The police chief, the showgirl and the dividing line

Times Staff Writer

Sylvia, for whatever reason, needed another pair of shoes. So, on a late Wednesday night in mid-August, police chief Vaughn Tripp headed across town in his red Chevy pickup, hauling high heels to the club where his wife performed as an exotic dancer, stage name "Ecstasy."

Vaughn Tripp was 50 years old, bald on top, with a reddish mustache and square build. A Wendover native and self-described "proud grandparent," he had been raised Mormon and, while no longer making it to services every Sunday, he remained a teetotaler.

"I don't smoke cigarettes, I don't drink alcohol and I don't do drugs. Never have," he declared, not long after he'd been battered by the tabloid whirlwind created when his wife was arrested on narcotics charges.

Sylvia was a 39-year-old German immigrant with wispy blond hair and a slender figure. For years she had battled an addiction to pain pills, a habit she claimed had taken root in the aftermath of a car wreck. Teardrop tattoos ran down her right cheek.

The Tripps had been married 16 years. It was the second time around for both of them. Each brought one child to the union. Throughout, Vaughn's friends and relatives were ambivalent at best about the match.

"My son has a problem picking wives," said Tripp's 78-year-old mother, Gertrude, the town's unofficial historian and a City Council member. "But he always kept his troubles to himself."

This was a few days after certain troubles created by Sylvia had become known, not just to Vaughn's family, but far beyond Wendover, putting even greater strains on the unlikely marriage of the police chief and the exotic dancer.

In a sense, the trouble began one night about six years earlier. A dancer missed her shift at Southern Xposure, a storefront "cabaret" in a strip mall just across the state line in West Wendover, Nev. Co-workers coaxed Sylvia, who was working behind the bar, to step in.

Sylvia quickly discovered there was more to be made swinging from a stripper's pole in pasties and G-string than pouring beer for oglers at the bar: "I didn't know what I was doing, but at the end of the night it was like, 'Wow. This is really good money.' "

Shopping money. Gambling money. Certainly not the kind of money her $21-an-hour police chief husband could routinely throw her way.

Vaughn was not pleased. In time, though, he seemed to make a sort of peace with Sylvia's second act as a Southern Xposure "showgirl," reasoning: "She's got her life, and I have got my life."

Now, though, this neat divide he'd constructed in his mind was about to come tumbling down. As he pulled into the parking lot with Sylvia's shoes, Tripp could see something was amiss. Several West Wendover police officers, along with state narcotics officers, were queued up near the Southern Xposure entrance. Others had taken up positions out back. Tripp rolled up to Ron Supp, his Nevada-side counterpart.

"Should I not be here?" Tripp asked the chief of the West Wendover Police Department.

"I wouldn't be," Supp replied, "if I were you."

--

Wendover, Utah, celebrating its centennial just this year, began as a railroad watering stop. Perched on the western fringe of the Great Salt Lake Desert, where Utah bumps into Nevada, it has been a surprisingly frequent host of history.

Just north of here, the Donner Party staggered from the desert after taking a "cut-off" that extended their slow-moving trek west by weeks, with lethal consequences. Conversely, driver Craig Breedlove set his land speed records in the Bonneville Salt Flats, a few miles east.

The last pole linking the transcontinental telephone line was planted in Wendover. And in World War II, the crew of the Enola Gay trained at Wendover field to nuke Hiroshima; today the airstrip, all but abandoned, receives a daily charter jet carrying gamblers bound for the slots across the state line.

What seems most striking about this place these days is the disparity created by the border -- represented, literally, by a white stripe painted across Wendover Boulevard.

On the Utah side sags a struggling town of about 1,000 people. Stretches of blight coexist with the occasional well-kept residence and the stout, brick edifice of the Wendover Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Boosters point defiantly to a new high school ballfield; a small development of finer, new homes built on a hill; a busy strip of motels, auto repair and pawn shops; fast-food restaurants and filling stations. Yet even the most ardent Wendover stalwart will admit it has seen better days.

"This used to be a nice place," said Bonnie Tilbury, 80, a close friend of the Tripps.

Across the line, in shiny contrast, rises West Wendover, Nev., a neon oasis of casino-hotels that on its side streets melds into tidy residential neighborhoods. Incorporated only 15 years ago, the town had reached a population of 5,000 in the last census.

It has been fattened on tax revenue and payroll from the casino-hotels, allowing West Wendover to pile on amenities -- a community pool, a library, fine schools, a golf course and an equestrian center, with a new City Hall complex to come.

There remains one major eyesore. At the western edge of town, a low-slung, cinder block strip mall greets motorists on Interstate 80 with giant, block-letter canvas banners: "SMOKES. LIQUOR. SHOWGIRLS."

The "showgirls" reference is a come-on for the mall's anchor, the Southern Xposure. For years, West Wendover officials have pressured the owner to relocate. With allegations of overly intimate lap dancing, "the place to party in Wendover," as the Xposure advertises itself, didn't fit West Wendover's image of what it aims to become -- a gamblers' mecca, yes, but one that is modern, modest, wholesome in its way. Gomorrah Lite, with curbs and gutters.

Earlier this year, even as the city and club negotiated a set of operating guidelines -- talks that covered everything from proper placement of pasties to warrantless police searches -- an undercover investigation into alleged drug activity was launched, initiated by a state task force at West Wendover's request.

As summer approached, the probe narrowed its aim: "In June of 2007," a task force leader related in a sworn affidavit, "I was informed by a West Wendover Police Officer that he/she had reason to believe that one Sylvia Tripp . . . was selling controlled substances at a commercial enterprise known as the 'Southern Exposure' [sic]. . . . "

That Sylvia was married to the police chief from the other Wendover was known to investigators all along, according to Chief Supp. Still, no professional courtesies were extended by Nevada investigators to their Utah colleague. Nobody even whispered to Tripp that now might be an opportune time for Sylvia to take up another line of work -- wasn't the dollar store hiring? -- even though Tripp himself early on had briefed the investigators on drug activity in both Wendovers.

"They just can't do that," he insisted. "The guys who worked the case, I know them. They are good guys."

At a minute after midnight Aug. 17, officers burst into the club. A general search of the place for narcotics came up empty, although a handful of suspicious pain pills turned up in Sylvia's purse. Two suspects were led away in handcuffs: a bouncer accused of having sold pot earlier that day, and Sylvia, who allegedly had been involved in the sale of two bottles of pain pills and muscle relaxants to undercover officers three weeks earlier.

Afterward, another Southern Xposure dancer ran into Tripp at a gas station. Apparently he was filling up for the 110-mile drive to Elko, the county seat, where Sylvia would need to be bailed out of jail. Slouched in his pickup, he seemed stunned, said the dancer, who declined to give her name.

"What am I going to do?" she heard Tripp mutter. "What am I going to do?"

As bad as it must have seemed in the moment, within days matters worsened. The story of the police chief's wayward wife soon hit the Salt Lake papers and local television. It ricocheted at warp speed across the Internet and national talk radio, giving a nation at war a giggle or two and subjecting the Tripps to the easy cruelties of chat rooms.

In less than a week, Tripp was driven from the post he'd held most of his adult life -- "on grounds of embarrassment," said the mayor. In the same stories that reported his resignation, Tripp was accused by two of his own officers of a certain indifference to narcotics investigations. He hotly denied this last allegation -- and, upon further examination, it seems to have stemmed mainly from a clash of wills and a difference of opinion about how to police a small, isolated town. Still, the damage was done.

"It sucks," Tripp said, surveying the catalog of damage. He sat in a plastic chair on the driveway near the back door of his stucco house. Sylvia was holed up inside. A week had passed since her arrest, and Tripp was refusing to discuss the future of their relationship.

"You don't want to show your poker hand," he said mysteriously. What he would say was this: "I'm going to get the worst of this deal out of everybody. She'll end up getting a slap on the hand, no jail time. In the meantime, I've already got my reputation scarred and I lost my job, and now I doubt I'll be able to get another job in law enforcement."

That this sounded a bit like self-pity didn't make it any less accurate.

--

Struggling to explain how Vaughn Tripp found himself in such a fix, the folks who knew him best tended to attribute it all to the strange power of love.

"I've said to many people since this happened," said Stephen Perry, a motel owner and former mayor, "love does funny things."

"This is a tale of un-understandable love," said Howard Copelan, co-publisher of the High Desert Advocate, a weekly published in West Wendover.

"You know what they say, love has no sight," offered Tilbury, who has known Tripp since he was in diapers and who once hoped he might marry her own daughter. "I think he worships the ground she walks on. . . . But she never struck me as his kind of person. Vaughn is a homebody. He loves to fish and hunt and all that stuff."

They met across the state line, where he was moonlighting as a card dealer and she worked as a cocktail waitress, at a time when both were regrouping after failed marriages. Was it love at first sight?

"No," said Sylvia, after a judicious pause.

"Hell, no," Vaughn said emphatically, in a separate conversation.

In fact, he said, the marriage had been difficult. Twice he placed Sylvia in rehab, trying to snap her pain pill addiction. Her enthusiasm for gambling, he said, also needed attention. Vaughn insisted, though, that he had no clue Sylvia might be dealing. He said he warned her constantly: Establishments built around the popularity of the bared female breast tend to attract drug activity.

In hindsight at least, the peril created by Sylvia's dancing seemed obvious. A police chief husband and an exotic dancer wife simply presented too easy and irresistible a target for law enforcement investigators and political foes alike: "Any time they can target a high-profile person," Tripp said, "they want to go after them. "

With the question of who "they" might be, the ballad of Vaughn and Sylvia turns away from the romanticists and their theories of blind love, and toward the conspiracy theorists. To spend time in Wendover after the Tripps' downfall was to be let in on startling amounts of skinny about skeletons in various community closets.

Supporters of Vaughn Tripp -- and he had many -- saw his dismissal in a context far more nuanced than could be heard on, say, talk radio broadcasts. In their telling, a lifetime of small-town police work had produced a minefield of grudges and political slights.

"I'm not saying Sylvia didn't do this," said Gert, as Tripp's mother is called by everybody in town. "But they are using her to bring him down. It's politics."

"It's guilt by association," added Bonnie Tilbury. "That's what it is. And what man doesn't associate with his wife? Besides, this happened in Nevada."

There were subsets of opinion about motivation. Like Gert, there were those who believed that political opponents simply were seizing an opportunity that Sylvia had dropped in their laps. Others suspected the Tripps were collateral damage, caught up in a bid by West Wendover to rid itself of the Southern Xposure.

Complicating matters were the complaints that Tripp's officers brought to a union local in Salt Lake City -- just as the Southern Xposure investigation neared its end. This smelled to Tripp backers like a palace coup. When a rival council member rushed to install the lead complainant as Tripp's replacement -- a move stalled by Gert Tripp and others -- suspicions were heightened.

Finally, there were cross-border politics to consider. Chris Melville, West Wendover's city manager, grew up in Wendover and recalled how people who moved from there to the new town would be branded "traitors." At the same time, Wendover residents detect a certain condescension at times from across the border.

"They think we are a bunch of illiterates," said the blessedly plain-spoken Gert.

Several years ago, a much-publicized push to merge the two towns by redrawing the border, moving this town into Nevada, eventually failed -- in part because Wendover officials suspected they were getting a raw deal, in part because their West Wendover neighbors were ambivalent, at best, about taking on what they considered a daunting cleanup project.

And so when Tripp pondered who might have brought Sylvia's arrest to the attention of Salt Lake media, he tended to name politicians on the Nevada side. A chance to humiliate the Utah chief, goes one view heard around Wendover, would have been regarded by certain Nevadans as found money.

Wendover Mayor Brett Shelton, who ordered Tripp to resign or be dismissed, cited what he considered a relevant precedent: The chief who served before Tripp had been caught, along with his officer wife, selling narcotics evidence from the trunk of a squad car. Tripp's charge had been to clean up the department.

"So now Chief Tripp finds himself in a similar situation," Shelton said. "And so it was embarrassing for him, and it was embarrassing for the community as a whole."

To those who defended Tripp, the whole saga was inflated with hyperbole from the start. A Nevada narcotics agent, for example, described Sylvia early on as "a drugstore." Facts laid out in court documents did not seem to support the characterization, yet it was a colorful quote that traveled well.

Similarly, law enforcement officials made a point of telling reporters that Vaughn Tripp was not a suspect "at this time" -- a dangling qualifier that effectively kept the chief twisting, even though he said investigators had assured him he was never a target.

Sylvia's own account of the affair, offered outside court following her first appearance in her felony case, was that two men later identified as undercover officers -- dressed like "construction workers" -- had been coming into the club for months, pestering her for drugs.

" 'Where can I get pot? Where can I get meth? Where can I get coke?' " she said they would ask. "I said, 'I don't know.' They were definitely pushing me, but I kept saying no."

Sylvia said she pointed out other bar employees, but the men insisted that they wanted to deal only with her. Yes, she said, she would drop hints that perhaps a connection might be made later. But she was just stringing them along, for reasons as old as stripper bars and bordellos:

"They were spending money! And we want customers to stay in the bar until we have all of their money, not just part of it. That's the name of the game, isn't it?"

Finally, one night in late July, three weeks before the raid, with the pair again present, a woman customer Sylvia knew casually burst in and told a sad story about being beaten by her husband and needing money for a bus ticket to Salt Lake.

The woman said she had two bottles of meds to sell, and asked Sylvia to help. Sylvia told the would-be drug buyers it appeared their ship had come in, and indicated the woman with the pills: "They said, 'You get them. We don't know her. But we know you. You go get them.' "

So Sylvia -- in "a stupid decision," she conceded -- ducked into the bathroom with the woman and emerged with a bottle of pain medication, mainly oxycodone -- known on the street as "hillbilly heroin." The men forked over $200, which Sylvia claimed to have delivered to the woman in need. Later the same night, they returned and purchased the second bottle, containing morphine capsules.

"It was the first time I had ever done that," Sylvia said. "I'm definitely not a dealer. I thought I was helping a friend. Now it seems like a complete set-up. But none of it went into my pocket, none of it, nothing. I didn't get a dime."

Of course, in the annals of drug arrests, Sylvia's line of defense is not exactly novel. Which doesn't mean it might not be true.

--

After the raid, Sylvia found it impossible to leave the house. "You can't go anywhere without people looking at you," she said. She applied for work at the dollar store, but abandoned the pursuit when she reached the line on the application that asked: "Have you ever been arrested?"

She still wonders if the underlying point of the raid was to close down the Southern Xposure, humiliate her husband, or both. "I think I was in between both of them," she said.

In early October the West Wendover City Council rebuffed Chief Supp's attempt to shutter the Xposure. Lawyers for the club's owner, threatening legal action, persuaded council members that there was no evidence their client knew of drug dealing by Sylvia or anybody else on the premises.

Early talk of a petition to reinstate Vaughn died down, but Gert Tripp still looked forward to exacting political vengeance on those she deemed responsible for her son's downfall.

"What goes around comes around," this frail woman in a red-checked cotton dress said sweetly, leaning back in her family-room chair. "Their time will come."

As for Vaughn, in late September he went to work as a security officer at the county-run Wendover airfield. After only a week, he was canned.

"The county commissioner says it doesn't look good," Tripp said. "He said that if I'm not good enough for the city, I'm not good enough for the county.

"I am not," he steamed, "a happy camper."

Later, on a morning in early October, seven weeks after the night he headed out to bring his Sylvia her shoes, Tripp was in his driveway, head under the hood of his Chevy. He took a break to conduct a final survey of the wreckage wrought by two bottles of pills.

Twice he had been fired, and for the first time in his life he had filed for unemployment. His reputation in law enforcement had been, as he put it, "scarred." And make no mistake, Tripp added, he missed his old job: "There was a lot of self-pride in the fact a boy from town could grow up and become the police chief."

As for his relationship with Sylvia, Tripp still did not want to discuss it. At her first court hearing in Elko, he had sat, red-faced, outside the courtroom, worried that a photographer would take a picture of them together.

"I don't know what you'd call it now," he said glumly, sitting once more outside the back door of their house. "But it's not a marriage." And here, Tripp repeated the rationale that once helped him deal with the fact that his wife had taken up dancing for strangers with most of her clothes missing.

"I guess you could say," he concluded with a shrug, "she's got her life, and I got mine."

--

peter.king@latimes.com

--

On latimes.com

To see this story and an expanded series of photographs, visit

latimes.com/wendover

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°