That Darn Cathouse!

While visiting Nevada earlier this year, 69-year-old Don Phelan did something some men only dream of. Flush from a recent inheritance, the Mesa retiree spent ten days cavorting with prostitutes in one of that state's legal whorehouses.

Five months later, he's still sore. Plenty sore.
That lingering discomfort has less to do with any pleasures of the flesh he may have experienced at Kitty's Guest Ranch than it does with a pile of receipts that mark his sole souvenir of the binge. While he remembers having sex only a half-dozen times during the brandy-soaked bacchanal, Phelan somehow still managed to run up a sobering tab in excess of $25,000.

"Bluntly put, I got screwed," grouses Phelan, who claims he was financially wiped out by his brothel visit. During a phone conversation from the $160-a-week Carson City motel room where he's been stranded since May, Phelan also complains that he's also had it stuck to him by local law authorities.

Although officials who've investigated the case have no evidence of fraud, Phelan insists that the real reason no one will take his complaint seriously is because county officials are in bed with the local brothel industry.

"It's the Wild West out here," says Phelan, who now lives on $630 monthly social security checks. "There are no laws in this fuckin' state. It's like, 'Welcome, suckers! Pluck 'em!'"
A retired travel consultant from New York, Phelan was living in a small apartment in Mesa last February when he received a $47,000 settlement from his late brother's estate. At his son's urging, he traveled to Carson City, where the pair planned to use a portion of the inheritance to set up a trucking business. When the venture fell through, Phelan's son took off. Phelan, meanwhile, decided to treat himself to an extended gambling vacation in Carson City.

Down $17,000 by late April, Phelan claims he still had around $30,000 in his bank account when he had a taxi drive him to a brothel in nearby Lyon County one evening in late April. Already "half-bombed" when he left his motel, Phelan quickly finished the job upon arriving at the brothel, a bunkerlike series of buildings ten minutes east of Carson City.

What transpired for the next ten days is strictly between Phelan and the bedpost. The manager of Kitty's Guest Ranch did not return calls, and Phelan readily admits he was drinking so much brandy that he can't remember much of anything.

"I do know that they were asking for $300 or $400 [per sex act]," recalls Phelan. "I said, 'No way! I don't go for anything more than $150.' Even that was stretching it. It wasn't like they were Hollywood starlets or something. These were old broads, believe me."
Because of Phelan's heavy drinking, details surrounding his whorehouse holiday are understandably sketchy. "Have you ever been so drunk you didn't know what you were doing?" asks Phelan. "Well, that was me. Why they continued to serve me, I don't know."

When not hanging out in the bar, Phelan claims he spent much of his time sacked out in a small room adjacent to an area where doctors performed medical examinations on the prostitutes. And judging from a stack of documents eventually forwarded to him from his bank in Mesa, he also spent a lot of time signing his name to withdrawal receipts. In one four-hour period alone, Phelan apparently signed five receipts totaling more than $1,540. None of the receipts carries any notation indicating what service was provided.

Phelan now suspects that some of the signatures are forgeries. He also believes he may have been drugged. But he's relatively certain of one thing. By the time he was poured into a taxi in early May, his bank account was tapped out.

"I have all these receipts, but I claim that I didn't sign them," Phelan maintains. "Or, if I did sign 'em, I was doing it under duress. Or something. Jesus, don't ask me. I was out of it.

"They used my bank cards and went through that account like water. I may have been drunk--but that doesn't give them the right to do what they did to me."But Lyon County officials who investigated his complaints counter that Phelan wasn't a victim of anything but his own lack of self-control.

"As far as we know, no fraud occurred," reports John Schlegemilch, Lyon County chief deputy district attorney. "He signed all the slips. I talked to him a number of times, and the credit-card company verified that all the slips were proper."
Because county-licensed prostitutes are free to negotiate prices with customers, Schlegemilch says it wouldn't have made any difference to his office if Phelan had dropped half a million dollars at the brothel. "We would do the investigation the same way--we'd go over the records," the prosecutor says. "If somebody wants to give someone half a million dollars, there's nothing I can do if that's what the bargain was for."

George Flint, lobbyist for a Nevada brothel owner's association, suggests that, in spite of the stiff tab, Phelan may actually have gotten a bargain. Although most drop-in visitors to brothels reportedly spend no more than $400 for a few hours' entertainment, Flint says that fees of $3,000 to $4,000 a day are not unusual for high rollers looking for round-the-clock action.

"This sounds to me like a typical example of someone who's gone off and had a party and then had some second thoughts about the expense factor involved," says Flint, who represents 32 brothels scattered throughout Nevada. ". . . I don't mean to denigrate the gentleman, but if you're not going to sober up, you've got to be more careful with your money. In the 30 years I've lived in Nevada, I have never heard of a situation like [the fraud] he's alluding to or attempting to claim happened."
Others are willing to cut Phelan a little slack. "Gambling and prostitution are not traditional business relationships, and occasionally people aren't prepared for the consequences of their actions," says one longtime observer of Nevada's legalized vice industry. "You go to a house-of and it's a little bit different than going to the grocery store. For most people, this isn't something that's got a lot of precedent or rules of the game."

Meanwhile, Phelan's staunchest ally characterizes the brothel system that drained the retiree's bank account as "a legalized way to roll drunks."

"Something like this is ridiculous!" charges Carson City publisher George Williams III, an antiprostitution crusader who has spent the past ten years battling the bordellos. "Twenty-five hundred dollars a day? I don't know any man who could screw that much. This guy really got taken to the cleaners."
Noting that Nevada's entire economy is based on human weakness, Williams applauds Phelan for going public with his tale. "It's stories about what happened to this man that will show the state for what it is," Williams says.

Fearful that the public will perceive him as a "total friggin' idiot," Don Phelan is less interested in becoming a cathouse Quixote than he is in recovering his money in a civil suit. But because he's unable to find a lawyer who'll take the case on a pro bono or contingency basis, the odds of that happening are slim.

"I know I spent some money," says Phelan. "I spent like a couple thousand--that I knowingly did. But this place was licensed by the county. And, to me, that means authorization or something."
In retrospect, Phelan says his big mistake was misinterpreting the brothel license as some sort of X-rated Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

"I thought it was the same as goin' to a restaurant, right?" he explains. "A sandwich is $2, $3, maybe four bucks. It ain't $400 for a sandwich. And a beer isn't 50 bucks."
One can only hope that the next time Don Phelan gets hungry, he'll eat at home.

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Dewey Webb