By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008
How delightfully naughty Deborah Jeane Palfrey seemed a year ago, when the erstwhile escort entrepreneur first titillated the nation's capital. How sinfully delicious it sounded when she announced she would make public some records, exposing men who had used her service and women she had hired to indulge her clients' most intimate fantasies.
And what a squalid, pathetic affair it has become.
Four days into Palfrey's racketeering and money-laundering trial in the District, as federal prosecutors seek to prove that "the D.C. Madam" (or "Julia," as she called herself) required her escorts to perform sex acts with customers for cash, jurors have learned perhaps more than they cared to know about the many challenges a prostitute faces at work.
Prosecutor: "Of those 80 appointments, approximately how many times did you have sex?"
Ex-call girl: "Seventy-nine. . . . All except the gentleman who was a quadriplegic."
The jurors have watched a procession of scared, mortified ex-prostitutes (13 so far) reluctantly take the witness stand, forced to reveal their secret former lives in intermittently graphic detail -- a past each clearly hoped was buried forever. Most testified that they grew weary of the business in less than a year and quit.
At $250 for 60 minutes or so, these weren't high-priced call girls, it turns out. They didn't measure up in appearance to the elites in the business. As the women tell it, Palfrey's niche was a middle-of-the-road, largely suburban clientele -- a long way up from the streetwalker trade, but well south of Emperors Club VIP, the four-figure-per-hour call girl outfit that last month proved the undoing of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer.
Defense attorney: "Ma'am, you ultimately decided that this wasn't for you, right? . . . I believe you were tired of lying to your boyfriend, correct?"
Ex-call girl: "Yes."
Defense attorney: "And you're not particularly happy to be here, are you, ma'am?"
Ex-call girl: "Who would be?"
The eight women and six men of the jury, 12 of whom will decide the case, have heard one former prostitute describe the herpes that she said she contracted while working for Palfrey. They've been told about clients' sexual fetishes, regrettable hygiene habits and unsightly skin maladies.
"A subject more appropriate for a private venue" was how prosecutor Catherine Connelly described the case in her opening statement to the jurors in U.S. District Court. "You may find some of the topics embarrassing."
If they do, they're not showing it. They listen patiently, expressionless much of the day, as if they've heard all this before.
Prosecutor: "Did you ever have a discussion with Julia about your menstrual cycle?"
Ex-call girl: "Yes."
Prosecutor: "Could you tell us a little about that, please?"
Palfrey, 52, who ran her Washington area business, Pamela Martin & Associates, from 1993 to 2006, contends that the company was "a legal, high-end erotic fantasy service" with clients "from the more refined walks of life." Her escorts, who were supposed to engage only in "quasi-sexual" game-playing in homes and hotels, were required to be college-educated, well-mannered, conversant in current affairs and tastefully dressed for appointments, Palfrey says.
While running the service from her Northern California home, she says, she was unaware that her escorts were performing sex acts with clients for money. But the U.S. attorney's office alleges that she knew all about it, that it was the true nature of her business.
The escorts collected fees from the clients and mailed Palfrey a percentage of the money in postal money orders. A postal inspector testified that authorities began investigating Palfrey after noticing a suspicious pattern of money orders being mailed to her in California from the Washington area.
Another postal inspector said investigators seized documents at Palfrey's home showing that she employed 132 women as Washington area escorts over the years. Thirteen have testified, two more might be called as witnesses this week, and Judge James Robertson is considering allowing prosecutors to enter hundreds of money orders into evidence, which would put the other 117 names on the public record.
How the unfortunate ones were chosen to appear publicly in the case is unclear. They were issued subpoenas and given immunity that prevents them from invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declining to testify.
They weren't happy.
Courtroom clerk: "Ma'am, please state your name."
Ex-call girl: [mumbles].
Clerk: "A little louder, please."
Ex-call girl (slightly clearer): "Rebecca Dickinson."
Judge: "Move a little closer to that microphone, please. Take two deep breaths and relax. Everything's going to be okay."
Maybe not. Dickinson, 38, is a lieutenant commander in the Navy who moonlighted for Palfrey for six months in 2005-06 while assigned to the Naval Academy. The military, which learned of her escort work from investigators after the fact, said it has placed her on leave pending possible disciplinary action. In the courtroom gallery were a gaggle of reporters jotting down her name, among them a writer for Hustler magazine.
Palfrey, with her bouffant hair and ruby-red lipstick, stepped onto the public stage in March 2007 after being indicted by a grand jury in Washington. To raise money, she announced, she planned to auction the phone records of her defunct escort service (about 10,000 client numbers), figuring a journalist might want to find the men to see if any are prominent.
Her client files had been seized by investigators, and Palfrey said she could recall only a few of their names, none famous. Her offer, which stirred plenty of public snickering and gossip, found no takers, and eventually she gave the numbers to ABC News and posted them on the Internet.
ABC reported finding numbers linked to military officers, corporate CEOs, lobbyists and officials at the World Bank, NASA and the International Monetary Fund.
"I went to see a client in Georgetown, and he doesn't like condoms," one ex-call girl testified, describing the man as a physician with the National Institutes of Health.
The only notable names made public so far are Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has apologized to constituents for an unspecified "very serious sin;" Randall L. Tobias, who resigned as a deputy secretary of state after acknowledging he used the service for massages; and Harlan K. Ullman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who would not comment.
The three are on lawyers' witness lists in the case, but none has been called to testify, and it is possible that they won't appear at the trial, which is to resume today.
Prosecutors have called just three ex-clients -- a landscaper with a history of mental illness and two suburban lawyers you never heard of. No senator. No diplomat. No war strategist (Ullman conceived the high-tech form of blitzkrieg he dubbed "shock and awe").
"I'd hit the gym, work out and at the designated appointment time the person would come to my door," said lawyer Paul Huang, 44, of Rockville, describing his routine. He said he and the escort might have a drink on his deck, get to know each other a little, maybe chat about something in the news. "Then eventually go inside, making out, kissing, clothes would come off . . . and it kind of rolled right into the normal course of man-woman relations."
How often? "Over 100 times" from the mid-1990s until Palfrey "cut me off" in a payment dispute in 2003, he testified. Although every appointment "was about sex, simple as that," Huang said, he allowed that it was also "nice to have someone to hang out with."
Except for the three ex-clients, the two postal inspectors and an IRS agent who showed up to testify with three boxes of documents on a dolly (and did that ever clear out the spectator gallery), the trial has been just a long, sad parade of former prostitutes, some in wigs provided by the government, a feeble disguise, a few dabbing tears on the witness stand.
"I can't say that I remember much about one appointment to the next," said Christy Williamson, 30, of Gaithersburg.
It was just a job -- all in a dreary night's work for women known to clients only by their call-girl names: Angela and Michelle, Natalie and Rita, Renne and Simone.
Angela: "The gentleman and I talked about . . . current events. At one point, we got undressed."
Natalie: "Met up with someone, we spoke . . . then we had sex."
Simone: "We talked for a little bit, and went to the bedroom."