Mustang on the market
The Mustang Ranch buildings soon go up for bid on eBay. Can one former-madam and a few ex-working girls memorialize the brothel as a museum?
The story of the Mustang Ranch is one of bribery, murder, corruption and of course, sex. But none of those is what finally brought ruin to the infamous brothel.
The Mustang’s downfall was put into motion when its former owner, Joe Conforte, committed the one unforgivable sin in the eyes of the U.S. government—he didn’t pay his taxes. Several sham holding corporations and two government seizures later, the ranch is in the possession of the United States Bureau of Land Management.
In an effort to defray the costs of rehabbing the land the Mustang sits on, the BLM plans to preview the buildings early this month for auction on eBay. The bureau says that a buyer could relocate or salvage the buildings, but one way or another, they have to go.
A handful of the Mustang’s former employees have said that, rather than being auctioned, the storied bordello should be turned into a museum. But the BLM has already set the wheels of e-commerce in motion, and time may be running short for the museum contingent.
The first time the Internal Revenue Service padlocked the wrought iron gates of the Mustang was in 1990. Embroiled in tax troubles since the ‘70s, Conforte was fed up with paying Uncle Sam, so he decided he’d just quit, according to his long-time friend and Nevada Brothel Owners Association lobbyist, George Flint.
“Well, he called me and told me that, ‘I’m gonna go over there and tell those mothers that I’m not gonna pay them another f’in’ dime,'” Flint recalled. Soon after, the IRS seized the brothel, and Conforte was out on the street. But not for long.
“Now, the government wasn’t very swift,” Flint said, “because the guy that bought the place was Joe’s personal attorney’s brother.”
And with that, Conforte was back at the Mustang without having missed a trick.
The next decade saw a slew of indictments levied against Conforte and his associates as the government charged that Conforte was receiving large cash payments illegally.
Peter Perry, Conforte’s attorney, pled guilty to wire fraud and avoided jail time. Former Storey County commissioner Shirley Colletti is still serving a four-year prison term for money-laundering and racketeering. Conforte himself went on the lam to South America. He still lives there today.
On Aug. 9, 1999, the IRS seized the Mustang Ranch for the second time on the grounds that Conforte had secretly owned the brothel all along, and consequently, it was forfeited to pay his tax debts. So the establishment that gave new meaning to the phrase “hospitality industry” closed its doors for good.
Though much of the Mustang’s past is more titillating than historic, one former employee, who worked under the name Tia, said there is a significant part of old Nevada interred in the pink stucco buildings as well.
“I think it’s a part of Nevada’s history, a very deep part of Nevada’s history,” Tia said. “This state was founded on miners, and the only women that were out here way back then were working ladies. They were the pioneers that dared to come out West, live the wild life and make their own money.”
Tia and former madam Sharnel Silvey also point out that the Mustang, which was opened by Conforte in 1967, was Nevada’s first legal brothel. Several other Nevada counties followed suit in the ‘70s. Today, 15 of Nevada’s 17 counties have legalized prostitution.
But the “historical whorehouse” argument hasn’t convinced BLM officials. They called the building’s historical significance questionable and said they are ready to go forward with the eBay auction. BLM Manager Terry Randolph said that the BLM has had experience selling surplus vehicles and other goods over the Internet, so selling the Mustang on eBay seemed reasonable.
Randolph did acknowledge that the BLM doesn’t have much experience selling brothels online.
Shrubs and trees on the Mustang’s front lawn are overgrown and poke through the wrought iron fence. Silvey said that the trees were each planted in remembrance of a lady who worked at the ranch and has passed away. The BLM is hopeful the fence can be used for scrap. Some of the younger trees may be uprooted and relocated. Others won’t be so fortunate.The building that was once the cradle of legal prostitution bears little resemblance to the lascivious landmark Silvey remembers. Silvey refused to comment on whether she would be bidding if the ranch goes up for auction. But if Silvey or another benevolent bidder doesn’t step forward, the BLM has made its intentions clear.
Over the phone, Rudy Giecek conveys his skepticism about the prospect of reinventing the Mustang. And if there’s one thing the 60-year-old Butte, Mont., resident knows, it’s prostitution museums. Giecek has been running the Dumas Brothel Museum in Mont., since 1989.
The museum has several artifacts from its glory days, including a 1940s vibrator. Giecek said the Dumas even has honest-to-goodness ghosts and that he has the pictures to prove it.
But none of the Dumas’s specters or hoary memorabilia have been able to make the venture profitable for Giecek. “It’s hard to make it,” Giecek said. “The Dumas needs a roof. It needed a roof when I first bought the building, and I haven’t been able to make enough money to buy a roof for it. It’s eventually just going to crumble in on top of itself if nobody buys it.”
Not that Giecek hasn’t tried to unload the old girl. “I have it on eBay right now,” he said. “If you go to eBay and type in ‘haunted whorehouse’ you can see it. No one has bid on it.”
Despite Silvey’s insistence that the museum would attract customers, Giecek said just drawing people will be a bit of a challenge. “The hardest part would be trying to get the people to go out there and look,” he said. “In Nevada, they could just go to a real whorehouse and look.”
Giecek did have a bit of friendly advice on how Silvey could make her venture work. “Well, maybe if you got the girls back. That’s probably the only way it would make any money.”
Silvey said that’s not an option.
In its prime, the Mustang beckoned Interstate 80 travelers to go in and enjoy its offerings. Customers rang a buzzer at the front gate before passing through the 8-foot fence and into the blush-colored harem. Inside, they found a parlor adorned with prints of scantily clad women, as well as the real thing. The ladies lined up, recited their names and let the customers choose a companion for the evening.
Although Tia has moved on from that life now, her voice still rings with a hint of nostalgia when she recalls the parlor’s disco ball and burgundy leather couches.
“The parlor, the parlor. For a working girl … to walk down your hallway at the beginning of your shift, and you have no idea what’s in that parlor,” Tia recalled. “There’s men, there’s opportunities, there’s money. There’s … I don’t know, an essence about it.”
Tia and Silvey would like to restore that essence with the Mustang Museum. They talked about retrieving and displaying furniture and other signature items from when Conforte and the first lady of prostitution, Sally Conforte, ran the ranch. First on the list is a piece of etched glass that read “Joe and Sally Conforte’s Mustang Ranch.”
While the glass may end up in a museum, it likely won’t be the Mustang Ranch Museum. Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, bought the glass in last year’s auction. He is planning to build his own museum next to his brothel outside of Carson City. “We’ve got all the plans, and we’ve got the grading done, and we’ll get the structure built as soon as we can,” he said.
Hof hopes to have his museum up and running within a year. He says that his purchases from the auction are “absolutely” unavailable to Silvey’s effort.
Silvey and some of the other former employees have constructed a Web site, mustangranchmuseum.com, with which they hope to solicit donations of Mustang memorabilia as well as cash. Silvey said she has already collected some artifacts from the Mustang’s heyday and is confident more donations will roll in.
“People that have been there know it’s world famous,” Silvey said. “I’m sure that if every client that’s been in there sent a buck in we could save it. Straight up, I won’t tell your wife.”
Rod Jorgensen, director of counseling at the Nevada Small Business Development Center, said the cost of starting the museum could surpass contributions from old clients, even if the house is no longer taking its standard 50 percent cut.
“I think it’s going to be pretty expensive to set that up as a commercial enterprise,” Jorgensen said. “They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy it, to remodel it or to get it up to code, and then a ton of money to advertise it.”
The Mustang Ranch never paid advertising costs before. Brothels aren’t allowed to advertise in Nevada.
Then again, the Mustang Museum won’t likely be able to guarantee the same kind of customer satisfaction it did in its previous incarnation.