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The police chief, the showgirl and the dividing line

When she faces drug charges, he loses his job. The couple's scandal kicks up a storm of politics in a pair of towns on the Utah-Nevada border.

October 20, 2007|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

WENDOVER, UTAH — 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.

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