Joe Conforte, the colorful, controversial brothel operator who ran the Mustang Ranch east of Reno but fled the U.S. more than two decades ago to avoid prison, has reportedly died.
Unconfirmed reports say he died in Rio de Janeiro in March at the age of 93. His death was reported in a Wikipedia update. The Nevada Hall of Fame website also questioned whether Conforte has passed away. Facebook messages to a page believed associated with Conforte were not returned. The page also has a visitor post that suggests Conforte is deceased. Conforte’s last tweet was in February. Twitter messages by the Appeal also were unreturned.
The Nevada Appeal reached out to federal officials and other sources familiar with Conforte but couldn’t confirm his death. Ex-employees of Mustang also said they had heard the reports but couldn’t confirm.
He outlived his most prominent detractors, including former Washoe County DA and long time state Sen. Bill Raggio as well as impeached federal Judge Harry Claiborne.
He operated mostly legal brothels east of Reno for more than 30 years. Unlike other brothel operators, Conforte enjoyed the limelight, often escorting one or more of his prostitutes on tours of Reno’s casinos and restaurants and flashing large rolls of $100 bills.
He had a flair for publicity and constantly argued that brothels should be legal and licensed saying they were a much safer environment for the prostitutes than the street. During the energy crunch in the 1970s, he held a press conference to announce that his girls would trade their bikinis for long gowns so he could save energy by lowering the thermostats in Mustang.
Conforte was a cab driver in Oakland and got into the prostitution business because sailors and Marines from the surrounding bases kept asking where to find a brothel. He operated a brothel there that was, ironically, just down the block from a police substation.
He moved to Nevada in 1955 where he and his wife Sally initially operated the Triangle Ranch near Wadsworth, so named because it was located where three Nevada counties, Washoe, Storey and Lyon, came together.
The brothel was in a couple of mobile homes and, when one county would get a cease and desist order, he would simply use a tractor to pull the trailers into an adjacent county.
That came to an end when Raggio got together with officials in the other two counties, surprised Conforte with orders declaring his operation a public nuisance. After allowing the girls to collect their personal belongings, Raggio burned down the brothel in March 1960.
Conforte tried to force Raggio from office in June 1960, threatening to expose an alleged affair with an underage teen. Raggio turned the tables on him and Conforte was convicted of attempted extortion. He served nearly two years in the Nevada prison where he ran the prison casino that existed in those days.
He was in federal court a couple of years later charged with a Mann Act violation by bringing prostitutes across the Nevada-California line to work for him. Claiborne was the attorney who got him off on that charge.
He and his wife Sally took over Mustang Bridge Ranch in 1967 and Storey County legalized prostitution, making his operation legitimate. At its peak, the complex consisting of Mustang, Triangle and Old Bridge Ranch offered 100 rooms.
He was prominently in the news again in May 1976 when Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena was shot to death outside the gate at Mustang by Conforte bodyguard Ross Brymer. Bonavena was reportedly having an affair with Sally and plotting to take over from Conforte.
The shooting made national news and sparked riots in Bonavena’s homeland.
Facing five years in prison for tax evasion, Conforte fled to Brazil in 1980 but returned three years later under a deal greatly reducing his sentence in return for testifying in support of bribery and tax charges against U.S. District Judge Claiborne in Reno.
The judge was acquitted of the bribery charges but convicted of tax evasion and later removed from office by congressional impeachment.
The brothel was sold at an IRS auction but federal officials continued to go after Conforte for tax violations and bankruptcy fraud.
Seeing the writing on the wall, he again fled to Rio in 1991. Indictments were handed down in 1995 and 1998, but the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that the country’s extradition treaty with the U.S. didn’t cover his alleged crimes.
He lived near Ipanema Beach until his death, but reportedly would occasionally sneak back into the U.S. for quiet visits and high-stakes underground bridge games.
Editor’s note: The Appeal will update this story if more information becomes available.