Mustang Ranch reopens
Appeal Staff Writer
Women pop their hips, introduce themselves, and line up along a full-length mirror. The madam touches a man with limp hair and asks him if he’s ready to pick a girl. The man’s friend answers for him. No, he tells her, they want to wait a in the bar a little longer.
Lance Gilman, the brothel owner, said that helping lonely men – along with saving women from illegal prostitution and giving back to Storey County – is why he is reopening one of the most famous brothels in the world, the Mustang Ranch.
“We are proud to take care of the people that have been maybe left out in society,” Gilman said. “You know, a lot of folks are not born to beauty. There’s all kind of infirmities, and not everyone was treated kindly by Mother Nature.”
Gilman said this while sitting in the ranch’s Italian courtyard-themed parlor, which sits across from the other brothel he owns where the two men watched the girls line up.
“Where are they going to go with dignity?” he asked. “And how are they going to bring people into their lives?”
Gilman answered: By going to the Mustang Ranch.
He said he has spent more than $5 million restoring and relocating the ranch he bought on eBay in 2003 and will reopen Saturday. The public party will include an interview with Joe Conforte, the former owner and man who opened the Mustang in 1971 as the first licensed brothel in the state. Conforte will give an interview via satellite from South America.
Susan Austin, the madam at the ranch, said one of the ways to honor Conforte is treating the working girls with respect. She said Conforte made sure the women were well-fed, given medical treatment and taken care of with facials and manicures. Keeping this tradition of respect, she said, is the most important part of her job.
“Are they happy? Is it a comfortable place to work? Is it a safe place to work?” Austin said, adding later, “While they’re here, it should be a wonderful, pleasurable experience.”
In making the building a nice place to work, Austin was in charge of restoring and decorating the interior. She said she loved the original, but also created themed VIP rooms, added more than $100,000 in art, and redesigned the domination room.
Working girls also now have a separate room to negotiate prices and check customers for sexually transmitted diseases. Before, they had to do that in their bedrooms.
Gilman said the biggest reason he’s in the brothel business is to help women in illegal prostitution move to ranches like his.
“Illegal prostitution is the ugliest of the ugly,” he said.
On the brothel grounds, Gilman has preserved pieces of the original ranch’s own notorious history: An oil painting of Conforte while he was in prison, the Mustang guard tower from where a world-class Brazilian boxer was shot, the incinerator Conforte used to burn records.
“I wish it could talk,” Austin said, referring to the incinerator. “So does the federal government.”
Before the ranch opened, Conforte served time in prison for extortion and tax evasion, and his body guard was convicted for fatally shooting the boxer in 1976. The boxer was allegedly having an affair with Conforte’s wife.
In 1998, Conforte was indicted by the Internal Revenue Service on charges of fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering.
But by then, Conforte was gone to Brazil, and the IRS had confiscated the brothel. Mustang Properties Inc., later found to be run by Conforte, then bought the property, but had it closed again by the IRS in 1999.
Gilman said Storey County realized more brothels would open soon and approached him as an operator. County Commissioner Greg “Bum” Hess said Gilman has done a great job, and Gilman said he’s happy to contribute to the county with the money he pays in taxes and fees.
Hess said the brothels add $700,000 to the county’s annual $9 million to $10 million budget.
Giving back is something Conforte did, too, Gilman said. Conforte, whom he compared to Robin Hood, gave a lot of money in taxes as well as in donations.
But Conforte has also been opposed and sometimes demonized as a scoundrel and a criminal, said state archivist Guy Rocha. People who romanticize Conforte, he said, tend to leave out details that don’t make him look good or appropriately colorful, even if these details are sometimes exaggerated.
“Joe Conforte, being who and what he was, was not a man you wanted to cross.”
Some churches and women’s groups opposed Conforte because they opposed all brothels, Rocha said, but Conforte was also known to bribe politicians and pressure his rivals.
This doesn’t mean Conforte didn’t do good things, Rocha said, and it can’t change the kind of brothel he started: “Iconic, controversial as hell, but iconic.”
• Contact reporter Dave Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.
If you go
WHAT: The Mustang Ranch grand reopening party
WHERE: 1011 Wild Horse Canyon Drive. Take I-80 East to Exit 28 (Patrick Exit) and turn right on Waltham Way. Pass over the railroad tracks and make an immediate right on Wild Horse Canyon Drive.
WHEN: 3-9 p.m. Saturday
Mustang Ranch timeline
1967: Joe Conforte and his wife take over what will become the Mustang Ranch.
1971: Storey County agrees with Conforte to license the ranch, making it the first legal brothel in the state. Ten of the 17 counties eventually legalize brothels in some form.
1976: Brazilian boxer Oscar Bonavena, rumored to be having an affair with Conforte’s wife, is shot to death outside the ranch.
1977: Conforte and his wife are arrested on 10 counts of tax evasion. The U.S. Supreme Court rejects his appeal on the charge three years later, and Conforte flees the country.
1983: Conforte comes back to the country in return for his testimony against a federal judge on bribery and tax-evasion charges.
1990: The IRS seizes the ranch to pay for taxes owed and puts it up for sale. The ranch is sold to a corporation secretly operated by Conforte.
1991: Conforte says he’s retiring and flees to South America.
1997: The IRS finds out the corporation now operating the ranch is run by Conforte and demands millions of dollars.
1998: A U.S. attorney indicts Conforte on charges including fraud, conspiracy and money laundering.
1999: The federal government closes the ranch.
2003: Lance Gilman buys the ranch on eBay from the government for $145,100.
2004: Storey County grants a brothel license to Gilman
Saturday: Gilman will open the reconstructed ranch about five miles east of its original location. Conforte is expected to appear for an interview via satellite.