CRYSTAL — The bell is somewhat Pavlovian. When it rings once, the ladies stir, slide on a pair of stiletto heels lined up against the wall and rush into place.
On this Friday in late July, the Love Ranch Vegas bell was a false alarm.
“You got us excited,” said Sonja Bandolik, the madam of the brothel.
Bandolik is 58, a tanned woman with a fresh manicure and a white pixie cut, her blue eyes hidden behind dark, rectangular glasses.
She’s also on the menu.
“I can’t tell the girls to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be that kind of boss.”
But on Tuesday, the brothel opened its doors to a different set of visitors: Nye County Sheriff‘s Office deputies.
The brothel’s license was revoked after county commissioners said the owner and Republican Assembly candidate Dennis Hof failed to renew the license on time.
This isn’t the first time the brothel has been threatened with closure.
Hof, a Republican running for the state Assembly District 36 seat, fought with one commissioner in August of last year over what Commissioner Dan Schinhofen said was “noncompliance with county code.”
The commission suspended the brothel’s license in February after tangling with Hof over illegal signs and his failure to ensure the property’s trailers were inspected after renovation. The brothel reopened in late April.
Also in April, citizens began drafting referendums in both Nye County, where Hof owns one brothel, and Lyon County, where he owns four. The ballot measures would make nearly half of Nevada’s brothels illegal.
Voters in Lyon will be asked on the November ballot if they want to repeal the brothel ordinance. The Nye County movement to ban brothels did not move forward, but proponents say it will be on the ballot in 2020.
“It’s dead this year, but not buried,” said Salli Kerr, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Brothels in Nye County. “Nye County certainly has that idea of ‘live and let live.’ But there comes a time when ‘live and let live’ is one thing, and exploitation of women is another.”
Tuesday started out as a normal day at Love Ranch Vegas. It was “doctor day,” and the women had just dished out $90 each for their mandatory weekly test for sexually transmitted diseases.
Soon after, the sheriff’s office banged on the door.
“They had a warrant, so we let them in,” Bandolik recalled. “It seemed routine, but it was extremely emotionally charged. They didn’t want to be doing it, they know that it’s political.”
Bandolik filmed on her cellphone as a detective and a sheriff took the brothel license, the liquor license and the women’s work cards.
“All we’re grabbing is the two licenses and the work cards,” the detective told someone on the other end of his phone.
“I guess we have to turn those over,” said Richard Hunter, a brothel manager wearing a floppy black hat.
Bandolik said some of the seven women who lived there have since moved north to work at one of Hof’s sister brothels. Others left altogether.
“They suffered through the lean times, they were on the verge of getting their reward, and then cut off again,” she said.
The four women remaining in the brothel will live there rent-free for now, Bandolik said.
“They have nowhere to go,” she said. “They spent money and then were dead in the water right away.”
She also added that the brothel employs local drivers, housekeepers, managers, security and maintenance crew in non-sexually oriented jobs.
She said tourism would be affected by the brothel closing, and the abrupt closing derailed many customers’ plans.
“If you can’t trust the legal licensed brothels in Nevada, why would you want to come here and pay extra and go through all that extra trouble?” she asked. “When you can just stay home and find an illegal escort for a lot less.”
Bandolik is hopeful that Hof will take care of them.
“Dennis has told us to keep a good attitude,” she said. “He’s got deep pockets. If it’s humanly possible, he’s going to make this happen.”
Hof said he wants to sell his Nye County brothels. In March, he sold the Alien Cathouse, and he said Tuesday that he wants to sell his other two properties, the Love Ranch Vegas and Cherry Patch Ranch.
“I’m selling the Nye County brothels so I can focus on being the best politician in Nevada,” Hof said.
He also acknowledged the efforts to eradicate brothels.
“There’s no question, the referendums to get rid of the brothels in Lyon and Nye (counties) is all because I ran for office. I had the nerve to challenge the dirty establishment.”
The tension concerning the brothels has bubbled over into the neighboring religious communities.
A day before the petitions came out in Nye County, John Morris, a 62-year-old tattooed pastor drove the less than 2 miles down the street from his church on Homestead Road in Pahrump in a button-down shirt, shorts and running shoes.
“We’re going to be OK with pot, we’re going to be OK with casinos and gambling, but we’re going to put those women down and make them feel like less than human beings?” he said. “They can’t legislate morality. We’re all sinners.”
Hof has sued Butch Borasky and Schinhofen, two of the three commissioners who voted in favor of revoking the brothel’s license Tuesday.
Borasky said the brothels are something of the past now because the old “Wild West” is becoming tame.
“They’re a dying breed, they’re going away one at a time,” he said. “Eventually, when someone has enough gumption, there won’t be any.”
But Bandolik, the Love Ranch madam, stands by Hof, saying that he has used his money from the brothels to fund his campaign for Assembly.
“If you want to take Dennis down as a political person, you take down him and his business,” she said. “They’re foaming at the mouth for revenge on Dennis.”
Employees in limbo
At Love Ranch Vegas, about 80 miles from Las Vegas, it was a quiet Friday in July.
Concrete statues of bare-chested women wrapped in Christmas lights peppered the front lawn. The illegal signs that sparked a controversy with the commission in February had been unearthed. A courtesan’s pink vintage bicycle sat parked underneath the “Open” sign.
Now, it sits under the red door with the words “Sorry, we are temporarily closed.”
Just three weeks before, Bandolik — the madam on the menu — had proudly sauntered by the common area in a halter-top dress, passing a woman in red and black lingerie and a room specially designed with a ceiling high enough for a long whip.
She meandered past a display case with different photos of Hof and several jars of “Hof sauce,” one titled ”Alien Pimp Juice.”
Brooklyn Moore began working in brothels nearly two years ago after starting her adult film career. As a young girl growing up in Oklahoma, she used to steal Hustler magazines from her parents and admire the women who filled the pages.
“And here I am,” she said.
If she can’t be a sex worker, she said she plans to continue working in the pornography industry.
“I love sex,” the 33-year-old blonde with stick-straight hair said. “Might as well get paid for it, instead of giving it for free.”
The woman clad in lingerie stood in the long hallway of the brothel, each door bearing a different girl’s name, but the same gold sticker: “Condoms are mandatory.”
Jade Monroe, a brunette with a mermaid-blue hue in her hair, returned to work at the brothel after it reopened in April, at the same time the ballot measures were being drafted. She had been concerned about her job then.
“I’ll try to make as much money as I can and get out, do my best to do my job,” the 29-year-old told the madam at the time.
She joined the brothels a little over a year ago as a stepping stone while studying for her real estate license. Since then, she’s seen many clients, including a disabled veteran with multiple sclerosis, who came to her after being abstinent for 10 years. Another was brought by his wife for his birthday.
“We’re kind of like sex therapists,” the soft-spoken courtesan with a smile.
On Tuesday, a man who had spent a year planning to vacation and spend time with Monroe was almost at Love Ranch Vegas when it closed and he had to turn around, Bandolik said.
The sultry mood of the brothel has evaporated after the license was revoked. On Thursday afternoon, two working women in casual housewear sat stoically on the gray couch in the living room.
They didn’t want to talk about their livelihoods. They said they preferred to keep that out of their minds.
That Friday in late July, it was the birthday of the brothel’s “house mom,” Jackie Williams. She turned 30.
Dasha Dare, a curly-haired Honduran who stands a little over 5 feet tall, walked into the bar with multicolored party horns, balloons and shimmery “Happy Birthday” crowns.
She handed a bouquet of pink and red flowers to Bandolik.
“We’ll just pop ‘em and start screaming,” Bandolik said as she picked up one of the confetti poppers. She blew a noisemaker on Dare’s back.
“Come,” Dare implored to Williams, who walked down a narrow hallway and into the bar in her red- and white “Vote Hof” T-Shirt.
They popped the confetti poppers in unison, showering Williams in multicolored streamers.
“Happy birthday,” Dare said, planting a kiss on her cheek. “Just for you.”
The dimpled blond mother of three had smiled then, thanking all the women in the brothel for surprising her. But on Tuesday, she was in tears.
She had recently moved her children to Crystal to be closer to her job. If she were to lose it, she’d have to commute at least 30 minutes to Pahrump.
She worried where she would find work and how she would take care of her family.
“We’re in a restrained limbo,” the madam said Thursday as she viciously defended the brothel and its workers.
Feet away from her at the bar, a framed front page story of The Pahrump Valley Mirror hung on the wall. The headline reads “Hof wins brawl over brothels.”
The article detailed the August 2017 square-off between Hof and Schinhofen over liquor and brothel licenses for three of Hof’s businesses.
Despite Schinhofen’s insistence that Hof’s licensees should be revoked for noncompliance, he was eventually vindicated and received renewal for all six.
For now, the madam said she will stay on the “sinking ship,” and focus on getting everybody else to safety.
“I came here to open the Alien Cathouse,” she said. “Now, it looks like I’m closing the Love Ranch.”
History of brothels in Nevada
Counties with populations less than 700,000 can license brothels in Nevada and have been regulated in the state since 1971. The brothels have been around since the Old West era in the 1800s.
Only 10 Nevada counties allow prostitution, and even then, only within licensed brothels. Seven currently have legal brothels. Brothels are not permitted in Clark County, home to Las Vegas.
Churchill County allows prostitution, but the last brothel license was surrendered in 2004. In 2004, residents there had an advisory question similar to the one that Lyon County voters will decide on in November: Shall chapter 5.20 of the Churchill County code be repealed in order to end legalized prostitution in Churchill County?
Nearly 63 percent of voters selected “no.”