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“Let’s get it on!”: The passing of a legend

There will never be another one like Mills Lane

Mills Lane.JPG

Mills Lane died this week. Mills was famous on several levels, and many people who knew him in only one of his roles might not have known about the others, distinguished as they were.

My first experience with Mills – I don’t think I ever heard anyone refer to him as “Mister Lane” – was as a lecturer in my police academy. When I was hired by the Reno Police Department in 1979, I knew very little about the town or its politics. I didn’t even know enough to call it “Nev-aa-duh” instead of the more refined “Nev-vahd-duh” (pronouncing it the second way causes Nevada natives to remark, “You’re not from around here, are you?”). Mills was known to locals as a prosecutor in the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office.

When I was in the police academy, Mills had experienced a falling out with the elected district attorney, who was viewed as something of a dilettante when compared to Mills. The Big DA wore three-piece suits (something Mills vocally eschewed) and personally prosecuted all of the major headline trials, as he had political ambitions for higher office. Mills took exception to that, calling the Washoe County DA’s Office the largest law firm in Northern Nevada, and one where the elected district attorney was more properly an administrator than a trial lawyer. Mills had more of this than he could take and was at that time employed by the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office as a chief deputy over investigations. The next time the DA came up for election, Mills’ old boss decided not to run, and Mills won the spot easily.

Outside of Washoe County, Mills was better known as a boxing referee. He boxed while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was a collegiate boxer while attending the University of Nevada, Reno. He turned pro while still at UNR, earning a 10-1 record. Moving to a boxing referee role, he would officiate more professional heavyweight title matches than any man in history. Mills disqualified Mike Tyson in the match when Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear twice. Mills was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013.

Back in Reno, Mills served as the chief administrator of the DA’s office but never got too far from the courtroom. He left the most complex and storied cases to his deputies, but once a year or so would take on a case he felt he could try in a week or less. The defense bar regarded him as a worthy adversary. He made his position on defense of one’s home very clear. I once heard him say, “If a citizen shoots a burglar coming in his window, I’ll kiss him on both cheeks and replace his bullets.” During my time in Reno, that precise scenario occurred at least twice. I don’t know if Mills really did pucker up, but the citizens were quickly assured there would be no criminal repercussions.

The procedure to obtain an after-hours search warrant required calling the on-call deputy DA to craft the affidavit, then getting on a three-way call with the affiant officer or citizen, the deputy DA and the judge who would grant the telephonic warrant. Mills came in person to our patrol briefing to make sure everyone understood how this was to work. One night, I was the cop needing the search warrant. A minute or so on the phone with the on-call deputy told me I was dealing with a drunk. That deputy was also the chief of his section of the office, so I had no place to go other than Mills. I was more than a little apprehensive about dialing his house, as it was about 2 a.m. Mills answered the phone, and when I told him what I needed, he asked, “Did you call the on-call deputy?” I told him I had, and what the result was. There was no further delay. “Okay, Timmy, tell me whatcha got.” I had my search warrant in about an hour. The deputy DA was invited to seek opportunities in the private sector.

Although I had a cheat sheet with the home phone numbers of the DA’s staff, I didn’t need it to reach Mills. On the rare occasions that someone was unwise enough to threaten Mills, he would reply, “Hey, dude, I’m in the book.” I had to see that for myself. There he was, listing both phone number and address. It occurred to me that anyone who tried to break into Mills’ home would soon enough be happy to see the police arrive.

That Mills knew my first name didn’t make me anything special. I was one of 300 cops at Reno PD, working alongside another 400-500 between the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, Sparks PD and the Nevada Highway Patrol. Mills seemed to know everyone. He kept his physical fitness close to what it was when he boxed, and I would occasionally see from my patrol car, him jogging in the early morning. “Heyyyyy, Timmy! What’s the good word?” He always had time for you.

Mills had something of a catchphrase, although he didn’t intend it that way. At the start of a boxing match, he sent the combatants to their corners with “Let’s get it on!” If you didn’t know him, his countenance and voice could be misleading. He was about five foot seven and maybe 150 lbs. His voice was high-pitched and nasal, and jokesters would have mocked a lesser man. No one who knew what he was about would try and poke fun. Mills liked a joke as much as anyone else (his favorite lawyer joke: “What do you get if you send the Godfather to law school?” “An offer you can’t understand.”), but everyone knew or quickly learned not to taunt the bear.

He was colorful without being offensive, something that is often hard for public figures to pull off. In 1993, I was part of the local host committee for that year’s annual meeting of the now-defunct American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers (ASLET), held in Sparks. When the ASLET executive director asked us to line up a banquet speaker, he was thinking about the usual option, a local politician or senior federal law enforcement official. Eric Radli, from the sheriff’s office, and I immediately came back with “Mills.” The executive director didn’t know who Mills was, and was concerned about us bringing in a dud. “Trust us on this,” we told him.

The night of the banquet, Mills was seated on the dais. When I watched him down his third glass of wine with his dinner, I told Eric, “This speech is looking better by the minute.” Mills got a standing ovation, something that I hadn’t seen done for a banquet speaker. The wife of a friend who was attending the conference came up to me afterward and asked, “Do you know him? Can you introduce me?” I certainly could. Mills came to attention, clicked his heels, reached out to kiss her hand, and told her in a very sincere tone how honored he was to meet her. You weren’t going to get that from the local head honcho FBI agent.

On several occasions, I heard Mills say that he would like to finish his legal career “as a kindly old judge.” He got that opportunity when he was appointed to the district court bench in Washoe County in 1990. One might expect that the defense bar would be wary of a career prosecutor assuming the bench, but any fears were quickly put aside. Mills became known as one of the fairest and most impartial judges you would ever find. “The People’s Court” might have been taken as a TV program title, but it was the rule of the day in Mills’ courtroom. People in the courtroom were accustomed to standing when the judge entered or left, but in Judge Lane’s courtroom, everyone stood for the jury to enter and exit, too. He never showed anything but the highest respect for the people who were doing their duty as citizens.

In 1998, he was offered his own syndicated TV show, Judge Mills Lane. It was similar to other courtroom “reality” shows, but Judge Lane often took the time to explain particulars of the law to his television audience, making it something of an educational experience. His unique personality came through, and people who watched the show and knew I was acquainted with him asked me, “What’s he really like?” I told them there was no TV schtick. What you saw was the way he was, on the bench and off.

The TV show lasted for three years. Mills returned to Reno and opened a law firm. Tragically, in 2002 he suffered a massive stroke which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. I can only imagine what torture that had to be for him. One of his last public appearances was to witness the dedication of a large new courthouse building a block away from the original Washoe County Court House, which had housed the DA’s office, much of the sheriff’s office, and most of the district courtrooms since 1910. The new building is the Mills B. Lane Justice Center. He was often billed as the most popular elected official in Nevada. He could have been governor if he had wanted it.

Mills died on December 6, 2022, at the age of 85. I’m privileged to have known a legend.

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.