Another brothel set ablaze

What do the majority leader of the state Senate and the firefighters of Storey County (Virginia City and environs) have in common?

With a separation of nearly half a century, each was responsible for the legal burning of a Nevada brothel.

You may have read recently in the Review-Journal that Storey County firefighters torched the 48-room, 20,000-square-foot Mustang Ranch II annex. As a training exercise, the firefighters set the structure on fire and then practiced their noble trade in putting the fire out.

The building was padlocked by the feds nearly 20 years ago as a result of the tax problems of former owner Joe Conforte. In 2003, infamous pimp (and HBO series star) Dennis Hof bought the property for nearly $9,000 and professed a desire to open a brothel museum.

Time went by, and the Bureau of Land Management sold the annex to another “entrepreneur” who moved the business a short distance and opened the Wild Horse Adult Resort and Spa. Hof was left with the original property and his brothel museum scheme, which, for whatever reason, never materialized. He then donated the old buildings to the local firefighters for training.

The modular building was torched and, according to The Associated Press, Hof stood by and lamented: “This is a historic moment. The Mustang Ranch represents the best and the worst things about prostitution in Nevada.”

There is little doubt that Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, might disagree, at least as far as the “best” part of Nevada prostitution is concerned.

Flash back nearly 50 years, and Raggio is the young prosecutor of Washoe County.

According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, in October 1955, “Joe Conforte, a former cabdriver and brothel operator, opens the Triangle River Ranch brothel in Wadsworth. He will later become partners with Sally Burgess, also a brothel owner. The two marry.”

A few years later, Conforte was arrested and convicted of trying to extort Raggio. Conforte served 22 months in jail.

But of more relevance to the present situation, according to the Gazette-Journal, “Raggio and other officials burn down the Wadsworth brothel.”

And there you have it, a full circle from Raggio burning down Conforte’s original brothel to Storey County firefighters completing the job.

I found another anecdote relevant to the completion of this circle. A friend of mine happens to be a Reno attorney, and several years ago he was in practice with the Senate majority leader.

On a certain occasion they were in Quincy, Calif., near Reno, working on a case. After a long day working on the litigation, they retreated to a Quincy watering hole for a thirst-quencher. Upon entering the bar they found themselves the only two occupants in suits and ties, while the regulars wore cowboy hats, jeans and boots.

Patron: “What the hell do you guys do for a living?”

My friend: “We are lawyers.”

Patron: “What good did you ever do for society?”

Raggio: “I burned down a whorehouse!”

Patron: “The hell you did. The only guy that ever did that was Bill Raggio!”

Raggio: “That’s me.”

Whereupon the cowboy types bought Raggio and my friend a drink.

Back in the 1960s, Nye County District Attorney Bill Beko used to tell me about his friend Raggio. This was a period when Beko was having his own troubles with Nye County pimps.

He admired Raggio’s restraint of pimps in general and Conforte in particular. Seems every time Conforte showed his face in downtown Reno, local cops had orders directly from the district attorney to arrest the Mustang Ranch owner as a vagrant. Raggio reasoned that a pimp had no visible means of making an honest living.

Of course, not all brothel fires are started to satisfy a court order or educate firefighters. There was the infamous arson of Walter Plankinton’s Chicken Ranch on June 10, 1978, in Pahrump. That one made national news and spawned tales of murder, bribery, assault — you name it — involving brothel operators and Nye County officials.

And while the year escapes me, I was driving south on U.S. Highway 95 down the Goldfield summit one dark June evening when I saw a fire in the distance. The Cottontail Ranch at Lida Junction in Esmeralda County was ablaze and severely damaged.

Clearly, Nevada bordellos have a long history of being torched — legally and illegally.

Bill Roberts is a veteran journalist in Tonopah. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal. Contact him at broberts@reviewjournal.com.

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