By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Four self-described former call girls testified in federal court yesterday that Deborah Jeane Palfrey ran her D.C. escort service as a front for upscale prostitution, dispatching young, tastefully dressed women to homes and hotels in the Washington area for $250-an-hour sex with male clients.
Clearly none of the women relished reliving an unsavory past on the witness stand in U.S. District Court, all of them having given up moonlighting as illicit escorts several years ago. Their pained expressions, slumped shoulders and often halting, whispered, euphemistic accounts of what they did for money suggested they would rather have been almost anywhere else.
Two acknowledged longtime clients of Palfrey's now-defunct business -- both lawyers, one of whom started using the service as a law student at Yale University in 1994 -- also appeared less than enthusiastic to be on the witness stand, forced to state for the record their names, ages, places of residence and how many times they paid for sex with Palfrey's well-mannered, college-educated escorts.
How many? Dozens of times, each man said.
"May I go now?" lawyer Paul Huang, 44, of Rockville, said after Palfrey's attorney finished questioning him. Huang wiped his brow. "I have to run seven miles tonight. Run off some of the stress."
Like the women, Huang and Yale graduate Christopher Sorrow, 35, of Arlington were compelled to testify under grants of immunity that prevented them from remaining silent under the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Like Sorrow, Huang later hustled away from the courthouse with a coat over his head, a paralegal from the U.S. attorney's office shielding him from television cameras with a black umbrella.
Whether some of the escorts employed by Palfrey from 1993 to 2006 performed sex acts with clients for money is not in dispute. At issue in the trial is whether Palfrey, 52, who ran the business from her home in Northern California, was aware of the prostitution. She says the sex went on without her knowledge, that the dozens of women who worked for her "high-end erotic fantasy service" were supposed to engage only in legal, "quasi-sexual" game-playing.
Palfrey, who created a public fuss after her indictment last year when she threatened to expose her clients by revealing her telephone records, is charged with racketeering, money laundering and using the mail for illegal purposes.
If yesterday's parade of red-faced witnesses was not enough, more testimony unsuitable for the family hour could come soon from men with higher profiles than the two suburban lawyers.
Palfrey's witness list includes Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who apologized to constituents for "a very serious sin in my past" after his name surfaced in the case in July, though he did not say what sin he had committed. Also on Palfrey's list is Randall L. Tobias, a former deputy secretary of state who resigned last April after acknowledging to ABC News that he used the service for massages.
The prosecution's list includes Harlan K. Ullman, an associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who developed the military doctrine that he called "shock and awe." Ullman has declined to comment on the case.
It's uncertain, though, whether any of the three will be called to testify.
Each former call girl who took the witness stand in Judge James Robertson's courtroom said yesterday that she and Palfrey had a tacit understanding that having sex for money was a condition for employment with Pamela Martin & Associates, Palfrey's business. But they added that Palfrey never talked about it in explicit terms.
"This was a criminal enterprise," said Sharon King, 40, of Leesburg, who testified that she had sex with men about 80 times while employed by Palfrey in 2000. "We knew why we were there."
Each woman said that after she applied to work for Pamela Martin & Associates, she was sent to the home of a longtime client, who then reported to Palfrey on whether the woman was suited to be an escort.
Huang was one of the "testers," as prosecutors call them.
He testified that Palfrey asked him questions: "Was she enthusiastic? Passionate? Was she a dead fish? Something along those lines." He said Palfrey "wanted an honest opinion."
Like the others, Tracie Hoeffel, 44, of Cheverly, who said she worked for Palfrey in 2001, seemed reluctant to describe her job in detail. "I met with this man and had sex with him," she said of one encounter, and shrugged.
Hoeffel said she worked as an escort to help repay graduate school loans. She and the others said they mailed money orders to Palfrey for her 40 to 50 percent cut of the proceeds.
And there were a lot of proceeds, authorities allege.
"How many times did you have sexual intercourse and/or oral sex with a client at an appointment arranged by Pamela Martin & Associates?" prosecutor Catherine Connelly asked Donna Raphael, 29, of Silver Spring.
"Over 100," replied Raphael, who said she worked for Palfrey in 2001 and from 2004 to 2006.
Andrea Detty, 30, of Burke, recalled an appointment at which she said she declined to have sex with a client whom she described as mentally "very slow." When she told Palfrey about it on the phone, Detty said, the boss berated her. "She said, 'If I could come over there and do these appointments and [expletive] these people myself, I would -- but I'm in California.' "
Palfrey's hiring process, it turned out, was not flawless.
A fifth former employee testified yesterday: Fauzia Mack, 46, a Mary Kay cosmetics representative and mother of three from Rockville, who said she answered an Internet employment ad for Pamela Martin & Associates in 2006. She said she thought the company was a "social companionship" firm that would pay her to spend time with elderly people.
She said she wanted to earn money to buy dorm furniture for her daughter. She said she was sent to Great Falls for what she thought would be "an hour of companionship" with a man who eventually asked her for oral sex.
"That was not appropriate," said Mack, who told jurors that she left the house and called Palfrey to tell her what had happened. She said Palfrey fired her in anger.
"She called me a nitwit."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.