It’s a fact of life in this great land that very few clerics commit capital crimes and that very few choirboys punch people senseless for sport. If you choose to bring the law to the people who commit the crimes bring order “to the people who throw the punches, your life will be rich in experience, but you’ll not be spending much time at the cotillion ball. Prosecutors and boxing referees, they dance with the devil.

So, there was this woman, she wasn’t a good woman, but she didn’t deserve to die, and neither did her lover, and neither did her lover’s son. And when Lyndon Kelso shot them all, it was murder, true enough, and District Attorney Mills Lane of Washoe County, Nevada, made sure that Lyndon Kelso went away for killing her. That’s how Mills Lane got the fancy leather belt that he. wears when he presides over the various championship fights that are listed under “Hobbies” on his official resume. It is formal wear, this belt, when you go dancing with the devil.

“Let me tell you how that happened,” says Mills Lane. “There are murders and there are murders. A murderer who kills during a burglary or a rape, well, I don’t care if they put him under the jail. But here were the facts of Kelso: Lyndon Kelso was married to a good woman, and he got himself wrapped up with a gal who wasn’t a good woman, but she had a right to live like anybody else.

“So Lyndon left his wife, and he took up with this woman and lived with her. And she took up with somebody else. Now, Lyndon at this time is over 65 years old. One night, the facts were, she came home to the trailer where they lived, and Lyndon says to her, ‘Well, you spent all night with him, didn’t you?’ And Lyndon had just left his wife, and spent all his money, lavished it on this woman, and she says, ‘Yeah, and I’m still sore in the crotch, so what’re you going to do about it?’ So Lyndon shot her twice. Then, he got his gun and he went over to where this guy lived and he shot him, too. And the guy’s 33-year-old son happened to be there, and Lyndon killed him, too.

“Now, it was wrong. But that kind of murder doesn’t insult me like the guy who murders doing a rape, doing a child abuse, doing a contract hit. I mean, there are murders, and then there are murders.”

You may notice that there is a lot of boxing to a conversation with Mills Lane. The somewhat brindled eyes never leave you, and every third word or so is a jab. That’s the way he talked to the parole board when he appeared before it to plead Lyndon Kelso out of prison for the murder that was a murder but wasn’t a murder. That didn’t insult him. That’s what Lyndon Kelso felt when he made Mills a belt in the prison’s leather shop. On the buckle are two boxing gloves. In the leather are carved Mills Lane’s name, and his initials, and two prize rings. Mills Lane wears the belt only when he referees a boxing match.

Most recently, he wore the belt when he got into the ring with Mark Breland and Aaron Davis. He wore the belt, and when he was introduced before the fight, he rubbed the side of his nose in the time-honored hustler’s ‘I salute, and when he brought Breland and Davis together, Mills Lane gave them their instructions, and then he told them what he tells every pair of fighters in every fight he works and what he will tell them when he climbs in a ring in Reno on Saturday,

Let’s get it on, Mills Lane tells them.

It’s a lovely, basic little fillip. None of this anachronistic “Shake hands and come out fighting” stuff. Let’s face it. It’s a long drop, landed gentry-wise, from the Marquess of Queensberry to Don King. And, anyway, if the marquess were still alive, Steve Wynn likely would have Siegfried and/or Roy dropping the poor fop into a volcano, two shows a night and Saturday matinees. So Mills’ little departures from tradition are closer to the essence of the sport than any of that well-learned politesse that rings as false as Bach in a bordello.

Let’s get it on.

No, wait.

Let’s get it on.

Got it.

Not that anything he does should be seen as disrespectful. Boxing has been good to Mills Lane. Breland-Davis was the 41st world” championship bout that he’s worked. It was during the 1982 heavyweight championship bout between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney—“Not a fight. An extravaganza. A circus,” he says today — that Mills first went to his nose. Holmes and Cooney were the first two fighters that he told to get it on, So- much m that fight was vile and awful that it left the sport with few illusions. In those two little gestures, Mills Lane demonstrated that he had no illusions at all. Pay the fiddler, his little gestures said. You dance to the real tunes when you dance with the devil.

He lets fighters fight—to a fault, says his critics. “I believe that if a fighter has worked to gain an advantage, then he is entitled to that advantage,” says Mills.

“Professional prize-fighting is not a sport,” he says. “Professional prize-fighting is a business that happens to get covered on the sports pages. I respect anybody who will get in the prize ring.” When I referee— whether it’s a world championship fight or a club fight in Carson City—I try to remember that every fight is a world championship for at least two people — the two people in that ring with me.”

As a referee, he has been criticized for being too laissez-faire. He let Cooney hang out to dry in the 12th round, they say. As an elected prosecutor, he has been criticized for being too tough, for hitting late and low. For himself, he says, “I want to stay in the pit. You show me a good loser, and I’ll show you someone, I want to fight every day.” In a very real sense, there is, perfect symmetry in being both a pit bull prosecutor and a get-it-on fan’s referee. Both require a realistic acceptance of human savagery— an ability to distinguish the murders from the murders, as ludicrously measured a choice as that might appear to polite society. With the fancy leather belt came a note from Lyndon Kelso, who shot three people down, but whose murders were not insulting to the man who sent him away.

“Dear Mills,” said the note from triple-murderer Lyndon Kelso. “You were tough, but fair.”

Mills K. Lane founded the Citizen’s Southern National Bank in 1887 in Savannah, but his son didn’t want any part of that, so Reemer Lane went off to South Carolina to become a farmer. He settled in a place so deep in the woods that he didn’t even have an address. The closest town was Walterboro, and that was 12 miles distant. Reemer and Violet Lane had four sons, and they named the eldest boy after his grandfather. Reemer signed up as a gunnery officer in the Navy during World War II, and the Lanes lived in Oregon for a while, but they moved back to the farm. The four boys all cut pulpwood and hauled bales of hay, and young Mills Lane realized quite early in life that he didn’t want to be a farmer any more than his daddy had wanted to be a banker,

“Mills’ mom told me something once that’s held me in good stead,” says Kaye Lane, the former juvenile probation officer, to whom Mills has been, married for 10 years now. “She told me that all Lane men are eccentrics.”

“She’s right, too,” Mills chortles. One of the more eccentric of the clan was Mill’s Uncle Mills, Reemer’s brothers who went into the banking business, and often answered his phone at the bank by saying: “It’s a wonderful world. Can I sell you some money?”

(Mills and Kaye’s first meeting provides even further evidence of eccentricity. Mills was a footloose divorced man, and he was hanging out at a place called The Hardy House — “A meat market,” his wife explains — when Kaye Pearce and several of her friends sat down at his table. Talk got around to compatibility. “I couldn’t date him,” Kaye said, pointing at the bandy-legged fellow nursing a glass of wine. “He’s too short.” Mills replied: “Well, fuck you.” On this note—more or less—they now are happily married and have two sons.)

Reemer wanted his son to have a better education than was available nearby, so when the boy reached sixth grade, Reemer packed Mills off to the exclusive Middlesex School in Concord, Mass. The plan was that Mills would take this Yankee education right off lo college with him. Typically, all Lane men being eccentric, Mills graduated from Middlesex in 1956 and promptly joined the Marines. “I sort of rebelled,” he admits.

If any decision in his life can be said to be pivotal, it was this one. Mills began boxing in the Marines, winning several service titles. It was boxing that paid part of his way through the University of Nevada-Reno, where he managed to make it all the way to the 1960 Olympic Trials as an amateur. He paid for his final two years at UNR by fighting professionally, ending up with a 13-1 record. Later, the GI Bill would pay his way through the University of Utah law school.

But the Marines did more than help him find a career and pay his bills while he looked for one. The Marines shaped him, firmly and permanently. Shipped away to school very young, Mills found something to belong to in the Corps. It gave him an identity that he claims to this day. “You are always a former Marine,” he says. “You’re never an ex-Marine.”

He served between 1956 and 1959, too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam. A Marine who’d done a tour in Vietnam once spoke of what he called “hammock Marines,” hanging there between wars. They grow ripe—overripe, really—with the cult of the Corps. The trappings and the ideal of the Corps, the man said, are all they have. For them, there was no war in which could be shot away the illusions of the parade ground. A peacetime Marine has nothing to assault except ordinary daily life.

“You are always a former Marine,” he says. “You’re never an ex-Marine.”

He works at the law, and he works at officiating prizefights, but a Marine is what Mills Lane is. He keeps himself in razor-strop shape, running three days a week and working out on the heavy bag as often as he can. He has the iron posture, and, when he looks at you, the brindled eyes never waver, only flash. There is more than a little of the Parris Island D1 in this DA.

Moreover, Mills Lane approaches everything in life the way a Marine would— straight ahead and with very few frills. He and Kaye are building a new house. Rather, Kaye is building it. Mills never has laid eyes on the place. “I could live in a tent if my neighbors were good people,” he says.

He referees like a Marine, and he prosecutes like a Marine. He drives himself very hard; Mike Tyson, for one, admires how Lane keeps himself in shape. He is short (5-7), but he is cowpuncher tough. “I might not get that high score on the IQ test,” he says. “But I’ll outwork you. I’ll outwork anybody.”

He also approaches fighters the way a Marine would. He doesn’t like showboating. In all things, he likes people “who’ll get their ears back and get it done.” To him, Hector Camacho “goes over the line.” But he likes the equally flamboyant Jorge Paez because Paez “is a good, tough kid.” He adores Marvin Hagler because of the way Hagler took care of himself. “You go to Marvin Hagler today,” he says, “and I’ll bet he’s not bigger than 166.” Still, he confesses a sneaking admiration for the balloonish Roberto Duran (“You looked in those eyes and you saw nothing. No mercy.”) and for the notably wacky Ras-I Bramble, whose first fight with Ray Mancini Lane officiated.

“I’ll tell you about Bramble,” he says. “You send Marvin Hagler down an alley with Larry Holmes, and I make it 5-1 Hagler. You send him down there with Bramble? Even money.”

He began to referee in 1964, doing amateurs and preliminary bouts. The first championship bout that he did was in 1972. It was a flyweight fight in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and not an auspicious beginning.  He cast the deciding vote against the Venezuelan fighter, and had to be escorted out of Luis Aparicio Stadium by the local militia.

That is what boxing people like about him. “All you want is a guy who’ll be right down the middle with you,” says veteran trainer Angela Dundee, “Mills is a very athletic little guy, and he’ll get in there and be tough with you if it’s necessary, no matter who you are.”

Today, if there’s a big fight, it’s likely that Lane will be one of the three men chosen to officiate. If it’s not him, then it’s Richard Steele or Carlos Padilla. The referee for a fight is chosen shortly before the event in an open meeting of the Nevada Boxing Commission. Lane insists that, if one fighter’s camp has a specific, verifiable animus against a certain referee, then that referee won’t work. For example, because Padilla let Duran throw Ray Leonard all over Montreal in their first fight, it is said that the Leonard camp subsequently refused to accept Padilla as the referee for any of Leonard’s fights.

It is not a job calculated to make anyone rich, a referee handling a WBA championship bout, for example, is paid $2500. Lane can afford to take the work because the good citizens of Washoe County pay him $83,800 to be their DA, which is why Lane takes no fights outside the United States.

He lets fighters fight—to a fault, say his critics. For example, if one fighter backs another fighter into a corner, and the man on the defensive clinches, Lane will break the fighters, but he will do so right there in the corner. In contrast, veteran referee Arthur Mercante always brought the fighters back to the middle of the ring, a move that Lane sees as unfairly penalizing the more aggressive fighter.

“I believe that if a fighter has worked to gain an advantage, then he is entitled to that advantage,” he explains. Ironically, his most controversial fight was one in which Thomas Hearns, in desperate trouble against James (The Heat) Kinchen, spent several rounds simply draped atop the other fighter. Lane was unable to extricate the Heat from Hearns’s ungainly embrace, and wound up deducting a point from the latter, who wound up winning the fight anyway. Lane says that he “did not do a good job in that fight,” but Boxing Illustrated publisher Bert Sugar maintains that Lane made the best out of a bad situation.

“All you want is a guy who’ll be right down the middle with you,” says veteran trainer Angela Dundee, “Mills is a very athletic little guy, and he’ll get in there and be tough with you if it’s necessary, no matter who you are.”

“He took the point away from Hearns, but he did it at the end of the round,” Sugar explains. “Had he done it in the middle of the round, he’d have had to stop the fight, which would’ve given Tommy the rest he was looking for in the first place, And besides, Kinchen should’ve won the damn fight anyway.”

If you fight and you gain the advantage, then you deserve the advantage, that’s a very Marine thing to say. Take the land. Keep the land. Henderson Field, say. That’s the way that Mills Lane referees. That’s also the way he prosecutes. There are people who believe that’s not the best way for an officer of the court to proceed. “Mills,” says one prominent Reno defense attorney, “is a very, very dangerous man.”

He shrugs that off, rivet-eyed and deadly with confidence. He is asked, hypothetically, what he would do if some of the woolyheads got their way and boxing was banned in the United State, and if, thereupon, he discovered that someone was staging prize fights in Washoe County.

“I’d have to prosecute,” says Mills Lane, who unashamedly campaigns for the (thus far) hypothetical job of National Boxing Commissioner. “I’d have to. It’d be against the law. One time, my mama said to me, ‘Mills, you’d prosecute me, wouldn’t you?’

“I told her, ‘No, Mama. But I wouldn’t dismiss the case either.’”

It is halfway through a televised debate and, four months before the election for District Judge of Department 9 in Washoe County, an articulate public defender named Shelly O’Neill already is having a Dukakis Problem right there on Nevada Public TV. She is attempting to be calm, reasoned, and judicious. Unfortunately, Mills Lane is answering her with arguments that seem to have been cut whole from raw, red meat.

“Did you not say once that, ‘I’m guilty. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal’?” asks Mills.

Um, er, ah, replies O’Neill. She must’ve misunderstood the question. “Tell me,” asks Mills later, hooking neatly off the jab. “You defend criminal defendants, don’t you? You advocate for criminal defendants, do you not?”

Well, yes, says Ms. O’Neill, as that is what public defenders do, even in Nevada.

“I just want us to be up-front about this,” says Mills, and it’s not hard to visualize the moment that will come sometime between now and Election Day when Ms. O’Neill will go home in a blanket.

This charming and formidable little man is a lot more than the simple loose cannon that many Nevada politicians perceive him to be. “We will have no comment on Mr. Mills Lane,” sniffs Olive Hill, an aide to U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich. And Jay Sourwine, a Republican state committeeman from Washoe County, points out that “Mills isn’t a party-structure kind of guy.” Nevertheless, he has been elected three times to be district attorney, and, the last time, he defeated Bruce Laxalt, whose uncle, Paul, is a former senator, and whose family is the closest thing that Nevada has to the Kennedys in Massachusetts. Lane’s appeal is simple and effective —equal parts folksy charm, Reaganite populism, and hell-for-leather rhetoric. He is running now for judge on the platform that judges are too powerful.

“The question now in litigation is not, ‘Who did it? But ‘Did the constable blunder?’ And that’s wrong,” he says. “It’s very frustrating to go before an incompetent judge who doesn’t know what the hell is going on and makes esoteric rulings based on some procedural bull he learned in law school from some professor.”

‘“Mills thinks he’s Wyatt Earp —cleaning up the Old West town,” says Reno lawyer Carter King, who later calls back to make sure that his comment is taken as complimentary. Mills Lane is not a good person of whom to fall afoul, and he recently  reprimanded King for trying cases in the newspapers. King replied that this was like “the Easter Bunny calling Santa Clause a fraud.”

“I used to be a friend of his,” says Cal Dunlap, who preceded Mills as DA. “Then he got ambitious.”

For all its visceral appeal, Mills’ prosecutorial style has been slapped down hard on several occasions. In Yates v. Nevada, the Nevada supreme court upheld a murder conviction that Mills had won, but in doing so determined that “There is pervasive and admitted prosecutorial misconduct throughout this case,” a remarkably tough pop for a law-and-order DA to take from an extremely conservative panel of judges.

“I’ve taken some knocks, and maybe some of them I deserved,” Mills says. “But I’m always going to say what I think. A public official owes that to the people he works for—that they should know where he stands.”  Worse, some say, was his office’s relentless, costly and ultimately futile pursuit of the operators of a Montessori school who had been accused of sexually abusing the children in their charge. The case was a staggeringly complex one, with half-a-dozen lurid subplots that owed more to 17th Century Salem than to anything else. Eventually, the whole thing cost almost half a million dollars, and the owners of the school were cleared anyway, although they were also ruined and eventually fled the state. Alas for Mills, the ABC news magazine 20/20 got hold of the story, and the DA came off on television looking like some-one caught halfway between Inspectors Javert and Clouseau.

In dismissing the Montessori case, District Judge Robert Schouweiler accused Lane’s office of with-holding exculpatory evidence from the grand jury, and the two feuded openly for the better part of two years. In fact, it appeared that Lane would be running for district judge against Schouweiler. The local papers were predicting a political “bloodfest.” Then, last January, Schouweiler decided to run instead for a newly created judgeship. The newspapers were disappointed. SCHOUWEILER WEENIES OUT, trumpeted the Daily Sparks Tribune.

That headline is only part of the reason why Shelly O’Neill is 8-5 against, and why Mills Lane is going to be a judge in Washoe County for a long, long time.

“Bigguy, Bigguy, Bigguy!”

Mills is campaigning hard. He is hosting a barbecue and family outing in a Reno park, and, every three or four seconds, he goes off like that in the distance. He does nothing halfway. There’s no ambiguity to him, no shades of gray. He is the only politician in history who openly drinks a beer at his own fund-raiser. He does it all with such conspicuous relish that it’s hard not to notice that, in both of his careers, the old Marine has found himself a war he can fight.

Bigguy, y’alright?” he declaims. He loves this. There’s no denying that.

He may not like capital-P Politicians, but he loves running for office. It is a stage for him, just as are the championship fights he works. Kaye Lane says of their two sons, “They love to perform. It’s genetic, you know.” She’s right, of course. Mills says that his favorite part of a trial is the closing argument. At the last, for good or ill, Mills Lane is a performer.

In this way, the big fights have become an escape. No choirboys. No clerics. Rather, a place of refuge in which he can get away from the weenie judges with their esoteric procedural malarkey that makes life so difficult for a people’s advocate. “I thought about this some,” he says. “There’s some simplisticness to that. Boxing, to me, is an escape hatch. I can go to Las Vegas, and I’m away from the office.

“The combat in the ring is just so basic. It reduces complex problems down to a definitive equation. There ain’t much give or take. It’s just, let’s get in there and get it on.”

Get it on?

“Get it on, son.”

Got it. Lyndon Kelso never learned, so Mills Lane had to send him away. But Mills learned. He surely did. Dance with the devil, if you must. Dance with the devil, if you like. But make damned sure that old bugger knows who’s going to lead.

[Photo Credit: Bob Thall c/o The Art Institute of Chicago]

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