtor didn’t know that we were from Nevada and my thoughts exploded like autistic dice on a craps table. How could some woman looking at our house be related to Bill Raggio?

Growing up in Reno, I hadn’t known Leslie Raggio, Bill’s daughter, who was three or four years my junior and was coming to see our house. It turned out she was a close friend of an in-law, Cheryl McMullen (nee Walker). Years before, my brother had  initiated contentious divorce and child custody proceedings with Cheryl’s sister, Andree, and my surname was not among the more popular words in the Walker household.

Bill Raggio, a friend of both families but a neighbor to the Walkers, represented Andree. The drama surrounding this episode in my personal history is another story, but Bill Raggio played an enormous, yet off-camera, presence in settling difficult issues. This was his way.

Leslie and her family lived in Whitefish, Montana, and were considering relocating to Oregon. Though we hadn’t known one another in Reno, we shared a history of many years.  Our coffee meeting was one of those times when you cram a lifetime into a few minutes and leave more to inference, to the story between the lines, than what was said. At some point, I asked if she’d confirm my father’s favorite first line about her dad.

She didn’t miss a beat, not needing to wait for me to ask. “Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes. “My father knew Rudy Vallee.” We swapped more stories and I left admiring Leslie, both wise and funny, whom I had not known and have not seen since, an heir to her father’s charm and perspicacity.

Sometime in the 1950s, my parents had been in New York, had bought tickets to “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and had run into Bill Raggio. He asked if they’d like to meet Rudy Vallee, and took them backstage, introducing my starry-eyed parents to the Broadway cast.

This was Bill. Had he represented Vallee in a celebrity divorce? He didn’t, and wouldn’t, say. Most of his story was always in the mystery.

In the 1950s, my father had built the Tahoe Timber Company on the site of the present Patagonia facility west of Reno, where he’d first encountered Raggio. The log pond had clogged and backed up the Truckee, flooding a down river homeowner who subsequently retained Raggio to sue for damages.

Bill Cashill, my father’s lawyer, settled the suit with Raggio for $100. At a dinner party, Cashill stuffed a $100 bill into Raggio’s pocket. “You know what this is for,” he said. But a few days later, Dorothy Raggio, Bill’s wife, told friends how kind it was of Cashill to be the first lawyer to donate $100 to Raggio’s campaign for District Attorney.

In the 1980s, I became friends with attorney Bob Moore, then a partner in the Boomtown Casino. We were part of a group who used to go to Mendocino to dive for abalone and congenially misbehave, but it was a good year before I learned he’d once been District Attorney for Storey County.

Bob was as straight-laced as a Brooks Brothers commercial and wouldn’t say “crap” if he’d stepped in it, but when I asked him if it was true that he helped put my Uncle Fred out of business, he floored me. “Was that old sonofabitch your uncle?” he said.

He referred to Fred Crosby, owner of the Triangle River Ranch in Wadsworth but leased to the pimp, whoremonger and criminal, Joe Conforte, Bill Raggio’s nemesis. The ranch site crossed three counties—Washoe, Lyon and Storey—and when the law came for the evildoers, they’d just sidle a few feet across to the next county line where the invading sheriff had no jurisdiction. Word has it that the county line was painted on the barroom floor.

Conforte made the mistake of trying to bribe Raggio. Bob Moore got the court order, Raggio got the torch and that was the end of the Triangle River Ranch.  Mustang Ranch sprouted not long after closer to Reno, in Lockwood, where Conforte continued to corrupt local political figures and commit a host of crimes, probably including murder for hire.

Nevada State Journal editor and publisher, Warren Lerude, helped put this scumbag out of business, and Warren’s team won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. But there are no prizes for District Attorneys who do their jobs, or--in Raggio’s case—overperform. The mention of Conforte was the only tiem I ever saw Bill’s face well up in restrained rage. Revealing feelings was not something he did.

I would run into Bill perhaps three or four times a year from the mid-1970s until I left Nevada in 1987. I was of a younger generation, but he always acted as though he remembered me. He had that politician’s touch of recalling some personal attribute, something my father had once said, maybe how pretty my mother looked at some gathering or other.  From different generations and different political persuasions, we were not buddies, but townsmen of a similar town.

In 2012, I am enormously proud of my nephew, Bob Fulkerson, Executive Director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and harbor huge respect and affection for his ex-wife, state Sen. Sheila Leslie. Both are left of the political center. But I have never, ever, even over wine at the end of a Thanksgiving dinner, heard either of them say an unkind word about Bill Raggio.

My own view is that Bill, as with the Laxalts, was less about ideology than about Nevada. He didn’t just play his cards close to the vest, he never showed them whether he won or lost. It was nobody’s business.

His death saddened me, not just for the passing of a truly great Nevadan, but, selfishly, for the passing of a part of my personal history into memories, some witnessed, some hoped for.

I do not believe that Bill Raggio’s good, to contravene the Bard, is interred with his bones. His public work and private persona made Nevada a better place. Whatever his private misdeeds, and we all have them, I’m pleased to have known the guy.

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