Sun, Aug 12, 2007 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Mustang Ranch bordello back in business


The newly renovated World Famous Mustang Ranch is shown near Patrick, Nevada, on July 18.


Through its history, the Mustang Ranch has played a key role in bringing legalized prostitution to the western state of Nevada and has been shut down by the US tax agency. It has been burned down, rebuilt and sold on eBay for the price of a small home.

Now it's back.

Like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, the gaudy pink stucco buildings used to house a stable of prostitutes are in a new location, under new management and looking better than ever.

"It's like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. The Mustang's always going to be there to stay," said Love, an employee who used her working name. "They've made it even better than the original."

In its 40 years, the World Famous Mustang Ranch has seen the murder of a heavyweight boxing contender, an owner who skipped the country to dodge the federal government and tens of thousands of customers.

Its current owner, real estate developer Lance Gilman, bought the Mustang for US$145,100 on eBay.

"The Mustang Ranch was a historical site," Gilman said. "It was a business decision."

The original owner, Joe Conforte, arrived in Nevada in the mid 1950s from Oakland, California, where he worked as a cab driver who had often steered his fares toward his prostitutes.

He opened the Triangle River Ranch brothel in Wadsworth, about 40km east of Mustang, and immediately locked horns with Bill Raggio, the then-district attorney in nearby Reno and now Nevada's Senate majority leader.

Conforte tried unsuccessfully to set Raggio up with the underage sister of a prostitute. It cost him 22 months in jail and Raggio burned the brothel as a public nuisance.

But Conforte was just getting started.

He married fellow brothel owner Sally Burgess and the two took over the Mustang Bridge Ranch about 16km east of Reno in 1967. Four years later, Storey County licensed it as the first legal brothel in the state, not to mention the country.

Today, prostitution is legal in 10 of Nevada's 17 counties and tolerated in two others, including counties surrounding Reno, Las Vegas and the capital, Carson City, state officials said.

As Conforte amassed a fortune from his 104-room brothel, he remained in constant trouble with the federal government. A grand jury in Reno found close ties to Reno-Sparks officials in 1976, but there were no indictments.

In 1982, a grand jury in the county where the Mustang Ranch was then located determined that Conforte had unusual influence in the county and implicated the district attorney and the sheriff. Again, no indictments were returned after a two-and-a-half-year investigation.

The Mustang Ranch was burned down in 1975 in an apparent arson, but Conforte rebuilt it. In 1976, heavyweight contender Oscar Bonavena was shot to death by a Mustang Ranch bodyguard.

Conforte dealt mostly in cash and kept few records. By 1990, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had seized the ranch, putting the federal government in the unique position of running a brothel.

The government failed and the ranch was padlocked for the first time. The IRS auctioned off beds, the bidets -- even the room numbers -- to recover some of Conforte's tax debt.

The brothel was sold for US$1.49 million to a shell company overseen by Conforte and his attorney, Peter Perry. Conforte returned briefly to run the ranch, then fled to Brazil in 1991.

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