The wildest little whorehouse in the West

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Call yourself the most famous brothel in the West, and you are bound to attract trouble. The Mustang Ranch, which became the stuff of legend as the first legalised whorehouse in America, has had to endure arson, bankruptcy, the intense scrutiny of federal investigations and numerous closures, in its chequered 40-year history.

Its elusive founder, a colourfully brash Sicilian by the name of Joseph Conforte, has done jail time for extortion, bribery and tax evasion, and is currently living in South America as a fugitive from justice. And yet the place has survived and thrived, trading on its oddly glamorous image to cater to sportsmen, war veterans, errant husbands and teenagers out to lose their innocence on the desert fringes of Reno, Nevada.

At least, until now. Earlier this month the bailiffs came round to the property to clear everyone out once again and seal the gates with heavy padlocks. The women put on an obligatory show of tears as they packed up their souvenirs and told reporters how much they'd miss it all. The men said nothing, merely thanking the representatives of the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for their courtesy as they handed over the keys.

It was a strangely familiar scene. The local papers called it the end of an era, the final demise of an extraordinary Nevada institution. But that's exactly what they wrote in 1990, the last time the Mustang Ranch was closed, and they were proved spectacularly wrong then. It was back up and running again within two months.

This time, the signs look as ominous as they ever have. The Ranch's madam, Shirley Colletti, has been convicted along with a group of associates on 33 counts of racketeering, fraud and money-laundering. The Mustang Ranch's convoluted system of international bank accounts and tax-dodging mechanisms has been well and truly busted. Conforte himself evaded trial on this occasion, but he knows that if he ever came back to the United States he would be likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.

And yet not even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is 100 per cent sure that this is it. "We haven't excluded the possibility of a comeback," conceded Kevin Caudle, an FBI spokesman.

The authorities have their reasons to be cautious. In 1990, the Mustang Ranch was taken over by the Internal Revenue Service and sold at auction to ensure that Joe Conforte could not get his hands back on it. But the company that acquired it turned out to be a front, represented by Conforte's lawyer and run by many of the local county officials with whom he had built up cosy relations in the past. From his hideout in Chile, Conforte was found to be pulling the strings from behind the scenes and receiving half a million dollars a year via a complex web of Swiss bank accounts.

In an atmosphere as consummately corruptible as rural Nevada, where money talks louder than morality and prostitution is seen as a prestige business, there are plenty of people who would gladly help Joe Conforte to climb back into the saddle. These are the people, after all, who decreed the Mustang Ranch to be legal back in 1971 - politicians, public attorneys and civil servants who allowed themselves to be charmed by Conforte, his acidly humorous one-liners and his gifts of Havana cigars wrapped in high- denomination banknotes.

To them, the Mustang Ranch was the very embodiment of glamour, Nevada- style, with its lights, its women and its promise of a good time. They remember Conforte not for his criminal record, but for his extravagant lifestyle, his Rolls-Royces and his diamond rings. They remember his largesse, his turkeys at Christmas-time and his offers of free brothel visits to returning veterans from Vietnam and the war against Saddam Hussein. They remember him nuzzling young protegees and stuffing tips into the bras of waitresses at fancy restaurants. OK, he was a crook, but who could resist him?

Conforte himself once remarked that the three things he needed to succeed were "breaks, brains and balls". Leaving his native town of Augusta in Sicily for the United States, he started out as a part-time pimp while driving a taxi in Oakland, California. He moved into the brothel business outside Reno in 1955, setting up an encampment of mobile trailers at the confluence of three different counties so that he could outwit the police forces of each.

He was soon notorious for sending his currency-wrapped cigars to local notables, and had his first serious run-in with the law when the Reno district attorney, Bill Raggio, obstinately refused to have his cigar and smoke it. Conforte tried to blackmail Raggio by setting him up with an under-age girl, but the ploy backfired; Conforte and the girl were roasted on extortion and perjury charges, and Raggio took great pleasure in burning the brothel to the ground.

In the late Sixties, after two protracted periods behind bars, Conforte started all over again with the Mustang Ranch and the eminently more pliable authorities in rural Storey County. Not only did he shower local politicians with campaign contributions, television sets and free passes to his establishment, he also guaranteed them a steady supply of votes by building a community of low-rent retirement homes on his property and carefully guiding the residents at the ballot box.

Since Storey County had only 1,500 voters, it wasn't hard for Conforte to become a big cheese. Within four years, he not only had the authorities wrapped around his finger, he had talked them into making him legitimate. "He was amazed at how easily they could be bought, how cheaply they could be bought and what they would do for the money," his lawyer, Peter Perry, testified in the recent racketeering trial, after turning state's evidence.

Conforte was treated as a folk hero for his charitable donations to the poor, his support of school sports teams (including the occasional offer of his establishment's services) and his unceasing parade of ravishingly beautiful female companions. He was profiled in Rolling Stone magazine and became famous for offering free brothel passes to journalists, just to see them squirm.

His problem, however, was that he got too big for his boots. Conforte developed an aversion to paying income tax, and grew to believe that as long as he paid off the politicians, he wouldn't have to. He was wrong. For a start, he developed enemies. The Ranch was burned down in an arson attack in 1975, and the following year the boxer Oscar Bonavena, who was managed by his wife Sally, was shot dead outside the front gate.

Then the IRS sank its claws into Conforte and never let go. In 1980 he fled the country to avoid a six-month prison term for tax evasion, leaving the day-to-day running of the Ranch in Sally's hands. He wormed his way back three years later by agreeing to co-operate with the FBI and help to spill the beans on a federal judge, Harry Claiborne, who was being impeached on charges of political corruption and tax evasion.

The cat-and-mouse game with the tax authorities quickly resumed, with Conforte claiming that he was bankrupt and the IRS refusing to believe him. Eventually, the IRS seized possession of the Ranch in September 1990 and made the extraordinary announcement that they were going to operate it themselves in order to earn back the money they were owed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the clientele dried up overnight and the IRS was forced to put the property up for auction.

The fact that it was Conforte's friends who bought the property back through a shell company came as little surprise to anyone in the community. Shirley Colletti, the new madam, was a former Storey County commissioner who - according to the recent court case - had received regular payments from Conforte, as had Bob Del Carlo, the former county sheriff turned brothel manager.

The money for the purchase had been smuggled out of the country from the brothel's proceeds, hundreds of thousands of dollars of it simply stuffed into the panties of Colletti and the brothel accountant Joann Olcese on flights down to Acapulco, according to prosecution lawyers.

Such brazenness could not go unchecked for long. It is a testament to Conforte's resilience and the loyalty of his entourage that it took nine years for a federal court to mount its case and secure its convictions. And even now it seems that the old man - he is 73 - has not entirely given up hope.

The brothel next door to the Mustang Ranch, the Old Bridge, belongs to his nephew, David Burgess, and it seems that Conforte has already put in phone calls trying to seize control of the place. "He specifically offered me money to go away, like a management company would take over my business," Burgess told the Reno Journal-Gazette in an uncharacteristically public discussion of his affairs.

Was this information intended to distance Burgess from his uncle, or was it some kind of elaborate smokescreen? Who knows. With Joe Conforte, you can never be sure.

"If Joe weren't so flamboyant, so willing to flaunt himself and his power, he'd still be here today and the Mustang wouldn't be closing," Guy Louis Rocha, an expert on brothels at the Nevada State Library, lamented recently. Then again, maybe the Mustang isn't really closing at all, but just taking a rest. The feds are still watching.