I was 7 or 8 years old in the mid-1950s when I met Joe Conforte at the old Sewell’s grocery store on 5th and Virginia in Reno. He was just kind of standing there at the end of a grocery aisle. I was with my older brother, who said something about Conforte’s notoriety and my brother introduced himself. Conforte struck me as a pleasant man. I didn’t know what a hood or a pimp was, yet, but I was way more interested in the parakeets.
For a short time, parakeets were a fad, kind of like Hula Hoops and Paleo and Beanie Babies and bitcoin, and Sewell’s loaded up a section of the store with parakeets and cages. The store ran a promotion offering a grand prize if anyone could teach their parakeet to say, “Sewell’s.” I don’t think anyone ever won. We bought several and none ever said “Sewell’s.” The store also sold 45 rpm records to play for the parakeets that said, “Pretty bird” over and over so the parakeets would think, “Hmm, that’s pretty cool,” and decide to say “Pretty bird.” My mother bought a record. My brother tried to teach them to say, “Goddammit.” The parakeets never said either one but all either died or escaped. I don’t think Conforte bought a parakeet, but if he had, it probably died or escaped.
In the early 1980s, I met Bobby Moore in Little River, California, where a bunch of friends used to go for fun, adventure, and abalone diving. We mostly drank beer and wine and ate a lot and hiked all over Mendocino. My wife bought a mushroom-colored, oversized thick-knit sweater because it was cold there, and Bobby called her “hippie girl.” She liked that. I was a horrible diver, but Bobby was pretty good at it along with several others, so we ate a lot of abalone, too. He was a modest, gentle, kind, and subtly humorous guy maybe in his early fifties, didn’t talk much, and never said a bad word about anyone. He was an attorney living in Verdi, retired, because he was an early investor in the Boomtown Casino, and Mendocino with your friends was way more fun anyway.
I discovered our paths had crossed years ago. Not our lives so much as our personal trajectories on a single incident, which I asked him about. His eyes widened as he set down his glass and leaned in. “Was that old son-of-a-bitch your uncle?” he said. It was the first time I’d heard him swear.
He referred to my uncle, Fred Crosby, founder of Crosby’s Landing at Sutcliffe, longtime denizen of Wadsworth, Sparks, Reno, and who knows where else. My mother, born in Lovelock in 1913, was a Crosby, and she spent much of her girlhood in Wadsworth. Uncle Fred did whatever he could to get by–a bit of ranching, fishing, brokering, whatever it took. At a family reunion once, he took me to a big storage cabinet loaded with candy and let me take my pick.
Uncle Fred came to own a small ranch near Wadsworth where the Washoe, Storey, and Lyon county lines came together. It was called the Triangle River Ranch. Maybe the ranching business wasn’t so good–I don’t know, but Uncle Fred wasn’t one to miss an opportunity. In 1955, he leased the ranch to Joe Conforte, and the Triangle River Ranch, housed in a trailer, became one of the more well-known whorehouses in the area. They could have had parakeets. Who knows?And I know you’re supposed to say “brothel” instead of “whorehouse,” but I’m a Nevadan.
And at the time–this would be 1957 or 1958–Bobby Moore was the Storey County District Attorney. Parenthetically, no one in my family talked about these events in real time, so I’m piecing together what I overheard in subsequent years.
The Triangle River Ranch attracted trouble. You can look it up. At the time, prostitution was illegal in all three counties. Disreputable people hung out there, Conforte paid off local officials, and it was an ongoing target of law enforcement. All three counties attempted to raid the place, but–according to legend–when Conforte got wind of county law enforcement coming from Lyon County, he’d haul the trailer across the county line to Storey County. Or to Washoe county. Wherever he couldn’t be touched. I do not know if parakeets sounded the alarm, but they could have.
Bill Raggio, the new Washoe County District Attorney, declared the whorehouse and its owner a public nuisance and threat to safety. When Conforte came to Reno, Raggio would arrest him for vagrancy (an old law on the books declared pimps were vagrants). Conforte finally had enough, and set Raggio up in an extortion sex trap with girl purporting to be 18, but who was actually 14. Unfortunately for Conforte, Raggio had wired the room, and the resulting charges took Conforte down, sending him to prison for two years.
And it was the end of the Triangle River Ranch. Bobby got the court order, Raggio got the torch, and the Triangle River Ranch was burned to the ground. I asked Bobby what my uncle Fred did to deserve his contempt, but, true to his character, Bob refused to say anything. Coincidentally, Bill Raggio pretty much refused to talk about Joe Conforte for the rest of his life. The silence of parakeets, I guess.
I haven’t seen Bobby Moore in twenty-five years or more, nor Bill Raggio for that matter, my having departed the land of the setting sun a couple of decades ago. Bill passed away, and I presume Bobby is fine. My father used to say if he’d known he was going to live so long, he’d have taken better care of himself, and Bob pretty much did that.
Joe Conforte, as best as I can determine, is alive and well in Brazil. So it goes.
Update: This screed isn’t an attempt to lionize Joe Conforte. People have differing views on him, ranging from seeing him as a benign scofflaw and supporter of charities to a petty hood, corrupter of public officials, and sex trafficker. My own views tend to the latter, and I’d even add Accessory to murder (Google Oscar Bonavena). But bad people do some good things, and good people do some bad things. As my father put it, “There’s so much bad in the best of us/And so much good in the worst of us,”It ill behooves any of us/To talk about the rest of us.”
Whatever else Conforte is (or isn’t), he’s a part of Northern Nevada’s history.