In a Nevada County,
A Shuttered Brothel Divides Residents

 

As New Generation Moves In, Vote on a Ban Ignites Furor; Salt Wells' Sad History

By GEORGE ANDERS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 20, 2004; Page A1

FALLON, Nev. -- Glenna Palludan smiled as she recalled this desert town nearly a half-century ago. Local stores sold saddles and spurs. Sick people visited a tiny hospital that has been replaced by a bigger, more modern successor. And right next to the old hospital was Sallie's house of prostitution.

"We were a wild place back then," the 67-year-old resident said. Town archives hold accounts of lusty fellows, mixed up about the address, who dashed into the hospital. One, it is said, even insisted on being admitted as a patient, thinking that naughty pleasures with "nurses" awaited him.

Now, Fallon has grown up. Sallie's is gone, having given way to a giant Wal-Mart and a community college. Retirees and young families keep streaming into town, drawn by affordable housing and a reasonable commute to Reno, 60 miles to the northwest. Fallon and surrounding Churchill County have a population of about 25,000, three times what it was in Ms. Palludan's high-school days.

A few miles east of town, though, a vestige of old Nevada lingers. Several flimsy trailers jut out of the desert. Above them, a tattered sign has three slinky women beckoning to motorists. This is the Salt Wells Villa Ranch, one of Nevada's 28 licensed brothels, down from a peak of 35 in the early '80s. Though Salt Wells halted operations a few months ago because of financial troubles, what will now become of it is the talk of the county.



 

Nevada is the only state in the U.S. where houses of ill repute are a legitimate business. Prostitutes are licensed. Owners pay property taxes, and county sheriffs nab customers who leave without paying. Las Vegas, by state law, is brothel-free, but in rural Nevada sin is alive if not thriving.

Many Churchill County residents think Salt Wells was a blight on their community and want to be sure that no brothel ever opens again in their roughly 5,000 square miles. On the county ballot Nov. 2 is a proposal to ban houses of prostitution, something no Nevada county has done since 1978. Activists on both sides think the ban has a chance of passing. All the same, a number of Nevadans, mostly older people, say that places such as Salt Wells ought to be saved.

"It's been 35 years since I've been in a brothel, so I don't have a personal stake in this," says Montie Pierce, a retired construction manager in Fallon. "But this is part of Nevada heritage. I'm tired of people who think they're in the Bible Belt telling the rest of us what to do."

Even more vociferous is Fredda Stevenson, owner of Old Middlegate Station, a desert bar and grill about 100 miles east of Reno. "Banning prostitution is a stupid idea," she declares. "Let it be. It's a service like anything else."

Nevada has a long history of men working in isolation in the desert, Ms. Stevenson explains. "Ranch hands, military pilots and cowboys -- they don't have any women nearby," she says. "With brothels, they can go in, get a little action and then go right back to work."

Such arguments carry no weight with Baptist minister Daniel Fitch, an erstwhile carpenter who moved to Fallon seven years ago. He and his wife, Mary, say they have seen how prostitution degrades women. Mr. Fitch in his sermons has been urging parishioners to vote for a prostitution ban and to help him mail fliers to voters. "It's time for a new generation of Churchill County residents to take action," he says.

Fallon dairy farmer Alan Perazzo complains that Salt Wells' property taxes haven't nearly covered its burden on county police services. "We're subsidizing prostitution, and I don't like that," he says. Over a steak-and-potatoes dinner, his wife, Carey, added in a whisper: "It's an eyesore. It's an embarrassment to our community. We have friends from out of state who didn't want to move here when they discovered prostitution was legal."

Nevada moralists have been denouncing prostitution since frontier days, and most of the time their protests have been to no avail. Nearly 20 years ago, a Reno wedding-chapel operator, George Flint, decided to help form the Nevada Brothel Owners Association. He is the NBOA's chief lobbyist and only full-time employee, with an annual budget from dues-paying brothels of about $100,000. Roughly half that money goes for political contributions.

Usually, Mr. Flint says, he can stymie church-led campaigns against prostitution by presenting brothels as good public citizens. He talks proudly about how the Sheri's Ranch brothel, in Pahrump, raised $7,000 for a senior center this past spring, ensuring that the elderly would keep getting Meals on Wheels. Over the years, he says, other brothels have bought firetrucks and rebuilt baseball diamonds for their tiny hometowns.

In Churchill County, Mr. Flint says, none of his usual arguments are carrying the day. Antiprostitution forces are well organized this time, he says, and Salt Wells' lack of community service makes it hard for him to reassure voters. When he tried to defend prostitution at a public hearing in Fallon this summer, "I was nearly run out of town," he says.

Churchill County, which legalized brothels 30 years ago, started with high hopes. It licensed Salt Wells and a short-lived rival, the Lazy B Ranch, treating their openings in 1975 as front-page news. An account in the Fallon Eagle included an owner's never-realized boast that he would build an airstrip near his brothel to attract more customers.

Nearly two years later, Salt Wells was firebombed one morning at 5:45, causing $1,200 in damage. Law-enforcement officials found traces of Molotov cocktails made of gasoline and Folger's coffee jars. Later in the day, they arrested the sheriff's wife, Mildred Banovich, who was charged with arson. Mrs. Banovich has since died; her son, Dave Banovich Jr., says she pleaded guilty and served a brief jail sentence.

In the 1980s, Salt Wells' longtime owner, Reina Fuchigami, also known as Gina Wilson, gave up control of the facility after being accused of hiring underage girls to work at the brothel. Ms. Fuchigami is now dead. The current minimum age is 21. Several subsequent owners couldn't make a financial success of the place. In 1996, the brothel was bought for $450,000 by James Kopulos, an Illinois resident who had been in the bowling-alley business for 30 years.

Some of Mr. Kopulos's best customers were Navy personnel at nearby Fallon Naval Air Station. He made it easy for them to pay with personal or military credit cards. Charges running to $150 or more were posted to "James Fine Dining." That fooled government auditors for a while, but then the General Accounting Office caught on.

In a lengthy report two years ago, the GAO blasted the Navy for travel-card abuses that included 50 cardholders who spent more than $13,000 for "prostitution services" at Salt Wells and other Nevada brothels. Belatedly mindful of the Navy's sensitivities, Salt Wells employees posted a sign at the bar, stating: "We are not an Essential Government Service. Do not accept military credit cards."

Last year, Salt Wells prostitute Maggie Holmes complained publicly that the brothel wasn't properly withholding taxes or paying for her medical exams. Mr. Kopulos says he didn't realize the intricacies of local laws, adding that the ensuing publicity hurt his image.

"Townspeople got angry at us," Mr. Kopulos says. "People started thinking we had a nonstop sex machine out there. The fact is, in the slow months we were lucky if we got 10 customers a week."

More problems followed. In September 2003, health inspectors ordered the brothel closed after finding a rodent infestation and a lack of acceptable drinking water. When Mr. Kopulos hired a repairman, county officials cited the owner for not getting necessary work clearances. Mr. Kopulos got the brothel briefly reopened earlier this year, but eventually he surrendered his license and turned over ownership to his main creditor, Reno insurance executive R. Scott Rottman. "I wish I'd never got into the brothel business," Mr. Kopulos says. "I lost a lot of money."

Salt Wells now is bolted shut. Its trailers sit idle behind barbed wire. Mr. Rottman didn't return calls seeking comment on his plans. He could apply for an operating license and try to reopen the bordello, but Mr. Flint, the brothel lobbyist, says that after talking with the new owner, he believes that's unlikely. "The state's character is changing with all these new people coming into Nevada," Mr. Flint says.