Closing the cathouse doors

STOREY COUNTY -- 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. Drawings of nudes. Bottles of wine bearing a Mustang Ranch label. 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," said auctioneer Sean Fraley as government accountants stood by, tallying up the proceeds. "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 commercial airlines pilot George Howell bought the parlors' three-foot disco ball for $350. He intends to hang it in his private airplane 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."

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.

Proceeds from the auction will go to the Treasury Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund to pay for law enforcement equipment. The land itself will be turned over to the Bureau of Land Management, which is debating several 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.

One-time cab driver 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 offered free brothel passes to returning Desert Storm soldiers. The federal government seized the ranch in 1990 after he failed to pay a $13-million tax debt and fled to Brazil, which has no extradition pact with the United States.

The IRS auctioned off the Mustang Ranch in 1990 -- and Conforte purchased it again, through a network of bogus companies and Swiss bank accounts fattened by profits his associates had 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 ATM machines. "I'm preserving American history," he said.

Among Lance Gillman's purchases were 300 bottles of premium liquor for $1,500 and 32 plastic chairs for $35 to equip his new Wild Horse brothel. "What better to place to shop if you're setting up your own brothel," 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 Bureau of Land Management, which is now debating what to do with it.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment