Family Affair: The Story of the Canal Street Brothel
In the days before and after 9/11, FBI agents eavesdropped on the brothel's telephones and recorded more than 5,000 calls, most of them about men wanting sex. The New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted an FBI summary of one recorded conversation between Tommie and a prostitute named Sunny: "Tommie told Sunny that Victor was coming at 4:30 p.m. and Larry was coming at 5:30 p.m. Sunny asked if she could have a break after 5:30 p.m. because she was behind on laundry, that she was running out of sheets."
Another summary, quoted in the Times-Picayune, dated September 13, 2001 said, "Girl needs to be at the Windsor Court (a posh New Orleans hotel) at around midnight, room 1117. Don't send her until David (the doorman) gets back. The customers are tugboat owners who have a lot of dough. Jeanette says $300 an hour."
In one tape-recorded call, a customer asks how much a girl is going to cost. Jeanette says, "It's either 15 (hundred) for the evening, or 300 an hour."
The feds had stumbled upon a crime syndicate of scantily clad women.
On April 2, 2002, the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans unveiled a 16-count indictment, charging Jeanette, her 62-year-old mother, her 25-year-old daughter, and nearly a dozen other women with conspiracy and interstate travel in aid of racketeering.
Beaming at a press conference over the success of the yearlong investigation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone proclaimed, "This case represents what I feel is one of the vilest forms of racketeering, and that's the exploitation of women for the sake of a buck."
What he didn't say was exactly who was exploiting whom.
Although the FBI investigation had identified hundreds of the brothel's exclusively male clients, their names were conspicuously absent from the indictment.
When reporters, hungry for salacious details, tried to get their hands on the client list--rumored to contain the names of some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in New Orleans--U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, the federal judge hearing the case, sealed the court records.
"It was an interesting move that made a lot of people suspicious," says Laurie White, a New Orleans defense attorney who represented Joanne Hansen, one of the women slapped with conspiracy and racketeering charges. "I didn't see any reason for it except to protect the guilty."
As an attorney in the case, White did manage to get her hands on the list, and after looking at it, she realized that federal prosecutors were probably scared to go after many of the people on the list, which included some of New Orleans' best-known doctors, lawyers, business owners, and athletes.
Another New Orleans defense attorney who worked on the case said the list also included a judge, a local TV personality, and a couple of city councilmen.
In November 2002, government and defense lawyers met in Judge Lemelle's chambers and squared off over the secret customer list. Defense lawyers, convinced the government was treating their female clients unfairly, threatened to go public with the men's names. According to one of the lawyers in the judge's chambers, the one name that kept popping up during the tense meeting was that of the son of the former head of the Louisiana Republican Party.
The pressure in the room was explosive. Suddenly, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gaynell Williams, one of the lead prosecutors, lurched to her feet. "I don't feel very good," she said. "I think I need some air." She staggered toward the door and just barely made it into the hallway when she toppled over. As she fell, her face hit the wall. Her eyebrow spilt open and blood poured down her cheek. Lawyers rushed to her side. Someone fanned her. Someone else tried to stop the bleeding. Moments later, an ambulance arrived and medics carted off the government attorney.
After the brothel case became the butt of late-night talk show jokes, the feds brought in a pair of ringers. Al Winters and Bill McSherry, a couple of seasoned federal prosecutors, stepped in and started negotiating a deal. The prosecutors who had indicted the case, Sal Perricone and Gaynell Williams, dropped out of sight.
In the end, court records show that the government dropped the original 16-count indictment in exchange for everyone pleading guilty to at least something.
One of the defense attorneys who worked on the negotiations said, "The government took the position that they probably made a mistake, and they wanted to bring the whole thing to a close."
Jeanette got the stiffest sentence: three years probation, six months in a halfway house, and a $10,000 fine.
Even the boat got in on the deal. Prosecutors let the CRIME SCENE plead guilty to a felony--transporting prostitutes across state lines. The two businessmen who operated the boat were allowed to plead guilty to a rarely used maritime misdemeanor. Judge Lemelle fined the boat $80,000 and let the two men off with one year of unsupervised probation and a $500 fine.
In a case in which some of the accused faced decades behind bars, not a single defendant went to prison.
When asked if he thought that pressure from the brothel's high-placed customers forced federal prosecutors to dismiss most of the charges, an FBI agent who worked on the investigation said, "Who the hell knows? You'd like to think not, but you can never tell."
The case even made it onto Capitol Hill. At a hearing on terrorism, Senator Patrick Leahy, a democrat from Vermont, said, "I realize it comes as an enormous revelation to the American public that there might have been prostitutes in New Orleans. I mean who knew?"