TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. - Deborah Jeane Palfrey, dubbed the "D.C. Madam" for having run the Washington-based escort service Pamela Martin & Associates from 1993 to 2006, was found dead today in a small storage shed beside the mobile home owned by her mother, Blanche. While the exact cause of death has not yet been disclosed, police found a handwritten suicide note, whose contents have not yet been revealed.
"I sure as heck am not going to be going to federal prison for one day, let alone, you know, four to eight years," Palfrey told ABC News last year prior to her trial taking place early last month. She was convicted on April 15 of racketeering, money laundering and using the mail for illegal purposes.
"[W]e don't know what the rationale has been for them to go forward with the case, other than the fact that we simply wouldn't fold and give them what they wanted. At that time, I think they pretty much wanted to just take my entire life savings from me," Palfrey told author Susie Bright. "I was obviously sitting on a powder keg of information... I was sitting on something - or they thought I was sitting on something. I was under observation - J. Edgar Hoover-style - from as far back as March of 2004, until the trigger was pulled on me early in October of 2006."
Indeed, the Palfrey case rocked the D.C. establishment for over a year, and included the revelations that Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and several high-ranking Bush administration officials had hired escorts from Palfrey's agency and had sex with them, although Palfrey always denied that she knew her escorts offered anything more than companionship.
Though moderately priced - $250 for one hour's "quasi-sexual game-playing" - Palfrey attracted fairly high-class employees, including Rebecca Dickinson, a lieutenant commander in the Navy who moonlighted for Palfrey for six months in 2005-'06 while assigned to the Naval Academy, and Rhona Reiss, holder of a doctorate in higher education from the University of North Texas, and who later served as director of education for the American Occupational Therapy Association. The women mailed money orders containing her "cut" to Palfrey at her home in northern California, where she ran the escort business.
As with Heidi Fleiss, the "Hollywood Madam," Palfrey's telephone records became a matter of public interest - and a court fight over whether she had the right to sell copies to the news media. Although the Washington Post reported that Palfrey's niche was a middle-of-the-road, largely suburban clientele, a couple of high-profile clients did make the news: Randall L. Tobias, who as a deputy secretary of state created a requirement that recipients of U.S. aid in foreign countries denounce prostitution, and who resigned after acknowledging he'd used Palfrey's service for massages; and Harlan K. Ullman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who helped create the "Shock and Awe" doctrine used during the initial invasion of Iraq. Ullman refused to comment on his dealings with Palfrey.
None of them was called to testify, however.
The Post offered several interesting articles on the case, with political reporter Dana Milbank reporting that, "[P]rosecutors act as if they've caught a major organized crime figure. An IRS agent yesterday showed the jury photos of her home - a mop and cornflakes box in evidence - and recited Palfrey's sewer bill, electricity payment, car maintenance and check to Office Depot. One juror's eyes closed, and her head dropped. Others yawned. 'I'm not sure why the jury needs to see any of this,' the judge pointed out. 'Waste of time.'"
Added Milbank, "The same might be said of the rest of the case."
Indeed, the trial, which lasted the better part of two weeks, produced no "victims," although several of Palfrey's employees and clients testified. All were nervous at having to relate intimate details of their sex lives before the jury of 12, but no one related any ill effects suffered from having either provided or received sexual favors. Yet Palfrey faced over 55 years in prison for her illegal enterprise.
A native of southwestern Pennsylvania, Palfrey told Bright that, "I had no concept of sexuality on any level, or in any way... I was absolutely a virgin in high school... So, you know, my understanding of sex really was very limited. I grew up in such a loving home, with doting parents. I was completely shielded. I had no concept of sexuality."
Had Palfrey lived, it wouldn't have been the first time she went to prison on similar charges. In 1991, Palfrey was convicted of felony pandering for operating an illegal prostitution business in California - a business she started after dropping out of law school - and served 18 months in prison. She reportedly suffered from some severe medical problems during her prison term, and that may have played a part in her suicide.
"Jeane, I am so sorry," Bright wrote today on her blog. "I know you swore to me, and many others, that you [would] never serve another term in prison for prostitution, or anything else. You almost lost your eyesight the first time. I'm sure you asked your lawyers if there was any hope for your sentencing, and I guess it must have looked bleak..."
"Was Jeane suicidal, in the first place?" Bright continued. "Yes, but I'd describe that carefully. She wasn't irrational to think she wouldn't survive another round in a penitentiary; her health was poor. And she was brittle, the kind of person who is aware of her considerable intellect and education, but who finds herself in unlucky and vulnerable situations over and over again.