Born Augusta Sicily December 10 1925
Presently living in Rio De Janeiro*
Despite violent competitors, law enforcement vendettas, prison terms, exile, and life as a fugitive, Joe made the Mustang Ranch east of Reno into the biggest, brightest whorehouse in all the world. He is now living happily ever after in a penthouse in Rio.
Joe Conforte’s life story might have been written by Horatio Alger on acid. It’s a story so stuffed with action, adventure and misadventure that this brief sketch can’t begin to contain it all.
Joe was born into poverty in the Sicilian fishing village of Augusta on December 10th 1925. His mother died when he was 4, and at age 11 he accompanied his father to Boston where he learned the produce business.
Joe ran away from home the first time two years later. On his third attempt made it to New York City and in July 1942 he rode a Greyhound Bus into Los Angeles. Produce markets around the city were up for lease as their Japanese-American owners were being shipped off to concentration camps, and at 16 Joe took one over. He was quite successful; two years after that he was driving his yellow convertible to Tijuana on weekends for the gambling and the bullfights.
Between November 1945 and January 1950 Joe served three hitches in the Army, finally discharged as a staff sergeant in the military police and as an American citizen.
He became a taxi driver in Oakland which introduced him to the prostitution business, and in 1954 began making gambling trips to Reno. In 1955 he occupied a ramshackle little house where Lyon, Storey and Washoe counties come together. He outfitted it with two women and named it the Triangle River Ranch and the rest is . . . mostly myth.
In November 1959 Joe arranged for a 17-year-old girl to seek help from D.A Bill Raggio in getting a divorce. According to Joe the meeting at the Corner Bar at the Riverside Hotel led to a sexual encounter upstairs. He arranged a private meeting with Raggio and offered to forget about the statutory rape if they could just be friends, but Raggio recorded the meeting and Joe was sentenced to 3 – 5 years in state prison for extortion. He appealed, but on January 10 1962 he entered the old sandstone prison and before long he was managing the small casino that was operating inside at the time. His Madam, Sally Burgess, kept the little place open and functioning while Joe was away until Raggio arranged to have the place burned to the ground.
Shortly after its founding, as heat began to be felt in all three counties, Joe had moved the working girls into a trailer. So when a friend called to say that a raid was being launched from Virginia City with a judge’s order to close the place as a public nuisance, Joe would have the trailer hauled across the line into Lyon or Washoe County and thus immune to the court order from Storey county. And so they played cat-and-mouse and Joe thrived on the publicity. It was the Storey County D.A. who applied the match, but Bill Raggio who supplied the determination to do it.
While in state prison Joe was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to three years in federal prison. He was sent first to Terminal Island in Washington, and then (for being a bad influence on other prisoners) to McNeil Island where his cellmates were the high-profile kidnapper Alvin Karpis, Frankie Carbo of Murder Inc., and Dave Beck, ex-president of the Teamsters Union.
Sally had begun “sneaking” in a small way, but competitors burned her out and then opened a new place nearby called Mustang Ranch. When he was released on parole in October 1965 Joe went to Santa Monica to wait out his parole, and at midnight on December 12th he came back to Reno, muscled in on the new Mustang Ranch, and by 1967 had paid off his partners to become its sole owner.
By 1969 he was riding high, paying Storey County $10,000 a year in lieu of a business license. In 1970 his allies in the Court House legalized brothels in the county and Joe was the first (and only) licensee.
In the 1970s Joe was on top of the world, a famously flamboyant local celebrity basking in the attention, and expanding his world to include professional boxing, most notably managing the Argentine heavyweight contender Oscar Bonavena.
But when Oscar became overly friendly with Sally, and began bragging that he’d take over Mustang, Joe put on the brakes. Oscar persisted, and after a night of drinking and gambling showed up at Mustang early in the morning of May 21 1976 demanding to enter. He reached for a gun and was shot dead by a security guard.
In 1977 a federal grand jury returned a 10-count indictment against Joe and Sally for paying their maids and bartenders as contractors instead of withholding employment taxes. Joe’s appeal of his 5-year sentence was denied and he disappeared into Mexico. To facilitate his return, Joe offered to testify that he had bribed his old friend and former attorney Harry Claiborne who was then a federal judge in Las Vegas.
The deal was struck and in return for his testimony Joe was allowed to plead guilty to the tax charges and serve a year in prison. Claiborne was convicted of income tax offenses, eventually impeached, imprisoned and disbarred.
Joe’s IRS problems surfaced again in 1991, prompting him to take up residence in Brazil where despite interpol’s active interest in apprehending him, he could not be extradited because his daughter Annabella is a Brazilian citizen. Sally died in 1992. In 1999 the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, Annabella aside, he couldn’t be extradited because the bankruptcy fraud he was charged with wasn’t a crime in Brazil.
Love him or hate him — and there are plenty of people in both categories — there’s no disputing that despite violent competitors, law enforcement vendettas, prison terms, exile, and life as a fugitive, he grabbed the gold ring and got away clean with the swag.
For all his failings, for all his crimes, for all his sins, Joe is a significant figure in the history of 20th Century Nevada, a minor middling figure in the 20th Century American West and an interesting footnote in the history of the USA. Few Nevadans have made as a great an impact.
*An unconfirmed report is being circulated that Joe Conforte has died in Rio.