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From Anything Goes to Everything Goes at Brothel

A government auction to help settle a tax debt is the final chapter at the storied Mustang Ranch.

December 15, 2002|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

STOREY COUNTY, Nev. — They came for one last transaction at the infamous Mustang Ranch brothel, and unlike previous customers, they were allowed to take their purchases home.

Barstools and tables. Souvenir T-shirts. Bottles of wine bearing a Mustang Ranch label. Drawings of nudes. Even computers and credit card machines because, after everything else, this was once a thriving business.

The federal government on Saturday auctioned off the remains of Nevada's oldest bordello, seized after its owner ran up a $13-million tax debt, leaving the landmark pink stucco building and its adjoining annex empty except for the ghosts of pleasures -- or sins -- past.

"Let's start the bidding on these keys," auctioneer Sean Fraley said as government accountants stood by, tallying up the take. "You can buy the keys to this joint." They went for $170.

The days of negotiating prices downward at the brothel were long gone as Fraley pushed the bidding upward before banging his gavel and closing one deal after another.

On an impulse, retired airline pilot George Howell bought the parlor's 3-foot disco ball for $350. He intends to hang it in his private hangar in Rolla, Mo. "I've flown out of Reno for years and have always heard about the Mustang Ranch. I think the disco ball would be fun to hang above my airplane."

Larry Payne, a local electrician, paid $200 for 10 Mustang Ranch "pleasure menus."

"They'll make great Christmas gifts. Maybe we'll put one above the bed," said his wife, Ronna. "He can always wish."

Another bidder paid $1,000 for 10,000 matchbooks, which he hopes to sell on e-Bay. "Don't use my name," he pleaded. "People back home will think I'm crazy."

Already taken to a trash bin were the bed mattresses, which officials deemed would be in poor taste -- and possible violation of health codes -- to sell to the public, no matter what stories they could tell.

Auction proceeds -- about $610,000, including bids on four land parcels -- will go to the Treasury Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund to pay for law enforcement equipment. The land will be turned over to the Bureau of Land Management, which is debating uses for it.

In its heyday, the Mustang Ranch, about 15 miles east of Reno, kept as many as 100 women busy in a single evening as one of nearly 30 houses of legal prostitution in rural Nevada.

Onetime cabdriver Joseph Conforte launched his first brothel in 1955, only to have it burned to the ground by local authorities after it was deemed a public nuisance.

He purchased the Mustang Ranch in 1967 and found legitimacy when Storey County legalized brothels four years later. State law allows rural counties to regulate brothels -- a legacy of Nevada's mining and railroad construction camps. Nevada's other 12 rural counties soon followed suit, coveting them as a source of much-needed business-license revenue.

But throughout his ownership, the cigar-chomping Conforte faced income tax evasion, racketeering, bankruptcy fraud and other charges -- even as he donated 1,000 turkeys to the poor every year and gave free brothel passes to returning Desert Storm troops. The government took the brothel in 1990 after he failed to pay a $13-million tax debt and fled to Brazil, which has no extradition pact with the U.S. The IRS auctioned the Mustang Ranch in 1990 -- and Conforte bought it through a network of bogus companies and Swiss bank accounts fattened by profits his associates skimmed from the Mustang's books.

Three years ago, the government again seized the property and its assets, and closed the business for good, leading to Saturday's auction.

Among the bidders were the owners of two nearby brothels.

Dennis Hof, owner of Moonlite Bunny Ranch, spent about $23,000 on everything from memorabilia for his brothel museum to nine burgundy sofas and two ATMs. "I'm preserving American history," he said.

Among Lance Gillman's purchases were 32 plastic chairs ($35) and 300 bottles of premium liquor ($1,500) to equip his new Wild Horse brothel. "What better place to shop if you're setting up your own brothel," he said.

Criminal activities notwithstanding, local authorities say they will miss the revenue produced by the Mustang Ranch -- $300,000 a year in sales taxes, room taxes and other sources.

Storey County government won't be alone in missing the Mustang Ranch. "At Christmastime, when there were local gift drives, or when the local schools had needs they couldn't afford, people would make just one phone call to Conforte and they were taken care of," County Commissioner Greg Hess said.

But there was no point in his buying any Mustang merchandise at the auction. "I'm not sure my wife would let me put any of the memorabilia in our house," he said.

The fate of the two brothel buildings, an old stone ranch house and the 340-acre site itself, remains unresolved.

The land is expected to be transferred by the Treasury Department to the BLM, which is debating what to do with it.

"It's located in flood plain along the Truckee River, and we would love to give the river more twists and turns through the property to promote the growth of cottonwoods and willows," BLM spokesman Mark Struble said. "If the area is enhanced, it could be a blooming trout stream, an excellent place for fishing, picnicking and camping -- a great place for families."

Several groups have asked to use the buildings, "but we may just let the fire department burn them for a drill," he said.

The BLM, which also manages land surrounding the Mustang, considered using it as a holding pen for the wild mustang horses it collects from Nevada's open ranges, but decided against it because equestrian effluent would pollute the river.

Other ideas are coming in from the public, Struble said. One person recommended it as a shooting range, another as a long-term health-care facility.

"One person suggested we turn it into a shelter for battered women," Struble said. "Now that would be ironic."

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