Mustang memorabilia on the auction block in December

The Cabin in the Sky, a closed restuarant in Gold Hill, was seized by the United States Department of the Treasury and will be auctioned on Dec. 14 after its owner failed to pay back owed taxes. Photo by Brian Corley

The Cabin in the Sky, a closed restuarant in Gold Hill, was seized by the United States Department of the Treasury and will be auctioned on Dec. 14 after its owner failed to pay back owed taxes. Photo by Brian Corley

In 44 years in the Nevada prostitution business, Joe Conforte saw his houses of ill repute burned, padlocked and celebrated on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

On Dec. 14, much of his property will be auctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department to pay his back taxes.

The property was seized by the Internal Revenue Service in August 1999. Conforte, a fugitive reportedly living in South America, won't be around when the items are sold.

Included on the list are the Cabin in the Sky, a restaurant building in Storey County's Gold Hill; homes at 3880 Isle of Skye Drive, 3108 Skye Terrace, both in Sparks; and a 1.6-acre lot on McCarran Boulevard in Reno.

An assortment of memorabilia and personal property, including office furniture, TVs, VCRs and restaurant equipment from Conforte's Mustang Ranch brothel east of Reno are among the auction items.

Conspicuous in its absence is the 340 acres and 2.5 miles of riverfront property surrounding Conforte's brothel.

"The land along the Truckee River, the flood plain and water rights will not be sold," said Byram Tichenor, special agent in charge of the IRS's criminal investigation division.

Mark Struble, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, said the Treasury Department has tentatively approved an IRS plan to transfer the land to BLM.

But the bureau said if a portion of those lands are sold, the money would be retained to manage the rest of the holdings.

"We're glad to take this on for the American public, but we need a self-funding mechanism for Mustang so we can adequately maintain the area in the future," Struble said.

Federal agents shut down the Mustang Ranch brothel in 1999 after a federal jury returned 34 guilty verdicts against the AGE Enterprises corporation that owned it and two Mustang employees for racketeering, money laundering, tax evasion and other crimes.

"The conviction was just the beginning," said Leslie DeMarco, IRS special agent. "There were various appeals concerning different properties. AGE appealed the conviction, and the property forfeiture was also appealed. It's taken this long just to get them through San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals."

Auction proceeds will go to the Treasury's Asset Forfeiture Fund. Sale of the property will ultimately benefit the IRS.

The government contracts with the EG&G company to handle all aspects of the sale, appraisals and maintenance of the properties, DeMarco said.

Conforte moved to Nevada from California in 1955, and got his start as a taxi driver who knew where to find the girls.

Prostitution in Nevada was not legalized until 1970, but Conforte slipped around the law in a three-county area near Wadsworth, operating his first Nevada sex-for-sale operation, the Triangle River Ranch, in mobile homes.

By staying mobile, he could move to Lyon County when he got into trouble in Storey County, then move into Washoe County, if need be.

The Triangle River Ranch was declared a public nuisance in 1960, and burned down by order of the Storey County commissioners. But Conforte stayed in business. In 1967, he bought and operated the Mustang Ranch, until a tax-evasion charge sent him to jail.

Life became a little less erratic for his customers after a 1970 vote by the Storey County Commission created Storey's famous Ordinance No. 38, legalizing prostitution.

But scandal erupted again in 1976. Heavyweight boxer Oscar Bonavena was murdered outside the Mustang, then owned by Conforte and his wife, Jesse Sally Burgess. Bonavena allegedly was having an affair with Burgess, who died in 1992. Conforte's bodyguard, Ross Brymer, was convicted of the murder.

Conforte fled the country after another round of tax-evasion charges in 1990, and the gate of the Mustang Ranch was locked. It reopened under the auspices of the IRS.

U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben ordered all of the corporations' assets seized immediately, except the brothel. The judge delayed seizure of the Mustang property for a month, to allow employees to find new quarters.


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