Part 2: Uneasy Street

New Orleans Family Faces Prison For Prostitution

The phones at Jeanette Maier's Canal Street Brothel rang morning, noon and night.

There was no request too odd to fulfill.

"If somebody wanted to get beaten, I was the girl to call," says Monica Montemayor, laughing.

Monica worked at her mother's brothel, where her grandma, Tommie Taylor, took reservations.

"I slept with the phone! Many a time I would be in the shower, and on the phone," remembers Tommie.

What they didn't know was that the phones were bugged, and the FBI had recorded 5,000 calls.

This is a recorded conversation of Tommie's describing prostitutes to prospective clients.

Tommie: I got one in that's got the kind of boobs you like.
Customer: Oh really?
Tommie: Yeah, the cat girl.
Customer: What does she look like?
Tommie: She looks like a cat!!

For four months, 10 FBI agents took turns listening in the days before, during and after September 11, 2001.

"They tapped my phone. I'm calling people in New York, crying," says Monica. "I called everybody. Oh my God. We're being attacked! And they're taping phone conversations about a brothel?"

Lawmakers wondered the same thing. The investigation was even ridiculed at a hearing on terrorism.

"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," said Sen. Patrick Leahy.

But when this whole case started, investigators say they had good reasons to look into this brothel.

For one thing, they thought the mob might be involved. They were also told the place was a drug supermarket.

The tip about drugs came from Dr. Howard Lippton. Lippton, once a prominent lung surgeon, used to be one of Jeanette's very best customers.

His lawyer, Kyle Shoenekus, says Lippton spent $280,000 to $350,000 at the Canal Street Brothel over a three-year period. "He's a very loving man," says Shoenekus.

"Everybody said he was seeing prostitutes," says Jeanette. "Actually, what people were doing is babysitting him."

A few years back, Jeanette said her girls made house calls to Lippton. But she says he would hide under the covers and insist that the girls watch out the windows for police, sometimes, up to 10 hours at a time.

"He would sit in bed with the covers up like this," adds Tommie. "The poor girls. He'd have the air conditioner turned down to 40 or whatever, and she'd have to be nude and looking out the window. No sex. No nothing."

In court papers, Lippton admitted that his "prior use of cocaine caused him to be extremely paranoid."

"Actually, he was so paranoid he did ask me for sex once and I knocked under the table and said, 'Did you hear that?' That was the end of the sex," says Jeanette, laughing. "I kind of knew how to handle him."

Two years ago, Lippton was in serious trouble of his own. He was suspected of Medicare fraud, and when investigators looked into his bank account, they discovered checks he had made out to Jeanette and Tommie.

He decided to make a deal. "They brought my client in and basically said, 'Dr. Lippton, do you want to go to jail for a very long time? Or do you want to help us get the brothel people?'" says Shoenekus.

Lippton agreed to help, hoping for a way out of his Medicare mess. He told the FBI that drugs were sold at the brothel.

At first, Lippton seemed to be right. No doubt about it, Tommie was heard buying pot. But the FBI also heard a lot of talk about a mysterious bag, and investigators naturally assumed they were onto something big.

But what were the true contents of the bag? A hat, handcuffs, gloves and chains. "The whole drug issue was about chains and whips," says Jeanette, holding up the handcuffs. "They thought they had this great drug thing going on. It was the opposite. I was playing the police!"

The FBI failed to produce evidence of hard drugs or mob bosses, and 5,000 calls later, the investigators came up empty. But Lippton got his sentence cut in half.

"I will tell you there was a very broad client base involving individuals from all over the City of New Orleans and its environs," says U.S. attorney Jim Letten.

Federal prosecutors threw the book at the women, charging them with prostitution conspiracy. They face up to five years in prison. But their clients were not charged. Prosecutors let the men off the hook.

"We could not have been in business without our clients," says Tommie. "Can you imagine running a whorehouse if the phone doesn't ring?"

And remember, some of those calls came from people in high places.

Jeanette and Tommie hired top gun Vinnie Mosca to defend them. Mosca advised the women to plead guilty and cooperate with authorities.

"They're going to answer truthfully any questions asked of them concerning the entire investigation," says Mosca.

This means that if investigators happen to ask for client names, Jeanette and Tommie will name names.

Just like that, New Orleans suddenly became the "Big Uneasy."

"Everybody's like, 'Are you on the list,'" says Jeanette. Who's not on the list? The Canal Street Brothel is reputed to have had 500 customers, including doctors, judges, lawyers and many, many politicians.

Monica Montemayor turned her first trick at 16, following right in her mother's footsteps.

"I remember walking into a club and seeing my mother on stage," remembers Monica. "She was so beautiful. She looked like an angel."

Monica wanted to be like her mother, and she got her chance. "Only, the life didn't seem that beautiful once I was in it," she says.

"I can't be around her sometimes because it hurts too bad," says Jeanette Maier, Monica's mother. "I have to relive my life all over again every time I see her."

Two lives, built from the same blueprint of pain.

Part 3: The Family Business

Part 1: The Canal Street Brothel