Guy Farmer: Remembering Joe Conforte
Is former Northern Nevada brothel kingpin Joe Conforte dead or alive? That’s the question I asked last Saturday as I read Appeal Capitol Reporter Geoff Dornan’s speculative story about rumors that Conforte had passed away in Rio de Janeiro, where he has been living in golden exile since he fled Nevada 20 years ago.
“Unconfirmed reports say he (Conforte) died in Rio de Janeiro in March at the age of 93,” Dornan wrote. “His death was reported in a Wikipedia update.” That’s something short of confirmation, but it brings a colorful character back into the news. Because, after all, the brash brothel owner was raising hell around here long before the late Dennis Hof showed up out at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch.
Back in early 1963, when I was the Associated Press (AP) Capitol correspondent, I covered Conforte’s federal income tax evasion trial. Collectively, he referred to me and my United Press (UPI) friend and colleague Cy Ryan as “Scoop.” We usually labeled him as a Vice King or a Vice Lord; he liked one of those appellations better than the other, but in any case he loved the attention he received as a succession of his “girls” took the witness stand here in Carson. He was convicted and served 2 1/2 years in the federal prison at McNeil Island, Washington, in the Puget Sound near Tacoma.
In the late 1950s, thanks to hard-charging Washoe County District Attorney Bill Raggio, who later became a high-powered state senator, Conforte served 22 months at the Nevada State Prison in Carson on an extortion conviction. Raggio and Conforte clashed when the DA burned Conforte’s first brothel, the Triangle Ranch, to the ground. While in prison Conforte made the national news by running a popular inmates’ casino. Only in Nevada.
Giuseppe “Joe” Conforte, who was born in Sicily in 1926, came to the U.S. with his parents in 1937 and eventually became a taxicab driver in Oakland, where he often transported male passengers to Bay Area brothels. A street-smart entrepreneur, Conforte moved to Northern Nevada in 1955 to open the Triangle Ranch, which operated out of two trailers at the confluence of Lyon, Storey and Washoe counties. When a sheriff announced a forthcoming raid, Conforte simply towed the trailers into the next county.
Conforte and his wife Sally opened the world-famous Mustang Ranch on what is now Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) land east of Reno in 1967. Despite recurring tax evasion charges, they operated the brothel until it finally closed in 1999 facing another barrage of financial charges and leaving the property in the hands of a federal bankruptcy trustee until it was sold in 2003 to flamboyant TRIC co-owner Lance Gilman, who reopened the Mustang Ranch in 2007 before being elected to the Storey County Commission.
Conforte and Storey County got along just fine because the county’s district attorney and sheriff were usually on the brothel owner’s payroll. In fact, a former Storey County sheriff once managed the Mustang Ranch and back in the 1960s Conforte had his own personal state senator, the colorful James “Slats” Slattery, who fronted for Conforte in the Legislature.
Fellow Italian-Americans Conforte and Raggio had a long and contentious relationship. Raggio’s biographer, Michael Archer, tells me Conforte thought “Raggio’s disrespect for him was a result of Old World enmity” because Raggio’s grandparents came from Northern Italy, while Conforte was from Sicily, where the Italian Mafia is based.
Archer recalls an alleged exchange between Raggio and Conforte as follows: Raggio allegedly said, “I don’t have any personal feelings about this guy (Conforte),” who replied: “If he said that, he’s full of sh**.” End of story.
Guy W. Farmer followed Joe Conforte’s misadventures in the 1960s.