George Ratterman: He's The Man
Who Cleaned Up Newport
Probably the biggest thing to ever happen in Newport, Ky., politics occurred in May 1961 - but had to do with April.
In the early morning hours of May 9, 1961, George Ratterman - a former Notre Dame football star running as a reform candidate for sheriff of Campbell County - was arrested at the Glenn Hotel in a room with a scantily clad stripper whose stage name was April Flowers.
That moment - 2:45 a.m in Room 314 at the Glenn on Monmouth Street - was a turning point not only in one of the most important sheriff's campaigns ever in Northern Kentucky, but also, as one national magazine put it, in the ''long, wicked history of Newport,'' which for more than a century had been known as the Sin City of the South.
Ratterman's arrest - the result of what quickly was proved to be a badly botched frame job - was the beginning of the end for big-time gambling and national crime-syndicate operations in a city where previous clean-up efforts had been futile.
After the scheme to discredit Ratterman backfired, he was swept into office in a landslide and - aided by scores of federal investigators that U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy sent swarming over Northern Kentucky - immediately set about keeping his campaign pledge to clean up Newport.
Within months, most of Newport's top officials were under indictment, the mob was gone, and though some forms of vice remained - notably, the strip clubs that city leaders still are trying to squeeze out - Newport was never quite the same.
The dramatic events that forever changed the lives of both Ratterman and Newport read like a Hollywood script. In fact, several Hollywood types later approached Ratterman about doing a movie based on his life, but backed away after deciding the story was too incredible.
By the 1940s, illegal gambling had become so profitable in corrupt Newport and Campbell County - where politicians and law enforcement for decades had looked the other way - that the notorious Cleveland syndicate and the New York mob moved in.
The U.S. Senate's Kefauver Committee hearings on organized crime in 1950 held Newport up to national ridicule by underscoring law enforcement's hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach. When Newport Police Chief George Gugel testified, the committee counsel pointed out that ''the Cincinnati papers ran advertisements as to the gambling places open for business in Newport.''
''I never read them,'' Gugel replied.
How was it possible, the counsel persisted, that the police chief was ''the only man in that entire vicinity who didn't know that any taxi driver could take you to a selection of five or six gambling joints.''
''I never ride in a cab,'' the chief said.
By the early 1960s, many prominent civic, business and religious leaders had had enough and decided to make another run at reform, spearheaded by the Committee of 500. When the group sought an independent candidate for sheriff in 1961, it looked to Ratterman - a hometown sports hero who had recently returned to the tri-state.
Born and raised in Hyde Park, Ratterman lettered in four sports at both St. Xavier High School and the University of Notre Dame. Coach Frank Leahy hailed him as ''the greatest all-around athlete in the history of Notre Dame,'' where Ratterman quarterbacked the 1946 national champions.
After leaving Notre Dame following his junior year, he began a decade-long professional football career that concluded in 1956 with the Cleveland Browns. During his playing days, he pursued a law degree at night and in the off-season at various colleges, finally graduating after 10 years from the Salmon P. Chase College of Law.
A father of eight (a family that later grew by two) living in Fort Thomas, the then-34-year-old Ratterman had a dual career - as a color commentator for network telecasts of American Football League games and as an investment counsel - before the campaign.
''I am told that if I run for sheriff, I will be the victim of all sorts of personal slanderous attacks,'' Ratterman said in announcing his candidacy on April 4. ''But I say to our opponents, let the attacks start now, if they must. Let the battle be joined now.''
The battle was joined much sooner than Ratterman expected.
The day after Ratterman entered the race, Tito Carinci - president and manager of the Glenn Hotel and its Tropicana night club-casino - began trying to set up a meeting with him through a mutual Cleveland-area friend, Thomas Paisley. Carinci, a former Xavier University football player, ostensibly wanted Ratterman's help in ''going legit'' - getting out of the Tropicana's illegal gambling activities, getting clear of the mob and opening a restaurant in New York.
The meeting was finally arranged for May 8. Before heading to the Glenn, Ratterman and Paisley met Carinci at a bar in downtown Cincinnati, where Ratterman had one drink. After that, everything became a blur. He next groggily recalled being in a bedroom, ''feeling so weak that I wanted to lie down.'' That was followed by a commotion involving ''some men in the room and a female form in a red dress and someone pulling at my clothes.''
According to official police records, three detectives (one of whom just happened to be in the station on his day off at 2:30 a.m.) had received a tip about prostitution at the hotel, burst into a room and found Ratterman and a 26-year-old stripper named Juanita Hodges - better known as April Flowers - nearly undressed and in bed. The detectives, who claimed Ratterman scuffled with them, wrapped him in a bedspread and took him and Ms. Flowers - wearing an imitation-leopard negligee - back to the station to be booked.
As the arrest was splashed across front pages, Ratterman insisted that he had been drugged and set up. Overflow crowds flocked to Ratterman's trial the next week, where the case against him began to collapse when a doctor testified that he found a triple dose of chloral hydrate - knockout drops - in his blood. After a photographer testified that the Tropicana's lawyer had tried to hire him to take a photo of a man and woman in a hotel room - promising that he would be ''very well paid ... and protected'' - the judge dismissed the case. (The club's lawyer and Carinci's partner were later convicted of violating Ratterman's civil rights. For Ms. Flowers, the notoriety boosted her bookings on the strip-tease circuit - but cost her her Kentucky colonel's commission, which was revoked.)
But the threats and efforts to discredit Ratterman were not over. Throughout the campaign, there were rumors that Mrs. Ratterman had sisters working as prostitutes in Newport, thinly veiled threats that their children might not make it home from school some day and hints that Ratterman's life could be in danger. His football fame, Ratterman hoped, would help protect him and his family. ''They didn't want to murder someone and have that all over the papers across the United States,'' he said.
Overwhelmingly elected by a stirred-up electorate, Ratterman suddenly found himself one of the most famous lawmen in the country. Amid multiple local, state and federal investigations, Ratterman estimated that 99 percent of Newport's gambling vanished within his first 100 days in office.
After a four-year term as sheriff, Ratterman lost races for Campbell County judge-executive and Congress in the mid-1960s. He then moved to Denver to pursue business interests, where, at 72, he remains a law professor.
Though being sheriff occupied only a brief period in his life, Ratterman acknowledges that he probably will be remembered for little else - especially in Newport. There, the tens of millions of dollars being spent today on the Newport Aquarium, the World Peace Bell/Millennium Tower and other glitzy developments go back to a winning play called nearly four decades ago by George Ratterman - who scored as many points as sheriff as he ever did on a football field.
By Barry M. Horstman, Kentucky Post staff reporter, published August 12, 1999