“D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey played a risky game in catering to Washington’s power brokers with her upscale escort service. Her suicide, this month, marked a tragic—and not unexpected—end for a complicated woman who believed she was unfairly victimized. Having talked to Palfrey for months and spoken with her mother after her death, Vicky Ward tells the whole story.
On May 1, the body of Deborah Jeane Palfrey was found hanging from a metal bar in a shed near the Tampa home of her mother, 76-year-old homemaker Blanche Palfrey. Police reports told of a notebook containing two suicide notes at the scene. Jeane, as she was called—she was better known as the “D.C. Madam.”—had been convicted two weeks earlier in the U.S. District Court in Washington of racketeering, money laundering, and two counts of using the mail for illegal purposes.
For well over a year, Palfrey, 52, had been saying to the press, to supporters, to book publishers, to anyone who would listen, that she was going to set a precedent: unlike so many former madams who had fallen victim to the law—indeed, unlike Brandy Britton, a mother of two and former University of Maryland professor who had once worked as an escort for Palfrey and who killed herself, in January 2007, rather than face trial—she was going to win this fight. She refused to admit that her agency had been anything but a fantasy-sex service. If employees had had actual illicit sex, they had done so without her knowing, she claimed.
The name of the agency was Pamela Martin & Associates, and, according to at least two of the young women who worked for it, it was well known to be the highest-quality operation of its kind in Washington, D.C., thanks to Palfrey’s professionalism. In her brisk, businesslike telephone manner, Palfrey, who ran the service from her home, in Vallejo, California, would demand that employees dress smartly in a style that reflected her own penchant for neat pantsuits, sensible heels, and discreet jewelry—what she called the “Ann Taylor look.” She stipulated that they not drink or take drugs during appointments and that they be punctual. Her “gals,” as she called them, had to be over 23, and they had to have college degrees and day jobs. And, according to Palfrey, they had to sign contracts promising not to copulate or perform oral sex with clients, but they could do “pretty much anything else.”
The women would typically earn $300 plus tips for a 90-minute appointment; they would then send half of the base fees to Palfrey, in postal money orders of under $800, allegedly to help avoid detection. For the most part, the women were careful not to let drop to clients any clues as to their real names or day jobs—“nobody wants a stalker,” explains one—but they included a naval-academy instructor, a blonde legal secretary at the noted law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a real-estate agent, and a financial consultant, who went by the professional name of Rosslyn and who looks like a brunette Farrah Fawcett in her prime. Since retiring from Pamela Martin, Rosslyn tells me, she misses the designer clothes she bought with her supplemental income.
The men who used the agency ranged from C.E.O.’s to store clerks, from terminally ill men and those with seriously ill wives to men on the verge of marriage who wanted one last fling. They included, we now know, former deputy secretary of state Randall Tobias, 66; Pentagon adviser and author Harlan K. Ullman, 67; and U.S. senator David Vitter, 47, a Republican from Louisiana. We know this because, in October 2006, Palfrey learned that the Internal Revenue Service had placed a lien on the Victorian home she was attempting to sell in Vallejo, California, near San Francisco, and had frozen her $2 million in assets. The house had been searched by Troy Burrus, an I.R.S. agent, and Maria Couvillon, a postal inspector from Alexandria, Virginia, who had posed as potential buyers before obtaining a warrant. According to court records, they had begun investigating Palfrey around June 2004. In what appears to be a peculiarly elementary error, Burrus and Couvillon left without 46 pounds of Pamela Martin & Associates phone records, which were gathering dust in the basement. Still, they found sufficient evidence to pursue charges of racketeering and mail fraud. A grand jury was convened in 2006. Approximately 14 former Pamela Martin employees testified, identified in court documents as Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and so forth, and on March 1, 2007, Palfrey was indicted for running a prostitution enterprise. She told Vanity Fair she was offered a plea deal that included four months’ imprisonment, but she turned it down. She kept to the claim that if illegal sex took place, then her employees had broken their agreements with her. In court the women said otherwise, that she merely spoke to them in “euphemisms” to hide the true nature of what was going on.
After her indictment, Palfrey threatened to sell the agency’s phone records to the highest bidder; then, in March 2007, she gave four years’ worth of them to ABC News. As part of her defense, in court papers she filed that same month, she outed Ullman as a client. According to her civil lawyer, Montgomery Blair Sibley, she selected the Pentagon adviser because he had come up with the phrase “shock and awe,” later used for the government’s war effort in Iraq—a fact that would show the prominence and quality of her clientele. Palfrey also said she never liked Ullman, whom she referred to as “Mr. U.” “He was an unpleasant person,” she said.
On May 4, ABC’s 20/20 featured Palfrey, and ABC news lead investigator Brian Ross claimed that Deputy Secretary of State Randall Tobias, a married man, whose mandate included withholding grants from countries with legalized prostitution, had also hired Palfrey’s women. Tobias “was most embarrassed to receive the call,” according to Ross. He resigned the next day, admitting to paying for “massages,” but not for sex.
Suddenly everyone wanted to know who else was in Palfrey’s phone records. She told me there were at least 100 more names worth knowing, and she insinuated that the network had bowed to pressure from the government and withheld them. Indeed, leading up to the broadcast it was rumored that 20/20 knew of a Bush-administration economist, the head of a conservative think tank, a C.E.O., lobbyists, and senior military officials, but their identities were not revealed on the show or later. (ABC denies it came under any pressure. Brian Ross says, “No one wanted to do a more thorough job than me, but the records showing abuse of office at a high level weren’t there in the phone records, dating from 2002 to 2006. I wasn’t going to out low-level analysts in the Pentagon. This is 20/20, not The Pentagon Times.”)
In the ensuing media frenzy, Judge Gladys Kessler, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, issued a protective order blocking the release of phone records to prevent the potential intimidation of witnesses. On July 7, the order was lifted. A few days later Palfrey put the phone numbers, which are not accompanied by names, on the Internet, at deborahjeanepalfrey.com, but first she had her lawyer give the records to Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist in the employ of Hustler founder and C.E.O. Larry Flynt. For years, Flynt has dedicated himself to revealing the sexual peccadilloes of government officials who are hypocritical about morality issues—in December 1998, his efforts stopped U.S. representative Bob Livingston, a Republican from Louisiana, from becoming Speaker of the House by suggesting that Hustler would reveal details of an extramarital affair. Moldea quickly unearthed Senator Vitter’s name from Palfrey’s records. It was supremely ironic not only because of Vitter’s conservative “family values” platform but also because he had earlier replaced Livingston in the House of Representatives. Furthermore, Vitter was the Southern regional chairman for presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who quickly stopped appearing with him. According to Moldea, the records showed that Vitter had called Palfrey five times between October 1999 and February 2001, when he was a U.S. representative.
On July 16, standing side by side with his wife and mother of their four children, Vitter gave a press conference. He allowed no questions, but issued a carefully worded statement, apologizing for “a serious sin,” while pointing out that his wife, Wendy, 46, had long since forgiven him and leaving the impression that this had been a single aberration. (It’s worth noting that Wendy Vitter once claimed, “I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary [Clinton],” whom she criticized for standing by her man.)
Vitter’s fellow Republican senators appeared to forgive him as well; he received a standing ovation from them in a private Senate luncheon in July. Meanwhile, Jeanette Maier, a former New Orleans madam, claimed that Vitter had been a customer of her famous brothel as early as the mid-90s. Vitter dismissed those stories as untrue. On September 11, Larry Flynt held a press conference at which he produced a prostitute from New Orleans who said she had had an ongoing relationship with Vitter beginning in 1999. In response, Vitter’s spokesman, Joel DiGrado, would say only that “Vitter and his wife addressed all of this very directly.”
One would think that Jeane Palfrey would have been delighted to have unearthed a hypocrite like Vitter. She had often said that she was out to expose hypocrisy—the hypocrisy of the oldest profession in the world, for which society punishes the women involved, but seldom the men who patronize them. But when I met her for the fourth time, in early September 2007, her mind had moved on. “This case is not about Vitter,” she said. She talked incessantly of government plots against her and violations of her rights. She was never able to fathom why she was the only D.C. madam being targeted, and this irked her more than the startling revelations of her case. On September 10, in a court filing she listed every single brothel and escort agency she knew of in Washington—83 in total. Her plan, eventually, was to subpoena their records, too.
I first met Jeane Palfrey in early May 2007, when I took her and her lawyer Montgomery Blair Sibley to dinner in New York, just after 20/20 had aired its interview with her. Some of the people in the restaurant clearly recognized her, but for the most part she blended in perfectly. Her dark, shoulder-length hair was glossy and thick, her makeup perfectly applied, her navy pantsuit elegant. She had on drop earrings.
“Look around,” Palfrey said, gesturing at the mostly male clientele. “This is exactly the crowd who used to use my agency. Mostly they don’t notice me, but if they recognize me, either they look appalled or they shake my hand and say, ‘You go girl. I hope you win.’ ”
Palfrey told her story in a way that made it hard not to sympathize with and even admire her. She grew up in rural Charleroi, Pennsylvania, population 5,000, about 20 miles outside Pittsburgh. “She came from a decent family and, despite quarrelling with other majorettes in the local band, she was a quiet person in high school,” recalls Stacy Wolford, now a reporter for the local newspaper, the Tribune-Review. Palfrey’s father, Frank, worked for a grocery company, while her mother stayed at home. There was a younger sister, Roberta Lynn (“Bobbie”), three years Jeane’s junior.
After high school, Palfrey got a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Later she enrolled in law school, but did not complete her degree. When asked why not, she sighed. “I guess women from my generation just thought that tomorrow they’d marry the right man, and there’d be no need for that,” she said. “In retrospect, I did the wrong thing.” In 1988, however, she did complete a nine-month paralegal course, in San Diego.
Her personal life was erratic. As she put it, she “wasted 15 years” on two men, both of whom were married and, she claimed, took a while before telling her. The first, she said, was now a very high-ranking figure in government. “Believe me, I am well aware he is squirming, wondering if I am going to name him,” she told me, looking amused.
She shook her head.
The second was a Marine, whom she met after moving to San Diego, in 1985, and who later accused her of stalking him, even obtaining a restraining order. He claims he was single when they met, but Palfrey wouldn’t let go after he married another woman. “I didn’t stalk him,” she said. “I just wanted closure from him.”
At some point in the late 80s, in San Diego, Palfrey met people in the escort business and got involved herself. “I was doing interior design, waiting to get married and have children,” she said. “But by the time I’d got through with my two big love affairs, I was 40. I was making $20,000 or $30,000 a year on interior design. It wasn’t nearly what I could have made.”
Suddenly, in the midst of our interview, she looked tired. “That’s when I just gave up,” she said. She didn’t go into details other than to say that she “made some stupid mistakes” in trying to start an upscale escort business in San Diego, which never got off the ground and never made her any money.
In 1993, Palfrey opened Pamela Martin & Associates, in Washington. She knew that the capital was full to bursting with lonely men separated from their families during the week, and it had a steady stream of businessmen in its many large, anonymous hotels. She knew too that the town’s women were educated and ambitious. And she also knew that this was a place where sexual lines got crossed all the time behind closed doors. She thought of a name for her agency: “I wanted to be Pamela Mason, James Mason’s wife,” she said, “so the closest thing was ‘Martin.’ ” Her own handle was “Julia,” after the Dixie Carter character on the 80s TV series Designing Women.
Virtually all the women who worked for Palfrey were in it for one thing: the money. “They needed to pay off college loans, or put themselves through college or their children, or pay for that condo their day jobs couldn’t get for them,” Palfrey said. She saw herself as the enabler who empowered them.
In general Palfrey felt a little sorry for the men who called. “I think it takes a certain amount of loneliness for anyone to call the number advertised,” she said. She added that 80 percent of her clients were repeat customers. One, a former lobbyist, wrote to her not long ago: “I am not ashamed I used Pamela Martin & Associates. In fact some of the best women I have ever met in my life I met through Pamela Martin. I lived on the Hill, and the first time I called I had a knock on my door an hour later with a woman who was as beautiful as Sophia Loren. I was fed up with the uptight lawyer, lobbyist, hillstaffer women I had been dating, and was I ever pleased the next several years.” Another client, a former military officer, wrote to her that the agency had gotten him through a depression following service in the Balkans and the end of a relationship.
The Palfrey employees I spoke to seemed to have enjoyed their work and considered Palfrey a good boss. “Jennifer,” the former legal secretary at Akin Gump, tells me she was treated better at night than during the day, when the men in the office and some clients referred to her as “the blonde” and “slapped her on the ass.” She says she did not feel obliged to accept every appointment Palfrey offered and that she dictated the terms of each. She says that sometimes all clients wanted was “to spend 90 minutes discussing [the television program] Dancing with the Stars.”
“Rosslyn,” the Farrah Fawcett look-alike, says over a sushi lunch that, being half European, she doesn’t have a particularly puritanical view of sex: “I thought, You go on dates, and you have sex for free, so what is the difference?” She found that working as an escort made her more tolerant of men and softened her to the point that she now feels able to get married. “They really showed their vulnerable side, weren’t afraid to talk about anything,” she says. Her clients included well-known businessmen and Arab princes, and she was flown by clients to five-star resorts and to islands in the Caribbean.
Palfrey’s “gals” admired their boss’s non-interfering managerial style. As long as they sent half of the fees via money order to her home, in California, how they had spent their appointment and any tips they collected were their business. The only directives Palfrey issued were in her so-called newsletters, which the government produced as evidence that she clearly knew her employees were having sex. These included instructions, for example, “to always bolt the door and search the place thoroughly and let the man get naked before disrobing oneself,” as well as to brush one’s teeth and dress appropriately.
Jennifer says that Pamela Martin was “known to be the classiest outfit in town.… I don’t know if you’ve ever called any of the other agencies, but they don’t sound like Jeane Palfrey on the other end of the phone,” she says. When she was 20, Jennifer tried to work for Palfrey, but was told to come back when she was over 23. “I wanted women, not girls,” Palfrey told me at our first meeting.
But, it turns out, maintaining Pamela Martin & Associates’ professional image was not Palfrey’s sole reason for wanting only mature, intelligent women on her payroll. Papers from a 1991 conviction for attempted felony pimping, for which she served an 18-month jail sentence, show she was arrested in San Diego after the mother of one of the escorts in her first agency informed the police her daughter was having illegal sex. Local female police officers pulled off an undercover sting.
Palfrey’s own account of her jail experience was desperate to the point of heart-rending and may shed light on why she apparently decided to take her own life rather than return to prison. She wrote a long, rambling letter to the court begging for lenience, describing the assaults—verbal and physical—she received from other women in jail. One would stick her “fist in both my throat and face” on a daily basis, she wrote. Palfrey called it her “Nam” experience.
Her minister in San Diego, the Reverend James E. Smith, visited her in jail and subsequently wrote to the judge: “Jeane can be a dynamic person and I don’t see this in her eyes when I visit her.” Palfrey wrote to the judge that she had plans for an art-export business between the U.S. and the U.K., that she had gotten into the sex industry as a last resort. She promised never to dabble in it again.
Within a year of her parole she’d broken that promise and started Pamela Martin. Why?
“Once I was a felon, my options were limited,” she said. “My life had gone down the tubes, my looks had gone down the tubes, my health had gone the tubes. I spent a year physically recovering. I went virtually blind … because the stress almost did me in … I had no choice but to re-enter the business and this time to do it the right way.”
Eventually, Rosslyn began to think she was being followed on appointments. She told Palfrey she wanted to quit the business, and although Palfrey was reluctant to let her leave, after a while she did.
By then, running the operation from the West Coast, Palfrey may have felt a false sense of security about law enforcement back in the D.C. area. Many have observed the puzzling fact that this whole thing started with the I.R.S. in Alexandria, yet no charges of tax infringement ever surfaced in the trial.
Rosslyn, however, recalls that, in the early 90s, Palfrey learned that somebody was on to her and had to vacate a house outside Maryland with her records, with less than 10 minutes to spare.
At our first meeting, Palfrey and Sibley brought up a complex conspiracy theory as to why she had been busted. She believed her agency got named as part of a plea deal struck by a former public official convicted in a corruption scandal. “I think [there was fear that] this woman is sitting on a powder keg of information that we’re just monitoring to make sure she doesn’t do anything,” Palfrey speculated.
If A. J. Kramer and later Preston Burton, Palfrey’s court-appointed criminal attorneys, even knew of Palfrey’s theory, clearly they were not convinced. There were rumors that the investigation into Pamela Martin began because one of the girls’ boyfriends tipped off investigators. Burton said that no matter what the origins of the case, they were irrelevant when it came to fighting the charges.
Burton is a sandy-haired lawyer of considerable criminal experience. He has represented C.I.A. spy Aldrich Ames and Monica Lewinsky. Back in July, he explained during an interview in his K Street office, in Washington, that he was glad to have been handed the case, though he admitted he thought Palfrey was “different.” He could not have foreseen that by September she would try to replace him with Sibley, who was more receptive to her theories. A colorful lawyer, Sibley had taken on another high-profile sex escort case in the past—defending an alleged pimp named “Big Pimpin’ Pappy”—and he was not afraid of annoying other lawyers, or even judges, with his generous use of the subpoena.
As summer wore on, Jeane Palfrey grew more and more desperate.
She told me she could cope with the fact that the neighbors in Vallejo were sneering—she had never befriended them anyway—and the flag on her lawn had been cut up. She could also cope with the hate mail she received, particularly from her former schoolmates in Charleroi, where she had been part of a group rehabilitating the area.
Palfrey went on a media blitz, appearing on television programs like Geraldo at Large and the Star Jones Show, each time trying to distract the interviewer from asking about prostitution by going into alleyways of theories that she was a target of the government. Though he stopped short of saying this, it was clear during our interview that Preston Burton didn’t like all the public appearances and thought it imprudent of Palfrey to expose herself so.
In the fall Palfrey went back to Washington and the legal battle took on new life. First, on September 6, Burton was handed what is known as Jenks material, which consisted of the testimony of five original Pamela Martin “gals,” who, it turned out, had spoken to government agents in 2006, before Palfrey’s house had been searched.
Palfrey believed that in order to get a search warrant for her house, the government omitted crucial testimony from these women that would have backed up her claims. According to Palfrey, the women said things like “Jeane never asked me what happened” and “Jeane didn’t make me go to an appointment,” which the government did not include in its bid for a search warrant, she claimed.
Palfrey wanted Burton to go to court and have members of the prosecution removed from the case. She even called Burton a “wuss.” “This guy is a former U.S. attorney,” she said. “It was too much for him to believe that the whole system had done the wrong thing by me.” So, on August 22, she stood before Judge Kessler and asked her to appoint Sibley, the one man Palfrey felt would not be afraid to take on the country’s legal system.
Kessler bluntly told Palfrey she would not appoint Sibley to be her lawyer, since there was “nothing to suggest that he is equipped to handle a case as complex as this one or a case in which a defendant is facing … a maximum sentence of 55 years in jail.”
In a rather dramatic courtroom scene, Sibley suddenly spoke up from the back of the room, and Palfrey told the judge that if the court would not appoint him she would like to hire him on her own. Kessler asked for time to consider this; she asked Burton for his opinion. Burton said he “was speechless.”
In mid-September the subpoenas from the defense started to fly, written and issued by Sibley, still not officially Palfrey’s criminal lawyer. They were sent to a wide and extraordinary list of people, including newspaper columnist Cindy Adams (who had reported that Palfrey was set to fire Burton and therefore was felt by Palfrey to “have a mole in the Justice Department”), Brian Ross and ABC, and even Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. According to Sibley, Palfrey sought Leahy’s testimony for “his knowledge of the ‘corruption’ of the justice system by political influence,” as evidenced by his outspoken criticism of the Justice Department, mainly over the brouhaha surrounding the firings of U.S. attorneys.
On September 27, Palfrey filed a motion to have Kessler disqualify herself from the case, since Palfrey felt she was biased against her, particularly because she would not let Sibley sit next to her.
On October 4, I spoke to both Sibley and Palfrey. Sibley told me he intended to appeal to the circuit court. Palfrey added they were prepared to go to the Supreme Court to get Kessler off the case if need be.
Sibley also said he would subpoena every escort service in town and had already spoken to Verizon in an attempt to get all their local records; he was going to rip Washington apart and find out why Palfrey had been singled out, scorching the earth as he went.
Palfrey, meanwhile, reminded me that a whole year had passed since the start of her ordeal. “I still haven’t had one day in court,” she said. “I was entitled to that 30 days after they broke into my house. Here I am, judge-less, lawyer-less, and my pre-trial-services officer just went on holiday.”
“Happy anniversary to me,” she said, still with some gusto.
In the end Judge Kessler was unavailable for Palfrey’s trial and Judge James Robertson oversaw the case. Sibley, however, was still not able to represent Palfrey—Burton remained her defense lawyer when she strode into court in April. Palfrey’s last e-mail to me, written on February 26, 2008, indicated that she feared what was coming, though her tone was as feisty as ever. She reiterated that she and Sibley were determined to figure out why she had been targeted.
“Without doubt I am in the fight of my life,” she wrote, calling her case “bizarre.” She concluded that, if she was convicted, the length of her sentence would realistically be 10 to 15 years, which, she wrote, would be “tantamount to a life sentence … stripping me of some of the most productive years remaining in my life.”
As we now know, it was not an experience she was prepared to endure.
Blanche Palfrey told me a few days after her daughter’s suicide that Jeane had felt utterly betrayed by what her “gals” had said on the stand. She and Burton had felt that in cross-examinations they had proved that she had not explicitly asked the girls to have sex with clients. Following the verdict, Blanche says, her daughter came with her to Florida and cried for two weeks. Jeane told her mother that she simply could not face a jail sentence and that she didn’t believe Burton’s attempts to appeal would work. (Burton expresses deep regret at his client’s fate, saying there was a good chance she might have received a shorter sentence than the recommended guideline of five to six years, and that the verdict might have been challenged based on a possible irregularity in how the government obtained its search warrant. “If we had prevailed on that issue, she might have gotten a new trial,” he says, adding that he was not aware how close to the edge she was. “To say it’s a tragic outcome is an understatement.”) The fiercely independent woman whose motto had been “Live free or die” had given up, her mother says. “The strain was too much,” Blanche tells me. “She just could not take any more.”
Around 10 a.m. on May 1, Jeane came downstairs and told her mother she was tired. “Why not rest?,” Blanche asked. “Yes, I think it’s time to rest,” her daughter replied. Later that morning, Blanche noticed her bike had been pushed out of the garden shed. She ran to Jeane’s bedroom. It was empty. Then she ran to the shed and found Jeane’s body. She called 911 in a panic.
The suicide notes reaffirmed everything she and her other daughter, Bobbie, already knew. “I cannot live the next 6–8 years behind bars for what both you and I have come to regard as this ‘modern day lynching,’ only to come out of prison in my late 50’s a broken, penniless, and very much alone woman,” Jeane wrote. “Surely you will not live long enough to see any possible release, and Bobbie likely will be unable to shoulder the responsibility of a sister who will be nothing but a mere shell of her former self.”
Like Jeane, Blanche desperately wants to know why Pamela Martin & Associates was singled out. “Someone, please, has to help me find out,” she says.