(Andy Barron ~ Reno Gazette-Journal)
PATRICK, Nev. -- Since its inception, the Mustang Ranch has played a key role in legalized prostitution in Nevada. It's also been shut down by the IRS, 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 self-proclaimed 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 $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, Calif., where he worked as a cab driver who often steered his fares toward his prostitutes.
He opened the Triangle River Ranch brothel in Wadsworth, about 25 miles 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 behind bars 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 10 miles 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. It is illegal in the counties surrounding Reno, Las Vegas and the capital, Carson City, according to state officials.
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 2 1/2-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 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 $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.
The IRS got its final say in 1997 when it filed a $16 million tax lien, followed in July 1999 by indictments of Conforte and principals in his shell company on charges including racketeering and money laundering. Millions of dollars allegedly were wired to Conforte in Brazil.
Four years later, the brothel's new owner, the federal Bureau of Land Management, put the brothel up for grabs on eBay.
Gilman, who opened the Wild Horse Resort & Spa in 2002, a brothel located across the parking lot from the Mustang, estimates he has spent $6 million to move the 12 buildings four miles from Mustang to his property just off Interstate 80 in Patrick, then refurbish the decaying buildings.
"They'd been sitting there unattended since '99," he said.
Gilman, with the financing, and madam Susan Austin, with an eye for decor, stripped the property to the walls and remodeled. The parlor, where the girls line up, had to be stripped to its timbers and flown to the Wild Horse site, then completely rebuilt.
"We spared no expense in refurbishing the original Mustang Ranch and turning it into one of the state's most luxurious brothels," Austin said.
Conforte, speaking in a teleconference from his beachfront hideaway in Brazil, praised the effort.
"I want to thank Lance and Susan for going to all this work to get this place together," he said. "It turned out real, real, real good."