On a seedy stretch of highway in New Orleans East, business had slowed to a crawl on a recent weeknight at the ambiguously named Tokyo Modeling. There wasn’t a single car parked in front of the nondescript, cinder-block building.

Two middle-aged women clad in skimpy bustiers surveyed a pair of visitors through a bolted glass door before welcoming them into an outer room dotted with knickknacks and Asian decor, including a lucky cat statue with a swinging hand. Near the entrance stood an ATM machine, a reminder that all services here are purchased in cash.

“Have you been here before?” one of the women asked.

Ostensibly, this is a massage parlor, offering 45-minute sessions for $60. But on this Tuesday night, that service wasn’t on the menu at Tokyo Modeling.

No names and few words were exchanged before the would-be patrons — reporters for The New Orleans Advocate — were led separately to private, dimly lit rooms with low-slung beds.

One masseuse made a graphic offer for intercourse and oral sex for $160, promising a “good time.” The reporter declined and left the business with his colleague, a hasty departure that seemed to engender suspicion.

Massage parlors that offer services well beyond backrubs are not unique to New Orleans, a city steeped in the lore of Storyville that retains a reputation for sexual excess. Indeed, erotic massage parlors, as such businesses generally call themselves, have proliferated in the United States in recent years, expanding their foothold beyond the country’s coastal metropolises. Though almost universally regarded by law enforcement as shady, the establishments have proved resistant to regulation, vetting their clientele to weed out undercover cops and hiring high-end defense attorneys to wage their legal battles.

While some of these businesses once sought to buy police protection in the Crescent City, today they don’t have to, thanks to a crisis beyond their control.

Facing a well-publicized shortage of officers, the New Orleans Police Department has sharply curtailed vice investigations as officers grapple with huge backlogs of emergency calls that have lengthened response times. In interviews, several veteran law enforcement officials said they are confident that erotic massage parlors remain a barely veiled front for prostitution, based on a host of investigations years ago that combined federal and local resources.

But in a time of diminished manpower, certain nonviolent crimes have been relegated to the back burner.

“I don’t want to say that massage parlors aren’t a problem, but let’s face it, they’re not contributing to violence on the street,” said Cmdr. Frank Young, head of the NOPD’s Specialized Investigations Unit, which counts vice among its responsibilities. “If I had 1,500 cops, we’d be doing it full time.”

The New Orleans Advocate reviewed five-plus years of police activity at 10 erotic massage parlors around the city identified by law enforcement officials in years past or, more recently, in online forums, as houses of prostitution. The analysis, which was limited to those locations, turned up nine cases New Orleans police classified as prostitution-related.

It suggested a steep drop-off in undercover activity at the parlors beginning in late 2010. The last time an investigation bore fruit was nearly three years ago, when the NOPD teamed up with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to conduct a sweep ahead of Super Bowl XLVII.

“As you begin losing staffing, you have less flexibility and less officers available to do that kind of work,” said Ronal Serpas, the former police chief who now teaches at Loyola. “When you have resources and you have officers, you can find yourself doing these aggressive and thorough investigations.”

While arrests have plummeted, authorities say there is no reason to believe erotic massage parlors have cleaned up their act. The NOPD’s experience, Serpas said, “tends to indicate there’s a high probability in many of those houses that there’s going to be illegal prostitution going on.”

An underworld online

A number of online forums — supported by groups of users who pay to join — focus on erotic massage parlors. According to forum members, who use aliases, as many as a dozen massage parlors that sell sex are typically operating in New Orleans at a given time.

Johns frequent these sites for the latest skinny on sex-buying, swapping intelligence and sharing encounters both failed and fruitful. They critique the so-called masseuses in meticulous detail, from age and skin type down to their cup size and “smoking status.”

They write reviews in a cryptic but precise and practiced shorthand, rating the performance of the “providers” against the cost for services. They trade tips to avoid price gouging or, worse, being mistaken for a police officer. They are the patrons of a demimonde where, in the motto of one popular message board, “fantasy meets reality.”

“I wasn’t sure what to expect not being from the area, but as soon as I got to the door, I knew it was going to be fine,” one client wrote earlier this year, describing a visit in the spring to a French Quarter “spa” with a long history of prostitution. The massage “was nothing, just some moving around of the hands,” he wrote.

The masseuse then sprinkled baby powder on his crotch and retrieved a condom and oil from a nearby table before disrobing, according to the post. Then she performed a “cbj,” code for protected oral sex, for $100. “Overall it was a good time,” the client noted, “even if it was a bit pricey.”

These online forums have been highlighted on social media in recent months by an organization called Lady Trieu, which has accused Tokyo Modeling and other local erotic massage parlors of exploiting women and operating brothels in plain sight. The secretive organization also has posted photos of the cars of alleged johns parked in front of some of the businesses in an attempt to shame them.

“Our duty is to help protect and promote the rights, dignity and safety of all people in our community, including the women working in places like Tokyo Modeling,” the group wrote in one post this year.

Tokyo Modeling and several other erotic massage parlors contacted by the New Orleans Advocate either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.

Gaps in enforcement

Young, the NOPD commander, said the department today relies on officers to work overtime shifts to keep street-level prostitution — that is, prostitutes walking the streets — at bay.

In a typical case resulting from such efforts, an undercover officer drove to Central City one evening last month and arrested a 36-year-old woman who allegedly offered to perform oral sex for $20.

But even as the department continues with such small-scale sweeps, erotic massage parlors have been operating unfettered. Young acknowledges the NOPD’s current approach isn’t “enough to have a lasting effect,” but added that it is intended “to maintain quality of life.”

“Violence is No. 1,” he said. “Murders and shootings and armed robberies and overall public safety takes precedence.”

James Kelly, executive director of Covenant House, said he understands the NOPD’s limitations but called on other law enforcement agencies to pick up the slack when it comes to prostitution at erotic massage parlors.

“By not prosecuting it, we’re saying it’s a victimless crime when in fact we know it’s not,” Kelly said. “It’s degrading of women. This is a lack of respect. This isn’t something that you just dismiss.”

In some ways, erotic massage parlors have exploited a gray area regarding which level of law enforcement — local, state or federal — should invoke jurisdiction over what occurs within them. Historically, the State Police has taken a keen interest in human trafficking and prostitution and, as recently as last year, opened a wide-ranging racketeering investigation into a New Orleans escort service after three of its workers allegedly solicited an undercover officer. In 2013, State Police went undercover at two massage parlors in West Baton Rouge Parish and arrested six people after a two-month operation.

Because they don’t sell alcohol, the massage parlors were unaffected by a recent high-profile crackdown by the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, which suspended the alcohol licenses of several New Orleans strip clubs accused of allowing prostitution.

The feds last year charged several people and raided seven massage parlors in Lafayette that were accused of being a part of an international human-trafficking network. But even as the FBI has ramped up its efforts to curb sex trafficking, New Orleans massage parlors appear to have flown under the radar of federal authorities in recent years.

The businesses are often called Asian massage parlors, as the masseuses are most frequently from Southeast Asia, and many of the parlors build that into their branding. The federal interest in erotic massage parlors typically hinges on whether investigators can prove the masseuses are being forced to sell their bodies against their will.

While the feds have made some sex-trafficking busts in New Orleans, however, none has centered on a massage parlor.

Just proving sex is for sale isn’t usually enough to interest the FBI.

“Garden-variety prostitution without coercion — that is not going to get the same level of attention” from the feds, Mike Anderson, the former special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans field office, said recently.

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the main hurdle federal investigators face in building trafficking cases against erotic massage parlors is that the women “have a great reluctance to talk to law enforcement,” a reticence that goes beyond a language barrier.

“Unless these individuals will talk to us, it’s difficult for us to ascertain trafficking indicators,” Cox said.

History of prostitution

When the NOPD took a more aggressive stance toward massage parlors, it wasn’t uncommon for officers to go undercover and arrest women on a misdemeanor or municipal charge after they offered sex; local court records contain dozens of such cases.

In 2010, for instance, vice officers conducted four operations in as many months that targeted the VIP Health Club on Canal Street; the Hollywood Spa across from the Roosevelt Hotel; and the Sakura Spa on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East. All of the investigations resulted in prostitution-related arrests.

At the Hollywood Spa, a parlor that still receives consistently high ratings in online forums, Huong Dinh, 49 at the time, offered to give an undercover officer “sucky and sex” for $200 and then severely injured herself jumping out of a second-floor window of the establishment as officers tried to take her into custody, according to a police report.

Masseuses like Dinh, who had to be hospitalized after her fall, are easily replaced by the parlors, and it’s not uncommon for the businesses to shuffle women between cities. It’s far more difficult for law enforcement to implicate the managers and proprietors of the parlors, who may claim to be oblivious to the “extra services” the parlors offer.

Young and his partners at the FBI needed months to accomplish this in 2002, when they built a case against four women operating New Orleans massage parlors, including Rot Groce, who ran the Bangkok Spa on Iberville Street. (The business remains open today but is known as the Sun Spa.)

Authorities alleged the women paid tens of thousands of dollars in what they thought were bribes to Young, who was undercover, in exchange for police protection.

A few years earlier, the same spa’s operators had paid Russell Nelson, a former New Orleans police officer, some $11,000 over a period of four years to lay off the parlor, help charges against workers get dismissed and provide the business with descriptions of undercover officers. Nelson, who had served on the force for 14 years, was sentenced to a year in federal prison after being caught in a sting.

“If you continue to put pressure on them, they offer you bribes,” said Tim Bayard, a former NOPD captain who led the department’s vice and narcotics squad. “They’ll offer you free sex, gifts, and you’ve got weak-minded policemen who will take them up on this kind of stuff.”

Young, in a recent interview, could not explain why the case against Groce and her co-defendants was dismissed. “There was plenty of evidence,” he said.

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, in response to a public-records request, released documents earlier this year that showed Groce alone had paid police $56,795 in cash and gifts — including a Rolex watch and four Sugar Bowl tickets — that was characterized as bribe money. Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the DA’s Office, noted the case was dismissed under the administration of former District Attorney Eddie Jordan.

After the reviewing the file, Bowman said it appeared the charges had been dropped “due to the fact that certain defendants were victims in an unrelated federal prosecution.” A defense attorney involved in the matter characterized the state’s case as “unwieldy” and sloppy, saying many of the police recordings of the alleged bribe payments were of poor quality.

Bayard said that even though his investigators could not eradicate massage parlors, their frequent investigations kept the businesses on their toes. He said there wasn’t a single instance in his career in which officers went into an erotic massage parlor undercover without making at least one arrest. “We had every massage parlor in the city closed down” at one point, Bayard said.

‘Wide-open operations’

Over the years, many of the parlors have lacked the required licenses to legally offer massage therapy. But the question of who, in practice, is responsible for enforcing these regulations appears to be something of a hot potato.

City law identifies a long list of sex acts that are grounds for suspending or revoking licenses. But Sarah McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, wrote in an email that “state law supersedes city ordinances regarding this for licensing and inspection, except as it relates to zoning and occupational licenses, which City Planning Commission and Revenue Bureau oversee.”

State law forbids prostitution at massage parlors and provides for an obscure agency known as the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy, which fields complaints but, according to its website, “is not allowed by law to regulate establishments advertising massage therapy services but providing illegal services.”

“We will accept the complaints and let local authorities know that the establishment is in violation of the massage therapy licensing laws,” the board says on its website.

The board also lists all licensed massage therapy establishments on its website. Tokyo Modeling — along with most of the parlors targeted by the police — aren’t on the list.

Bayard, the former NOPD captain, described today’s erotic massage parlors as “wide-open operations” that have flourished in a city with virtually “no vice enforcement to speak of.”

“It’s a front for prostitution,” he said. “That’s all it is.”

Advocate staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter @JimMustian.