Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: A news tour through the neighborhood’s darker, dirtier past

Dark times: As Downtown moves forward, it’s important to remember its past.

Vegas, the show based on former Las Vegas Sheriff Ralph Lamb, is reportedly close to being canceled. Why the show isn’t doing well is anyone’s guess: Because it’s filmed in New Mexico, not here? Because America’s appetite for Las Vegas fare has reached a saturation point? Because it’s just not that good?

People who have lived here much longer than I say the show lacks an ugly honesty. They remember Lamb as dirtier, harder, schmoozier and less ethical than the TV-friendly version portrayed by Dennis Quaid.

It made me think of the perception and the reality of Downtown.

Some people may think that the Downtown Las Vegas of the last year—with young men and women flitting about setting up businesses and hipsters seemingly growing out of the concrete—is the norm. They’re mistaken. Over more than 16 years in Vegas, most of them living Downtown, I’ve covered many dark and sad stories stemming from Downtown and heard of many more.

Subscribing to the theory that to dispel a bad thing you must first confront it—and that to forget the past is a recipe to repeat it—here are eight notorious Downtown stories from the recent past that some suburbanites won’t forget and some Downtowners have never known:

• In late 1996, off-duty Las Vegas Metro police officers Ron Mortensen and Chris Brady reportedly drank at the Holy Cow! Brewery at Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard before driving to a neighborhood near Paradise and Twain, where Mortensen shot to death 21-year-old Daniel Mendoza in what was described as a drive-by shooting. Brady, who drove the pickup, was not charged, but Mortensen was sentenced in 2007 to life in prison. The Holy Cow! has been torn down.

• In April 1997, Ginger Rios, 20, was killed by John Flowers, also known as Craig Jacobson, operator of a Spy Craft store on Maryland Parkway south of Desert Inn Road. Months later her body was found in the Arizona desert, where another unidentified body was found nearby. Flowers pleaded guilty. (Note: The body of the unidentified woman was lost; Arizona authorities said the company that reburied her remains lost records of the body’s location.)

• The stepfather of a DuPont heir, whose family built the largest chemical company in America, paid $15,000 to have his stepson’s girlfriend murdered in 1998. Her body was found stuffed into an air conditioning vent at the Del Mar Motel in the 1400 block of Las Vegas Boulevard, and the stepfather, Christopher Moseley, was sentenced to about 16 years in prison. The motel was torn down.

• Also in 1998, five religious pamphleteers on Fremont Street—the section near the El Cortez now experiencing a renaissance—were arrested by Las Vegas police, taken to jail and strip-searched. Police alleged they were blocking the sidewalk. The “Fremont Five” alleged police ridiculed them and violated their civil rights. All charges were dropped, and Metro brass formally reminded troops of the right to free speech. The arrest also appeared to help galvanize and invigorate the ACLU of Nevada, which came to the pamphleteers’ defense.

• In November 1998, World Series of Poker champ Stu Ungar was found dead in Room 6 of the Oasis Motel, 1731 Las Vegas Boulevard South. The official cause of death was heart failure.

• Four months later, actor David Strickland, 29, hung himself with a bed sheet in Room 20 at the same motel. He had acted in the show Suddenly Susan with Brooke Shields, who was married to tennis pro Andre Agassi at the time.

• Ten years ago, police came upon this macabre scene in the historic John S. Park neighborhood Downtown: a hand sticking out of the dirt in the backyard of a home. Police were tipped off by another man who rented a room there. Under a plea deal, Anna Mitchel, then 37, was sentenced to between seven and 20 years for the killing of Cecil W. Wilson, 44. Mitchel said she strangled Wilson with pantyhose, though she couldn’t recall a motive.

• Terrorist Mohamed Atta stayed at the Econo Lodge, near Charleston and Las Vegas Boulevard, 10 weeks before the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001.

It’s nice to think these stories represent the “bad ol’ days.” Indeed, Downtown has come a long way since the Fremont Five. But the errant or the bad is always waiting around the corner. Best to remember those dark places so that we can avoid them down the road.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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