Newport: Showdown in Sin City
Casinos didn't go quietly into the night
It remains the pivotal episode in the long and storied history of Newport, the moment in time that broke the back of organized gambling throughout Northern Kentucky and changed the city forever.
Some say it was a change for the better. They insist that gambling, prostitution and corruption had to be eliminated for Newport to have any hope of shedding its Sin City image and, eventually, realizing its potential as a vibrant place to live and do business -- in other words, becoming what it is today.
Others maintain quite the opposite. They argue that the events surrounding the grassroots reform organization known as the Committee of 500 and George Ratterman's subsequent campaign for Campbell County sheriff left Newport without an economy and opened the door to 20 years of decay.
When the Committee of 500 came into being, the city's tradition of gambling and prostitution had already stretched back the better part of two centuries.
Many date the beginning of the committee to a sermon against the evils of gambling that the Rev. Harold Barkhau preached one Sunday morning in 1956 at St. John's United Church of Christ. Christian Seifried heard the sermon and vowed to do whatever he could to chase the gambling and the gangsters behind it out of town.
Seifried was a mailman whose route took him past all the illegal gaming establishments and houses of prostitution. He began taking notes, passing those notes along to Henry Cook of Fort Thomas, who was the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky when Dwight Eisenhower was president.
Seifried died a year ago at the ago of 90. But Ken Fields, a longtime friend and fellow committee member, tells this story of the movement's beginnings:
“Chris saw the corruption with the lawyers and the judges and the police every day, and he'd heard this sermon. In a prayer, he told God that if he would give him the strength, he'd do something about it.
“The next thing I knew, I was seeing fliers around town saying, 'Let's clean up Campbell County. Come join the Committee of 500.'
“John Kennedy had just been nominated for the presidency when we had that first meeting at St. John's. Sis Waldemeyer was asking for volunteers -- the woman could talk you into jumping off a cliff. I volunteered to be a challenger at the next election, making sure everyone who voted was properly registered, that sort of thing.”
Fields has continued to remain involved in Newport civic life. Today, he's a member of the Newport Board of Education.
Ed Hengelbrok of Fort Thomas was the committee's first general chairman. He described the committee's goal:
“There was a problem with the people running Newport especially. A lot of crooked stuff was going on. We wanted to clean it up.”
Opposition to the committee came in the form of a group that called itself the Businessmen and Taxpayers League. Hengelbrok wrote a piece for The Kentucky Post that was critical of the league.
“The next morning, I woke up and all four tires of my car had been flattened and my car was covered with garbage, eggs and paint,” Hengelbrok said.
“It happened every day for a week. It was the kind of nastiness that put you on edge a little bit.”
The committee's efforts picked up serious momentum early in 1961 when 34-year-old George Ratterman of Fort Thomas offered to run as an independent candidate for Campbell County sheriff. Ratterman's plan was to leverage his fame as a quarterback of the 1946 Notre Dame national championship team and the Cleveland Browns.
“There was also a protective aspect from George's being well-known -- a sense that he would not hesitate to contact the press if the other side should try to do something to him -- and that the press would listen,” said his wife, Anne, from the Rattermans' home in Centennial, Colo.
The other side, as she called it, made its presence known, but not its identity.
“I remember one time going down into the basement of our house -- a large house with many doors -- and having this fear,” she said.
“I'd had a series of phone calls, someone using vulgarities, calling every 15 minutes. I was worried about those phone calls. And I just realized you can't worry all the time. You have to move forward.”
The day after Ratterman declared his candidacy, Tito Carinci, president and manager of the Glenn Hotel and its Tropicana casino, contacted him and indicated he had information about the mob that could be helpful. Ratterman agreed to meet him at a bar in Cincinnati on the evening of May 8, 1961.
Ratterman had one drink.
“I don't remember much after that,” Ratterman said.
“It was a blur. I remember wanting to lie down. I remember someone pulling at my clothes. And I remember Tito was crying, but I didn't know why.”
He'd been slipped a mickey -- a triple dose of chloral hydrate, a dose then-Hamilton County Coroner Frank Cleveland would later say was so strong, it would have killed a less robust man.
Ratterman was taken to Room 314 at the Glenn Hotel. At 2:45 a.m., May 4, a trio of Newport detectives -- including Chief of Detectives Pat Ciafardini, father of now-Newport City Manager Phil Ciafardini -- found a groggy Ratterman wearing only boxer shorts and socks, in bed with 27-year-old Juanita Hodges, a stripper known professionally as April Flowers.
Ratterman was arrested for soliciting prostitution. The story made national headlines. The headlines grew larger during Ratterman's trial the following week.
The harassment continued during the trial. Hengelbrok's wife, Jean, remembers babysitting the Ratterman's six children during the trial. Hengelbrok is a brother of Ratterman's wife.
“I got a phone call from a man saying the Ratterman children weren't going to make it home from school alive,” Jean Hengelbrok said last week.
“Of course, the children had been given an escort from school. But the power of the underworld was known to us all, and we had no idea how any of it would end.”
If the campaign to rid Newport of gambling can be tied to one single moment, that moment came when Nancy Hay took the witness stand at Ratterman's trial.
Nancy Hay was the grandmother of Nancy Withrow, the wife of Tom Withrow, a local freelance photographer. Mrs. Hay, who lived with the Withrows and also was a member of St. John's Church with Christian Seifried, testified that Withrow had been contacted days earlier and told he could make some money if he showed up with his camera at the Glenn Hotel.
On the night of May 8 and into the early hours of May 9, Mrs. Hay testified, the telephone at the Withrow home rang repeatedly. They were calling from the Glenn Hotel, wondering where their photographer was. Each time, Mrs. Hay answered. Each time, she told the caller she didn't know her grandson-in-law's whereabouts.
The entire episode, she said, was a set-up that had gone bad.
The charges against Ratterman were dropped. Detective Ciafardini was eventually indicted for violating Ratterman's civil rights but was acquitted in U.S. District Court in Covington.
During an interview last year, Ciafardini denied that Ratterman had been set up:
"I will go to my grave saying so. Ratterman was there for sex. But how are you going to beat the Kennedys once they got mixed up in it?”
Ratterman went on to be elected sheriff. Within a few months, nearly all the gambling joints, casinos and numbers rackets in Newport had packed up shop and, for the most part, headed for Las Vegas.
“We didn't have to bust down doors -- oh, we did something like that with one or two places,” Ratterman said.
“But once we did, the other side knew what was coming, and they left quietly, on their own. We knew who was in charge of the corruption, and they knew we knew.
“One funny thing that happened -- one of our sheriff's cruisers was parked in front of a place we raided after the election. When we came back outside, there under the wiper was a parking ticket, courtesy of the Newport police.”
Ratterman hasn't been to Newport in more than three years. He hasn't seen the sweeping changes that have happened there -- including the Newport Aquarium, the complex called Newport on the Levee, the Hannaford and the million-dollar homes that have been built at the top of Park Avenue.
“But I've heard about them,” he said.
“It's very nice to realize that Newport is experiencing a renaissance. Without the Committee of 500, none of it would have happened. The committee is what got it all started. The committee turned Newport around.”
Newport's city manager doesn't see it that way.
“If the mission of the Committee of 500 was to clean up the city, that mission wasn't accomplished," said Phil Ciafardini.
“What happened was, the gambling went, but the town got worse. Historically, from 1961 until '81, the city got worse -- prostitution, adult entertainment and government in a lot of ways got worse.”
Ciafardini cited a more recent reform movement that began in the late '70s, but never was named.
“You had a reform movement from the people of Newport -- as opposed to the Committee of 500, which was mainly made up of people from Fort Thomas.
“In 1980 and '81 was when Newport hit absolute bottom. The real movement to clean up Newport began the first of January in 1982, when a reform ticket of Tom Ferrarra, Steve Goetz, Laura Bradley and Fred Osburg was voted to the city commission.
“What we classified as adult entertainment, we had 17 or 18 of them at any one time before 1982, and it was nude dancing. Now it's two places, and it's dancing in a bikini.”
Elsewhere in Newport, you don't have to go far to find those who still believe the Committee of 500 did more harm than good.
“Those people killed this town,” said Jack Thompson, a retired bricklayer, over coffee one morning recently at the Peyton Place restaurant on Monmouth Street.
“This town was safer then. Say what you want about the gamblers, but if you didn't keep your nose clean, they'd clean it for you.
“And Newport on the Levee? It ain't helping nobody here. It's helping people from out of town and the politicians.”
Thompson paused, took a sip of coffee.
“This was the spot. The spot. This should have been Atlantic City. And they killed it.”
Kentucky Post, September 6, 2004, By David Wecker, Post staff reporter,