PATRICK, Nev. – It made Nevada the only state where prostitution is legal. In its checkered history, it was burned down, rebuilt, shut down by the IRS and sold on eBay for the price of a modest home.
Now it's back.
In its 40 years, the self-proclaimed World Famous Mustang Ranch has seen the murder of a heavyweight boxing contender and an owner who skipped the country to dodge the feds. It has heard countless stories that never will be told and knows names that never will be uttered.
Like the phoenix rising out of the ashes, the gaudy pink stucco buildings housing the cribs of its 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, using her working name. She was at the Mustang when Joe Conforte was running it and is back at the refurbished version. "They've made it even better than the original."
Conforte, now 80 or 81 — not even he is sure — arrived in Nevada in the mid 1950s, coming from Oakland, Calif., where he worked as a cab driver who tended to steer his fares toward his prostitutes.
He opened an illegal brothel in Wadsworth, about 25 miles east of Mustang and immediately locked horns with Bill Raggio — then the district attorney in nearby Reno and now the Nevada Senate majority leader. He tried unsuccessfully to set Raggio up with the underage sister of a prostitute. It cost Conforte 22 months behind bars and Raggio burned the Triangle River Ranch brothel as a public nuisance.
Raggio said he had no response about the reopening of the Mustang Ranch.
"It's not in this county, so I'm not going to comment," he said. "As to the Triangle River Ranch, it was declared a public nuisance by a court order."
"The order said abate the nuisance, not burn it," Conforte said in an earlier interview.
"I abated the nuisance," Raggio replied.
Conforte 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.
Prostitution is legal in 10 of Nevada's 17 counties and tolerated in two others. Among the counties where it's illegal are those surrounding Reno, Las Vegas and the capital, Carson City, according to state Archivist Guy Louis Rocha. About 27 are in operation.
Efforts to ban prostitution have gone nowhere in the Nevada Legislature, although Gov. Jim Gibbons has opened the door with a promise to sign any anti-brothel bill that lands on his desk.
Gibbons said even his mother thought legal prostitution had its place in Nevada, believing that it was better to have prostitutes "regulated, controlled and tested than walking the streets of Reno."
But the governor said times have changed.
"That's an historical perspective but over the last half-century, we've matured," he said.
Raggio — a foe of legal prostitution — said he had no intent to introduce an anti-brothel bill.
"My take is if an anti-brothel bill is introduced into the 2009 legislative session it will come from a southern Nevada legislator," Rocha said. "Brothels appear to be safe in northern Nevada."
While Conforte amassed a fortune from his 104-room brothel, he remained in constant trouble with the feds and with the local governments he couldn't buy off.
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 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.
In between, the Mustang Ranch was burned down in 1975 in an apparent arson. Conforte rebuilt. And in 1976, heavyweight contender Oscar Bonavena — managed intimately by Sally Conforte — was shot to death by a Mustang Ranch bodyguard.
Conforte dealt mostly in cash and kept few records. By 1990, the IRS was fed up with his tax shenanigans and seized the ranch, putting the federal government in the unique position of running a brothel. It failed and the ranch was padlocked for the first time.
The IRS auctioned off the beds, the bedding, 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 with 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.
Federal agents, doing their best Men in Black, padlocked the gate where — according to Conforte — more than 1 million men had pressed the button that allowed them to be buzzed inside.
Four years later, the brothel's new owner — the federal Bureau of Land Management — put the once infamous painted lady in the desert ignominiously up for grabs on eBay. Lance Gilman snapped it up for $145,100 — adding the $100 in the final seconds of bidding.
"The Mustang Ranch was a historical site," Gilman said. "It was a business decision."
Gilman, a real estate developer who opened the Wild Horse Resort & Spa in 2002, a brothel 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.
Even before the ranch was shut down, it was showing its age.
"It was getting a little bit dirty, we were all leaving it, no one cared," said Love, who prefers to be known by her working name.
Gilman, with the money, and madam Susan Austin, with the 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 proudly. "We kept the same pink stucco exterior of the buildings and spent a lot of time, thought and effort into decorating the massive entry parlor."
It's a far cry from the declining days of the old Conforte Mustang, when the red carpet, the velveteen couches and even the flocked wallpaper all were showing their age.
"We kept the essence of what was the Mustang Ranch. We just greatly enhanced and improved it," Austin said.
Conforte, speaking in a teleconference from his beachfront hideaway in Brazil, praised the effort in his raspy Sicilian cant.
"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."