05/09/2002 12:00AM

State's image - such as it is - takes hit

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Nevada, with its open gambling, 24-hour liquor sales, legal prostitution, and overall live-and-let-live attitude, is the modern equivalent of the wild, wild West.

The state survives despite its bad reputation, and some say it thrives because of it. The neon lights draw everyone from the rich and famous to the drifters and dregs of society. Las Vegas doesn't pretend to be Anytown, USA.

The prevailing attitude is that there's no such thing as bad publicity, and that has certainly been the case since the mob helped build Las Vegas. But an extraordinary string of recent events has to leave the state's tourism department wondering how many negative news stories the public can hear before tourists and potential new residents start staying away.

Consider the following headline-makers from the last two weeks, most of which have appeared in the national news:

* Three killed in Laughlin casino: In the first multiple killing in a Nevada casino, three bikers were shot to death on April 27 in a showdown between the Hells Angels and the Mongols, a rival outlaw motorcycle club. The shootings took place in a crowded casino at Harrah's Laughlin during the city's annual River Run celebration, which is attended by about 60,000 motorcycle enthusiasts each year. Laughlin is 80 miles south of Las Vegas. Another Hells Angel was found dead on the highway to California.

* Accused murderer and rapist captured: Timmy Weber was arrested on April 29 after a 3 1/2-week manhunt for allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend and her 15-year-old son and raping her 14-year-old daughter on April 4. Weber had also returned to the scene of the crime the day of the funeral and had a bat-wielding fight with his ex's other teenage son. Weber's story was featured on "America's Most Wanted."

* Kid threatens to blow up school: In Pahrump, 45 miles west of Vegas, a teenager hijacked a school bus using a Samurai sword on April 29. When he was finally captured in California, it was found he had written plans to blow up his school. His brother and a friend have also been arrested for their part in the plot.

* Teacher brings student to Vegas: The highway to California is apparently a two-way street for people committing criminal acts. On Monday, San Bernardino, Calif., teacher Tanya Hadden was charged with 17 felonies, including kidnapping and statutory sexual seduction, for bringing one of her students across state lines and allegedly having sex in three Strip hotels.

* Medical malpractice crisis: Pregnant women in southern Nevada are being turned away by obstetricians because the doctors can't afford malpractice insurance coverage. A doctor who delivers 125 babies in a year used to pay $40,000 in insurance premiums, but that has been doubled to $80,000. It's a major crisis for the growing local population because many OB/GYN's have moved their practices out of state, chosen not to accept new patients, or decided to retire. Gov. Kenny Guinn has offered an alternative plan, but doctors say insurance is still too expensive.

* Possible union strike: Las Vegas casinos and the Culinary Union, which includes many hotel workers, have begun negotiations on contracts that expire May 31. The union hasn't been happy with casino ownership since thousands of workers were laid off in the wake of Sept. 11, and many believe it is using this battle to get even. The union sent letters to Wall Street investors and travel agents throughout the country to warn them of a potential strike. On May 1, a melee broke out in the Circus Circus employee dining room when a union organizer was thrown out by hotel security. This situation could get worse before it gets better, though Gov. Guinn is also trying to intervene in this crisis.

* Yucca Mountain vote: Gov. Guinn is also trying to battle the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which is being debated in Congress. Opponents of the project lost by a 306-117 margin in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. That vote was expected to be a landslide, and Nevada's delegation has long said its best chance to stop the project is in the Senate, which will vote on the bill by late July. The federal government wants to start storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas, by the year 2010.

* Mailbox bomber arrested: Luke Helder, the 21-year-old college student who has admitted to authorities that he planted the 18 pipe bombs in mailboxes across the Midwest, was arrested Wednesday about 55 miles east of Reno in northern Nevada. It's not unusual for criminals to head for Nevada. Fugitives are captured here all the time. The TV show "Cops" often films here, and on just about every episode of "America's Most Wanted" you'll hear the phrase, "He was last seen in Las Vegas."

This list is just the news involving non-Nevadans you're likely to have seen. We've had plenty of bad news local stories, such as homeless people being swept off the streets and cases of teacher and priest misconduct.

A lot of these stories will pass from the public consciousness, but others have the potential to linger. It's not good if people fear for their safety going to casinos, or on the highways.

And if the medical malpractice crisis isn't resolved, no doctors will be around to care for the two-headed babies that are born after nuclear waste is stored nearby.