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Joe Richards establishes foothold in Crystal

Joe Richards is originally from Duluth, Minnesota. When asked his age in 2011, he answered, “I was born a long time ago.”

He left home at an early age and eventually moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From there he spent time in San Francisco and later moved to Las Vegas. Initially he was interested in the Las Vegas area because of its weather—very different from Duluth’s. Moreover, Las Vegas seemed to be a more free and open social environment.

Gradually he took note of the brothel business, which led him to move to the Amargosa Valley in the early 1970s. He became interested in opening a legal brothel and visited with Nye County officials in Tonopah. He met with Nye County District Attorney William P. Beko and explained his interest.

“They practically threw me out of there,” Richards said.

I asked Joe, “Why the negative response?” He replied, “They just didn’t want to hear about it. Bill Martin had so much control over everything in this area (southern Nye County) at that time.”

Bill Martin, whose real name was Bill Apfel, owned the Shamrock Brothel in Lathrop Wells. Richards let the matter lie for the time being.

Land Purchase

Richards eventually purchased an acre and a quarter at Crystal, located at the south end of the Amargosa Valley west of Pahrump, off Highway 160. He recalled he didn’t have much money; he even had a car payment due. He remembers paying $1,500 for his parcel at Crystal, a small down payment, and $50 a month. He drilled a well and didn’t have to go far for water.

“You go 120 feet and you’ve got all the water you want,” he said.

It was the “availability of land” that made Richards focus on Crystal. He purchased the land from a man named Clark, whose plan was to develop the Crystal area for housing. But Richards said, “It didn’t work out as well as he wanted it to, and I started little by little and I kept buying all that land that I could down there.”

In Crystal, he said, he ended up with way over 100 acres and stayed there for 20 years.

Walter Plankinton had previously moved into the Pahrump Valley and opened the Chicken Ranch brothel in 1976. In doing so, Richards noted, Plankinton faced serious legal challenges as well as harassment from Bill Martin. Martin, Richards said, “was fighting with everybody. I mean everybody.”

But with Plankinton taking the heat, serving as a kind of lightning rod and generating considerable publicity for legalized prostitution in southern Nye County, Richards thought it was a good time to act. That was “why I made the move at that time,” he said.


Richards understood how it worked. He said, “At the time, Bill Martin had so much power. He knew everybody; he was friends with everybody and he held the reins on everything. And it was so stupid of him at that time to make moves like he made because he still could’ve had everything and still keep his reputation.”

In Richards’s opinion, Plankinton “wasn’t really that bad of a guy. He was a good guy but they gave him a ration of shit in Pahrump. Burned his place down.” Thus, when Richards moved into Crystal, his brothel wasn’t any more welcome in southern Nye County than Walter Plankinton’s Chicken Ranch.

Richards understood that in the final analysis, the whole thing was a turf battle. With his Lathrop Wells brothel, Bill Martin had been the only operator in the Amargosa Valley. He acted as though operating a brothel in southern Nye County was his exclusive right and he was more than willing to get tough to defend that right.

When Richards opened his brothel at Crystal, he came in for his share of harassment. Unidentified persons, obviously working in Bill Martin’s interest, took to sawing down his signs on the highway and “busting our wall down”—the wall Richards had constructed around the Cherry Patch brothel.

Richards said most of the malicious mischief he experienced came through the Nye County Sheriff’s Office. During those years, the sheriff’s office deputy Glen Henderson was, as Richards put it, “running everything” in Amargosa Valley. But, he said philosophically, they soon learned, “They couldn’t get me out too easy.”

The Cherry Patch

Richards remembers opening his brothel at Crystal in about 1978. He moved in two small trailers and viola!, he had his brothel. He named it the Cherry Patch.

He started with about six girls. Not long after the Cherry Patch opened, he was turning away girls applying for work because he didn’t have enough room. At that time a woman could work in a brothel in Nye County when she was 18 years old. When he first opened, women did not have to be tested medically. Medical inspections, of course, are now required by law. Now, he said, there is a lot of control over brothels, which Richards strongly supports.

Richards had a partner, a man named Ross Prock. It was tough going at first but eventually things got better. The constant harassment, however, got to Prock before too long. He finally told Richards, “I’m going to leave.” Richards asked, “What do you mean, you’re going to leave?”

His partner replied, “If I stay here, they’re going to kill us.” Things were being made that tough on them, Richards said. Ross Prock left.

Business at Crystal prospered until Richards had 20 or more women. They were busy—so busy it was difficult sometimes to keep up with the traffic. At that time brothels could advertise; it wasn’t against the law as it is now. Additionally, the brothels in southern Nye County were getting a lot of publicity, which was good for business.

Robert D. McCracken is a Las Vegas historian who has written 15 books on Nye County including “A History of Pahrump Nevada” and a history of the Manse Ranch.

The harassment over Richards’s presence at Crystal continued. At one point he got a notice to cease operation of his Crystal brothel at noon on a given date. The sheriff’s office in the person of Glen Henderson showed up on the scene. Richards, intent on following the letter of the law, had all the girls and occupants of the building go outside at 11:00 a.m. At that point, the sheriff’s office placed barbed wire around the brothel. When they finished, Richards let a bit of time pass. Then he asked one of the officers, “What time do you have now?”

The officer looked at his watch and replied, “Well, it’s 12:30.”

Richards said, “Good,” and proceeded to cut the barbed wire and reopen the brothel.

Meanwhile, Plankinton at the Chicken Ranch had taken note of Richards’ pluck. At one point he asked Richards, “Why don’t you come join me?” Richards had no intention of doing such a thing, replying, “I don’t need the problems.”

Richards had the situation correctly pegged. “Eventually,” he said, “Bill Martin had Plankinton’s ‘joint’ firebombed.” A man named Kenneth Kolojay went to prison for the crime but Martin was behind it.

Robert D. McCracken is a Las Vegas historian who has written 15 books on Nye County including “A History of Pahrump Nevada” and a history of the Manse Ranch.

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