Nearly 40 years after leading raids on gambling in Great Bend, former Kansas Attorney General Vern Miller was back in town Saturday. Miller, 82, spoke at the Great Bend Public Library, where he and author Mike Danford signed copies of the biography "Vern Miller: Legendary Kansas Lawman."
Former Great Bend Police Chief Duane Dugan, who later worked for the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control, was among those who turned out for the event. Dugan was a captain at the GBPD in October 1971, when Miller raided Great Bend’s fraternal organizations and the Petroleum Club, confiscating slot machines and shutting down the country club’s "casino night."
A younger audience member asked Miller, with newfound respect, if he was personally opposed to all of the vices he seemed to crusade against in the ’70s. "I remember thinking, as a young kid in high school, you were just bat-hooey crazy."
"We’re supposed to live by the rule of the people," Miller said. "Some of the laws, back when I was cop, were kind of silly. ... I just made up my mind we were all going to obey the law. If we don’t like it, change it." Bad or silly laws don’t get changed unless they’re enforced, and Miller felt the law applied to all equally. It wasn’t right to outlaw gambling for some but ignore it at private clubs, he said.
Apparently many in Kansas, including Barton County, agreed. When he ran for reelection, he carried every county in the state, even though he was in the minority party as a Democrat, Miller said.
The first day in office as Attorney General, Miller was invited to the Eagles club in Topeka for dinner, and he could hear the slot machines. He told the club manager the gambling devices would have to go. The rest of the state was also put on notice.
"I sent out a letter to every county attorney: From now on the law will be enforced. If you’re not able to stop them yourself, I’ll be there to help you."
In Lawrence and Manhattan, Miller was better known for his raids on drug peddlers. He had undercover agents buying drugs in Lawrence two weeks before he took office, but eventually Miller realized law enforcement was outnumbered in the war on drugs. "I found out I wasn’t going to whip it," he said, adding drugs are "the scourge of our society today."
A lot of things people "remember" about Miller never happened. He never boarded an airplane and ordered it to stop serving alcohol as it flew over Kansas, which was a "dry" state. But he did have agents board an Amtrak passenger train in Missouri, and purchase alcoholic drinks as they traveled across Kansas. When he met the train at Newton, he could tell they had been successful, and were enjoying the assignment.
"I had 10 officers with me and we unloaded the (train) car," Miller said. The conductor ordered Miller and his men off the train, and was eventually arrested for interfering with a law enforcement officer.
"The very next day there was an injunction filed in federal court," as Amtrak attorneys sought for the trains to be excluded from state legal jurisdiction. Three federal judges in Wichita upheld the state’s constitutional right to control liquor sales within its borders, and the rulings held through appeals that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
As for the airlines, Miller said they asked what he would do and were told, "I don’t think you can serve liquor when you’re over Kansas." They didn’t test the matter, but agreed to wait for the courts to rule on Amtrak — and for Miller to leave office.
"It wasn’t long before the Legislature got busy and changed the law," Miller said. "That’s why we can now go to a restaurant and have a drink."
Miller’s biographer Danford is retired from Boeing Corp. and now lives in Washington state, where he has taken up writing. He said he spent seven years working on his book, based largely on newspaper accounts.