Tuesday, Aug. 10, 1999 | 8:59 a.m.
MUSTANG, Nev. - More than two decades of trying to padlock the Mustang Ranch ended almost anticlimactically as the government shut down the infamous brothel east of Reno.
Amid a crush of media and curious onlookers, the cooks, custodians, cashiers and prostitutes left the pink stucco ranch Monday at 5 p.m. with boxes, suitcases and bouquets of flowers. Some of the working girls drove off in Cadillacs and BMWs.
After working as a prostitute at the Mustang for five months, a woman who identified herself only as Dawn said she was considering a job offer at the Kit Kat Ranch east of Carson City.
"I don't see why it closed. It's not necessary. It's ridiculous," she said, holding a vase of roses and carnations.
U.S. Customs Agent Ron Meseberg, whose agency has been closely monitoring the business prior to the government takeover, wouldn't say how much business the brothel did over the weekend, but said, "They did quite well in the last week."
Prostitution is legal in 12 of Nevada's 17 counties, including Storey County where the Mustang Ranch opened 32 years ago.
But the government has long contended that the brothel's original owner paid off local officials and skirted taxes. Guilty verdicts against the brothel's parent companies and manager in a federal fraud and racketeering trial last month ended the government's crusade to shut it down.
James Collie, chief Internal Revenue Service investigator for the southwestern United States, said the government intended to leave the Mustang vacant until a court determines if there are valid claims against the property.
"There is no intention of the government to operate it as a brothel," he said.
The court-ordered closure would be the second time the government has taken over the Mustang.
The first time was in 1990 after owner Joe Conforte declared bankruptcy. The Internal Revenue Service auctioned the ranch off to recover some of the $13 million in back taxes it said Conforte owed.
Victor Perry, the only bidder, bought it for $1.49 million on behalf of Mustang Properties Inc., and the bordello reopened in 1992.
Conforte was on the lam from tax authorities at the time.
The government contends that Mustang Properties was simply a paper company set up by Conforte to continue profiting from the Mustang Ranch. Perry's brother and Conforte's lawyer, Peter Perry, was a key witness in the trial that resulted in Monday's closure.
At the trial, prosecutors alleged that the A.G.E. companies, which took over the ranch from Mustang Properties, and former Storey County Commissioner and Mustang manager Shirley Colletti conspired to conceal the fact that Conforte continued to own the $5 million-a-year brothel illegally. Both companies and Colletti were convicted of fraud and racketeering.
Testimony at the trial alleged that Conforte remained on retainer with the Mustang management as a $10,000-a-month consultant and that 10 times that amount was siphoned from the brothel to South America, where Conforte is believed to be living.
Among Monday's spectators was Mike Avent from Baltimore, who stopped by after a family reunion to see the "death of the Mustang Ranch."
"It's too bad it's going away," he said, adding that he remembered hearing about the infamous brothel growing up.
The souvenir shop had earlier been swept clean of most shirts, hats and menus, so Avent and his wife took slides of the building to show their friends instead.