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'I Abhor Injustice,' Alleged Madam Says

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who says she ran a legal escort service, and public defender A.J. Kramer confer after a U.S. District Court appearance in March. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)

"I decided to branch out, so to speak, from my solo state and began working with one or two (maybe three at the most) other women," she said in her California legal pleadings.

She told Thomas Czech, a career Marine who said he dated Palfrey for about two months, that she was an interior designer. Things ended badly, and Czech took out a restraining order against her in San Diego County in 1989.

Palfrey's professional life also took a turn for the worse. Her business crashed when she was arrested in 1990; an employee's angry mother apparently tipped off police. Palfrey employed about a dozen women and would have made $100,000 that year, she said.

She said her employees were "independent agents" and allowed that she should have "done something to police/eliminate such conduct from occurring."

Palfrey was a no-show at her scheduled trial in August 1991. She was captured that October in Montana. She explained to the court that the stress from the criminal proceedings had caused her to flee. Her mother, she said, was so upset that she developed a life-threatening aneurysm and required surgery. She said her parents "just can't comprehend how my offense could be viewed so harshly." Once free, she said, she planned to go into business exporting "authentic American Western and Indian art to the United Kingdom."

Instead, after 18 months in state prison, Palfrey started Pamela Martin. The firm recruited escorts through the University of Maryland student newspaper and Washington City Paper. It advertised in the Yellow Pages and on Web sites, touting itself as "undoubtedly the best adult agency around."

Her career path apparently was lucrative, but not spectacularly so. Prosecutors say she made about $2 million running Pamela Martin over 13 years -- on average, less than $160,000 a year. Her Escondido, Calif., home was valued at about $480,000 last year, and her Vallejo, Calif., house at about $495,000, according to court papers related to their seizure by the federal government.

Recently, Charleroi has exerted a pull on Palfrey as she returned, quietly. In late 2002, she launched a Charleroi Area High School alumni association Web site. On it, she expressed her interest in the Innocence Project for wrongly convicted prison inmates: "Never could stomach injustice, social or otherwise," she wrote, adding a photograph of herself as a young girl with shiny bangs by a Christmas tree.

In 2004, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service launched a joint investigation of Pamela Martin & Associates. Palfrey, who conducted most of her business by e-mail and phone, allegedly instructed her "subcontractors" to convert her share of fees into money orders and mail them to her post office box in California.

Palfrey's legal strategy is to aver she had no idea that the women working for her ever engaged in prostitution. In papers filed in U.S District Court, Palfrey alleged that a former escort identified as Paula Neble and 15 "Jane Does" breached their contracts by engaging in illegal sex. Neble's attorney, Kathy Voelker, said she has "no comment at all."

Palfrey has had a lot of setbacks lately. She says she is "indigent." But she is not likely to go quietly.

"I should just 'cave' and defend myself," she wrote in a recent e-mail. "Otherwise, this ridiculous caricature people seem to have of someone in my position . . . sadly will be at my expense."

Staff writers Carol D. Leonnig and Sonya Geis and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.


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