A family friend of mine worked as a day-cook at the Mustang Ranch. Early on Saturday mornings, I would give her a ride to work. Her husband used their pick-up truck on the weekends, working for a geologist loading rocks and scouring the land for gold. When we arrived at the ranch, she would take me into the huge kitchen and cook breakfast for me.
The kitchen was the social center for all the employees at the ranch. The long rectangular table in the middle of the huge kitchen could seat about 20 people. Girls from all shifts wandered in and out 24 hours a day to share the local gossip. Within a few months, I knew everyone in the place and was treated like part of their family. That’s when I first met Joe Conforte.
Before any customers could touch the “goods,” they paid the girls and the girls paid the cashier seated in one corner of the kitchen. Once in a while, Joe would walk through the kitchen. He would say hello to me, take a handful of money from the cashier and then disappear. I knew he trusted me by allowing me to be that close to the cashier, visit with the girls, comp my breakfast and give me a cold beer on a hot summer day. I have to say it was fun. I met professional women who were school teachers, nurses and accountants and some who had no working skills at all. Most of them seemed to have three things in common: sexually abused, a terrible childhood and or a physically abusive husband.
Conforte opened the Triangle River Ranch, an illegal brothel, in Wadsworth, in 1959. In 1967, Joe and his wife, Sally, took over the Mustang Bridge Ranch in Storey County. Finally, Storey County made prostitution legal in 1971. Rumors were that Conforte paid local cab drives and bell hops at the Mapes Hotel and Casino to bring visitors to the “legal” brothel west of town.
During his term as Washoe County district attorney, Raggio had the Triangle Ranch burned down, declaring it was a public nuisance. While in office Raggio was always trying to arrest Conforte whenever Joe came to Reno. Joe liked to place a wager at the Reno Turf Club next to the train station in downtown Reno, but never stayed long enough for Raggio to catch him.
Conforte called Raggio on the phone wanting to end the harassment. He threatened Raggio and tried to extort money from him. Raggio recorded the call and Conforte served almost two years in prison for his lack of common sense and super-inflated ego.
By 1990, Conforte was in over his head in a conflict with the federal government. Facing the prospects of a federal grand jury investigation concerning possible income tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud, he moved to Brazil in 1991. The extradition treaty between the United States and Brazil doesn’t cover bankruptcy fraud. However, that didn’t stop Joe from getting his cash out of the Mustang brothel while he lived in Brazil.
Conforte never trusted anyone with his money. I remember one hot Saturday morning, I headed to the bar for a cold beer before I left for home. A little, hunched-over old woman bumped into me in the kitchen doorway. She wore an old house dress and had a babushka that half covered her grey hair and part of her face. Carrying a large cloth handbag over her arm, she headed straight for the cashier’s table. I didn’t recognize her; there was plenty of room for her to get around me so, why did she intentionally bump into me? I checked to see if she picked my pocket and then the girls in the kitchen started to laugh. I was told It was Joe Conforte in disguise; it was his way of saying hello to me. Evidently, he made frequent trips picking up his money under the nose of Raggio and the federal government.
In 1999, the Mustang Ranch was finally closed and was forfeited to the federal government. Ironically, that same year, the Brazilian supreme court ruled Conforte could not be extradited.
Born the same year as Bill Raggio, Conforte is still enjoying his life on the beaches in Brazil. I wonder what Joe is thinking now?
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at firstname.lastname@example.org.