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Larry Burns, ex-Las Vegas police captain who ran for sheriff, dies

Updated July 11, 2019 - 6:52 pm

Larry Burns, the former Metropolitan Police Department captain who lost to Joe Lombardo in the tightly contested 2014 sheriff’s race, died Thursday morning. He was 61.

Burns died at Henderson Hospital, according to the Clark County coroner’s office. His cause and manner of death had not been determined as of Thursday afternoon.

His death stemmed from a medical episode at his home, police said in a statement. He is survived by his wife of 36 years, Annie, and his seven children.

“Burns, a 27-year veteran, was widely respected by department members, serving as the Captain of the Bolden Area Command before retiring in 2013,” the statement read, referring to a patrol area that encompasses the Historic Westside.

A lot of that respect and support came from rank-and-file Metro officers, according to an internal police union survey at the time of his 2014 sheriff campaign.

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents police and corrections officers, endorsed him. Former sheriffs Doug Gillespie and Bill Young supported Lombardo, who won with 51 percent of the vote.

Still, Gillespie considered Burns a good friend, someone he had known since the former sheriff was a patrol officer. At the time, the two played basketball together.

“He was usually a little bigger and a little better at the game than I was,” Gillespie said.

Years later, when Gillespie became sheriff, he asked Burns to serve as his executive lieutenant after he had spent years as a SWAT lieutenant and commander. The position prepared Burns for his eventual promotion to captain.

“I told Larry, even though I didn’t support him in his quest to be the sheriff of Clark County — he and I had a very good relationship — I told him on many occasions, that no matter what happens, there will always be a special place in my heart for Larry Burns,” Gillespie said.

Six months ago, the old friends had a chance encounter: While Gillespie was getting his hair cut at his usual barbershop, in walked Burns.

“We were more than just two guys that worked together; there was a relationship and a friendship there,” Gillespie said. “I’m feeling a little empty today.”

Lombardo also considered Burns a close friend.

“As a person, he was a fantastic man of the utmost integrity,” Lombardo said. “But I think the most prevailing word I would use is he was very humble. He had a great influence on a number of officers in the department in their personal lives and careers.”

Lombardo added that, even though the two fought hard campaigns, they were never on bad terms.

“I think that the community would’ve benefited with either one of us,” Lombardo said.

Though he had a colorful career, the most important things to Burns were his family and his faith, said Dennis Flynn, his longtime best friend and a former Metro lieutenant.

Even years after Burns and his wife Annie exchanged vows, he still referred to her as his bride, Flynn said. She, the children and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were “his life.”

As a leader in Metro, he inspired officers to think differently, Flynn said. He offered an example: the way Burns approached police shootings, years before the department began stressing de-escalation tactics.

“He would tell the SWAT officers, he would tell the officers at Bolden Area Command, ‘There’s two things you have to consider if you’re going to use deadly force,’” Flynn said. “And everyone would be puzzled, because there was really only the one test: Is it justifiable? But he would follow up and say, ‘But is it necessary?’

“He would say, ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you always should,’” Flynn continued. “He just put such a high value on a person’s life.”

The two remained close even after Burns retired in 2013 and Flynn moved to Commerce City, Colorado, where he works as a commander. The news of Burns’ death was a shock.

“I got my bag packed, and I’ll be on an airplane in less than two hours,” Flynn said Thursday afternoon. Through tears, he added, “He is the best man I’ve ever known.”

Though Burns inspired many officers, he also developed strong relationships in the community that he served. One of those relationships was with Kevin Lay, a former gang member who spent 11 years in prison on a murder conviction.

Burns met Lay when he was 15. They both had their flaws. Lay was mixed up in some bad things, and Burns was operating under the “lock ’em up” mentality that he had been taught. Lay didn’t trust him or his uniform.

But Burns stopped by his house, got to know him and reminded him that “you’re better than that.”

“There’s a reason behind a lot of things, and Larry wanted to know why,” Lay said. “Why are you out here selling drugs? Why are you in a gang?”

When Lay landed in prison, he repeated Burns’ words in his head: “You’re better than that, you’re better than that.” About a year after he was released, he reached out to Burns. The two grew close and worked together to help deter children from crime.

“The common ground was we believed that we could make things different,” Lay said. “We admitted we couldn’t save the world, or the town, or the valley. But we both believed we could try.”

“I’m gonna miss that guy,” Lay continued. “He was phenomenal.”

Assemblyman Tom Roberts, R-Las Vegas, who retired from Metro as assistant sheriff, described Burns as a “fantastic, selfless individual.”

“He was revered inside and outside the department,” Roberts said Thursday.

Burns’ brother-in-law, Lane Swainston, said it would be hard to find anyone who disliked the former captain.

“People always talk nice about somebody when they die, but people talked nice about Larry when he was alive,” Swainston, 62, said.

The two met at Brigham Young University in Utah in the late 1970s. In Las Vegas, at the Peppermill restaurant on the Strip, Swainston introduced Burns to Annie, the sister of Swainston’s wife. It was the double date that started it all.

Burns spent his last day surrounded by loved ones. They were gathered Wednesday to celebrate the return of one of Burns’ daughters from a mission trip.

“It was one of those rare days you have with people you love, and everybody is upbeat and you’re having a great time,” Swainston said. “Life turns on a dime.”

The family is still finalizing funeral arrangements.

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter. Staff writers Katelyn Newberg and Mike Shoro contributed to this story.

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