D.C. madam's mystery death: The Orlando connection

Orlando Sentinel | May 2, 2008
By Willoughby Mariano

Deborah Palfrey went to Tarpon Springs to see her mom, who found her hanging by a nylon rope in a shed.

Four days ago, the woman known as the "D.C. Madam" stood in the lobby of her condominium building near downtown Orlando, musing about the future.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey said she was preparing for federal prison. She hoped she'd get time off her sentence for good behavior. She thought she might buy a place in Germany one day.

On Thursday, Palfrey was found dead, hanging by a nylon rope from a metal beam in a backyard shed near her mother's home in Tarpon Springs, on the coast 100 miles west of Orlando. Police said it was an apparent suicide.

"It's hard to believe," said Joseph Strizack, a condominium-association manager at Park Lake Towers who got to know Palfrey during her decade as an owner there. "She did not seem the least bit distraught."

Palfrey's 76-year-old mother, Blanche Palfrey, found her daughter after waking from a short nap, Tarpon Springs police Capt. Jeffrey Young said. She was searching for her daughter when she noticed a three-wheeled bike had been moved outside of the shed where it was kept.

Just after 11 a.m., Blanche Palfrey went inside the shed, where she discovered the body. Deborah Palfrey, 52, left behind two separate notes and a notebook with other messages to family, Young said.

"Mom is very distraught," Young said. "Discovering your child in this state is not something you want to go to."

A 1979 graduate of Rollins College in Winter Park, Deborah Palfrey became notorious because of her upscale escort service, Pamela Martin and Associates, which federal prosecutors said made $2 million during its 13 years in business.

Her client list included Washington's political elite, including U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican and married father of four who apologized publicly last year for using Palfrey's services.

Senior State Department official Randall Tobias also was on the list and resigned from his post after the scandal broke. Palfrey also named Harlan Ullman, author of the "shock and awe" combat strategy, as a client.

On April 15, a federal jury convicted Palfrey of money laundering, using the mail for illegal purposes and racketeering in connection with her escort service. Palfrey had denied her business engaged in prostitution, saying that if any of the women engaged in sex acts for money, they did so without her knowledge.

The trial concluded without revealing many new details about the service or its clients. Vitter was among possible witnesses but did not take the stand.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia said that under sentencing guidelines, Palfrey faced five to six years in prison. She was free until a sentencing hearing scheduled for July 24.

Palfrey's death was the second suicide associated with the case.

A woman who worked for the escort service, former University of Maryland professor Brandy Britton, killed herself in January 2007 before she was scheduled to go to trial on prostitution charges.

Palfrey said afterward that she was humiliated by her prostitution charges but added: "I guess I'm made of something that Brandy Britton wasn't made of."

There was no evidence Palfrey had been using drugs or alcohol, but a toxicology review will determine whether there were substances in her blood. Blanche Palfrey had not noticed that her daughter was despondent or seen any signs of suicidal behavior, Young said.

Still, Deborah Palfrey confided that she hated the idea of living behind bars, said Dan E. Moldea, a Washington writer who befriended Palfrey while considering writing a book about her. He recalled a conversation over dinner last year when the subject of prison came up.

"She said, 'I am not going back to prison. I will commit suicide first,' " Moldea recalled.

During her trial, the D.C. Madam was cautiously optimistic, even when the case went before the jury, he said. After the verdicts, Moldea sent her an e-mail but didn't hear back. A week later, he said he sent another note titled "A Concerned Friend" asking whether she was OK.

Again, he didn't hear back.

On Monday, Palfrey arrived at her two-bedroom, two-bath corner condominium at Park Lake Towers, where she often stayed on trips to visit her mother, Strizack said. She had owned the Orlando home since 1996, but it was up for sale.

Palfrey was a pleasant, meticulous person, Strizack recalled. She treasured her privacy so much that she once sued the condominium association because it kept a key to her unit.

She did not draw attention to herself, but when she talked to you, she was clearly well-organized and in control, he said.

On Monday, Palfrey seemed no different. She carried clothing, briefcases and suitcases down the stairs from her second-floor apartment to a rented car in the parking lot, stopping to chat as usual.

She told Strizack she was taking her property to her mother's home in preparation for prison. Contrary to the U.S. Attorney's Office estimate, she told the condo manager she thought she might spend six or seven years behind bars.

On one trip down the stairs, she lugged a 2-foot-wide box she suggested carried materials related to her infamous court case.

"This is my evidence," she told Strizack before carrying it out the door.