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July 29, 2014

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Residents are the tale of two towns

Nye County habitants, accustomed to negative publicity tied to Pahrump, shrug at DA’s arrest, remain proud of their roots

Image

Steve Marcus

A view of Tonopah, the Nye County seat shows the town’s mining heritage. The county has no incorporated cities, and the majority of the population lives in Pahrump.

Click to enlarge photo

Robert Beckett

ONE FACE IN A LONG LINEUP OF INFAMY

Nye County District Attorney Bob Beckett was arrested on embezzlement, fraud and public misconduct charges. Police say he was using money from a bad-check program to help fund programs that benefited his family. For locals, Beckett’s alleged peccadilloes are overshadowed by an extensive history of infamous news, mostly related to Pahrump, which gets “a lot of bad press.”

Tonopah and Pahrump

Tonopah resident Jerry Clark heads to check his mail at the post office. Launch slideshow »

Nye County Brothels

A sign for the Shady Lady Ranch brothel in Nye County. The Shady Lady, off U.S. Highway 95 about 30 miles north of Beatty, was the first brothel to hire a male prostitute. Nye County is one of 11 Nevada counties where prostitution is legal. Launch slideshow »

Tonopah textures

Early morning light illuminates a tailings mound in Tonopah May 07, 2010. Launch slideshow »

If big-city Nevadans think the arrest of the local district attorney would set tongues wagging and phone lines buzzing in Nye County, then they underestimate what it takes to register as big news in these small towns.

At least that’s the way it appeared to a visitor recently, who raised the arrest two weeks ago of District Attorney Bob Beckett on embezzlement and other charges.

Bob who? Then, “oh yeah,” a kindly smile and “Hope he didn’t do it, but if he did he gets what’s coming.”

And that’s about it.

The reticence to talk isn’t about pride or putting on the best face for outsiders. It’s more “been there, done that.”

Despite a population of about 44,000 spread across the nation’s third-largest county, Nye County has seen excitement and intrigue that relegates the Beckett story — however it turns out — to a small sideshow.

Consider:

• In what was dubbed the “Brothel Wars,” a feud between the operator of the Chicken Ranch, south of Pahrump, and other brothel owners during the late 1970s led to accusations of arson after the Chicken Ranch was torched — allegedly by another brothel owner — and a court fight over the county’s attempt to close the brothel as a public nuisance. The legal battle reached the Nevada Supreme Court, where the Chicken Ranch won.

• Nye County played an important role in the late 1990s “trial of the century” of Sandy Murphy and her lover Rick Tabish for the murder of Ted Binion. Binion, son of gaming legend Benny Binion, had contracted with Tabish — who was convicted and then exonerated of Binion’s murder along with Murphy — to construct a vault in Pahrump to hold up to $14 million in silver bullion and coins.

• In 2006, Pahrump became talk-show fodder when it passed an “English-only” ordinance, billed as a way to send a message to the federal government to do something about illegal immigration. A few months later, the town board repealed the ordinance.

• In 2007, one of the most disturbing local child molestation cases in memory unfolded after a tape of the sexual assault of a 2-year-old girl was discovered in Pahrump. After a monthlong, nationwide manhunt, Chester Stiles, who had once been an animal trainer for “Siegfried & Roy,” was caught and sentenced to 21 life terms.

• In 2009, brothel owner Maynard “Joe” Richards pleaded guilty to bribing a Nye County commissioner after he was caught on tape by the FBI paying money to the commissioner, who was a cooperating witness.

• In gas stations across the county last week, collection jars featured the photo of 27-year-old Nye County Deputy Ian Deutch, who was shot to death by a suspect with an assault rifle outside a Pahrump casino in late April.

Alongside these, the allegations against Beckett, whose arrest is reportedly related to his handling of the county’s bad-check program, may seem tame. Beckett was charged with one count of embezzlement, one charge of malfeasance of office, 20 counts of fraudulent appropriation of property and 20 counts of misconduct by a public officer.

Nye County’s knack for generating interesting headlines is tied, in part, to the characters that the place attracts and nurtures.

The sheriff at the time of the “brothel wars” was Joni Wines, who was featured in People magazine as the county’s first female sheriff, a pistol-packing, white-haired grandma trying to tame still-wild West towns.

Another sheriff gained attention in the mid-1990s when he reportedly shot himself while fiddling with his gun during a County Commission meeting. He survived.

Art Bell, the national radio show host who spun hours of programming out of alleged conspiracies, UFO sightings and the supernatural, lived in Pahrump.

Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam,” as a billboard reminds as you enter Pahrump from Las Vegas, still lives there.

Pahrump, like the rest of Nye County, fills the need some feel for open spaces and the sense of “country living, Western life,” says Geoff Schumacher, whose family moved to Pahrump when he was 12 to live closer to the Nevada Test Site, where his father worked. Schumacher, a former Sun city editor, is the director of community publications for Stephens Media and is writing a book about Nye County.

“These are people who don’t want any interference in their lives and that includes how many guns and what they can and can’t do with their property and what the taxes are,” Schumacher says. “They’re very particular about that.

“A lot of fugitives end up there, a lot of bad people, too,” he adds.

The anti-government attitude is most evident in the lack of zoning in Pahrump, where zoning maps were approved only a few years ago.

The newer parts of town are home to about every shiny chain store you can imagine — Home Depot, Taco Bell, even an Adult Superstore. That, however, is only a small slice of the town.

The northern outskirts look like a post-apocalyptic camp established by children. Trailer homes are situated at Dr. Seuss-like angles. Junk litters one front yard next to a perfectly kept front yard, followed by hundreds of feet of scrub desert, then sign after sign, then a home, and on and on.

“We do get a lot of bad press,” says one Pahrump resident who didn’t want to be named. “It’s not unjustified. But there are a lot of good people here. They just try to stay out of the way of everyone else.”

From Pahrump to the county seat of Tonopah is 160 miles. The solitude of the drive — in 100 miles, just 30 cars pass — is a trip back in time. Few radio station signals reach the area. Pull over and listen, and the only sound is the breeze. This, too, is Nye County.

Although no shining jewel, Tonopah is a different place from Pahrump. It’s a town of 2,600 that bustled with miners in the early 1900s, but whose pride these days is tied to its high school. It has long had amenities such as curbs and gutters.

You might not find nicer people. Anywhere.

“Tonopah’s a great town,” the Pahrump lady says.

“It’s real nice up there,” Schumacher says.

Toni O’Donnell, a waitress at the Stage Stop Cafe on Main Street, admits there’s not much to do in Tonopah. Her furniture business has dwindled. But she remains there with her family, in part because it’s a nice place to live.

Still, it’s no fun to drive her children 500 hundred miles round-trip to see the orthodontist.

“But my children are safe here,” she says, adding that they can play outside without her having to watch them every second.

In Las Vegas, she won’t dare glance at another driver at a stoplight. Here, there are no stoplights. And everyone waves.

“The school is good,” O’Donnell adds. “People will literally give you the shirt of their back if you need it.”

Matt Misener, owner of the Stage Stop Cafe, missed that attitude when he left Tonopah for Medford, Ore. A few weeks ago, he returned after being gone just eight months.

“The town kind of grows on you,” he says. “I missed the people. People here really are different.”

Then this thought: Does living like this, with neighbors who will give you the shirt off their back make it an easy target for those who want to get away with something?

“Maybe it does,” Misener says. “I never thought about it. But I guess if someone does something like that, you hope they get caught.”

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