Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the "D.C. Madam," once implied that suicide was cowardice but, in the end, she seems to have chosen that same path herself. "She wasn't going to jail, she told me that very clearly. She told me she would commit suicide," author Dan Moldea told TIME soon after news broke of her body being found in Tarpon Springs, Florida, an apparent suicide. Palfrey's body, along with a handwritten suicide note, was discovered by police in a storage area attached to her mother's mobile home. Palfrey contacted Moldea last year to provide her help writing a book. "She had done time once before [for prostitution]," Moldea recalls. "And it damn near killed her. She said there was enormous stress it made her sick, she couldn't take it, and she wasn't going to let that happen to her again." Palfrey had been free pending her scheduled July 24 sentencing on a series of racketeering and money laundering charges as part of running a prostitution ring that had as clients many prominent Washingtonians, including Senator David Vitter of Lousiana. She faced as many as 55 years behind bars (though sentencing guidelines could well have limited her prison time to a maximum of 71 months.)
When a former employee of Palfrey's, Brandy Britton, hanged herself before going to trial, Palfrey told the press, "I guess I'm made of something that Brandy Britton wasn't made of."
Palfrey's trial, which concluded in mid-April with a conviction, is one of very few such cases prosecuted in the federal courts. Most prostitution violations are dealt with at the state or municipal level, and attract little publicity. In the Palfrey case, prosecutors obliged a string of obviously embarrassed clients and employees of the escort service to appear on the witness stand and testify under oath. Nearly all testified that they had engaged in sexual acts in exchange for money, a version of events that contradicted Palfrey's claims that she had been running a high-end sexual fantasy service and that any actual sexual activity was against the rules, and clearly stated when employees were hired.
Palfrey ran her operation which covered the Washington D.C., Baltimore and northern Virginia area by telephone from her home in California. Clients would contact her, often in response to advertisements in Washington newspapers and magazines, and she would set them up with women. According to court testimony, Palfrey would sometimes even contact clients for after-action reports to determine whether her employees were doing their job correctly and enthusiastically.
It was Palfrey's phone records that led to problems for prominent Washington figures once her prosecution got under way. She had thousands of pages, including 10,000 to 15,000 numbers of clients calling in to her California residence. Besides Sen. Vitter, others whose names appeared on those records included Randall Tobias, a senior State Department official in charge of foreign aid who had publicly inveighed against prostitution and who quickly resigned after his name was made public. Harlan Ullman, a well-known military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, was also identified.
According to Moldea, who last year examined Palfrey's phone records and discovered the name of Vitter, a Republican, as a client of Palfrey's escort servie Pamela Martin & Associates the last time he saw Palfrey in person was less than week before her conviction on prostitution charges on April 15. "A friend and I met with Jeanne and we had a sushi lunch near the courtroom," he said. "She was upbeat and hopeful. She felt the prosecution had not made the case and that she was going to walk. She was hopeful to the end." But, when the jury came in with her conviction, she reportedly was taken aback. "When I heard that I knew that, for her, it was all over. There is no question in my mind that she took her own life."
Vitter remains a Senator and has not been censured, despite coming under intense public criticism. Of Palfrey, Moldea said, "I liked her. She was a good person, she was kind, funny, she had a sense of humor, and what she may have done in business, I bring no judgment to that. You have to remember that all those who worked for her service and those who used it none of them were held to account, or punished. And now, she is dead."