By Paul Duggan and Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 2, 2008 2:20 PM
TARPON SPRINGS, Fla., May 2 -- Deborah Jeane Palfrey, facing a likely prison term of four to six years for running a Washington area call-girl ring, apparently hanged herself Thursday in a storage shed behind her mother's mobile home in this small Gulf Coast city, authorities said.
Dubbed "the D.C. Madam" after a grand jury in Washington indicted her 14 months ago on prostitution-related racketeering charges, Palfrey, 52, was found by her 76-year-old mother, Blanche Palfrey, with whom she had been staying recently.
In tapes of her 911 call released Friday morning by Pinellas County authorities, a distraught Blanche Palfrey begged for help after finding her daughter.
As the operator asked for her location and phone number, Blanche Palfrey, in a sobbing, heaving voice, repeatedly said, "Oh my God." Asked if her daughter was still hanging, she replied, "Yes. I can't move her. I'm 76 years old."
Deborah Palfrey was scheduled for an autopsy Friday morning at the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office, according to Tarpon Spring Police Capt. Jeffrey P. Young, who said several detectives were planning to attend.
Palfrey repeatedly told journalist Dan Moldea last year that she would rather die than live behind bars, Moldea said.
He said Palfrey -- who was incarcerated for 18 months in California in the early 1990s after being convicted of running a prostitution ring -- told him on three occasions: "I'm not going back to jail. I'll kill myself first. I'll commit suicide first."
"Those were her exact words," said Moldea, who interviewed Palfrey last spring and summer for a possible book.
After a weeklong trial in U.S. District Court in Washington that included graphic testimony by 13 former call girls, Palfrey was convicted April 15 of financial racketeering, money laundering and using the mail for illegal purposes. Allowed to remain free while awaiting her July 24 sentencing, Palfrey went to Tarpon Springs to stay with her widowed mother.
Palfrey's death brought an odd legal twist Friday: Officials said the jury's guilty verdict will be thrown out now that she's dead.
It is standard practice for authorities to file an "abatement of prosecution" motion with a court if a defendant dies before the end of a criminal proceeding. Palfrey's case had not ended because her sentencing was pending and she had filed a notice that she planned to appeal her conviction.
Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, said prosecutors will begin the process of vacating Palfrey's conviction when they receive documentation of her death from officials in Florida.
On Thursday, police in Tarpon Springs, 30 miles north of St. Petersburg, said Blanche Palfrey called 911 shortly before 11 a.m. to report a gruesome discovery in the white shed outside her residence in the Sun Valley Estates Mobile Home Park.
Capt. Young said at a televised news conference that the elder Palfrey awoke from a nap and began looking around for her daughter. He said she noticed a tricycle in the yard that was normally in the shed.
"Upon entering the shed located on the west side of the residence, Blanche Palfrey discovered her daughter, Deborah, apparently hanged herself using a nylon rope from a metal beam on the ceiling of the shed," Young said.
Young said police found "approximately two" suicide notes in the mobile home, along with "some type of notebooks that had just notes to the family and so forth."
According to neighbors, Deborah Palfrey did not socialize and rarely left the mobile home, where Blanche Palfrey has lived for 14 years.
Young said that when the mother and daughter woke up Thursday, "they were both kind of tired. The mother said, 'I'm going to go take a nap real quick.' And that was the last she had talked to her."
He said Blanche Palfrey -- the diminutive woman with short curly hair who often accompanied her daughter to court during her trial last month -- had "no indication" that Deborah Palfrey intended to end her life. Young said Blanche Palfrey told police that her daughter did not appear anguished "to the point of committing suicide."
The U.S. attorney's office in Washington, which prosecuted Palfrey, offered condolences to Blanche Palfrey in a short statement Thursday but declined to comment further.
Lawyer Preston Burton, who defended Palfrey at the trial, also declined to discuss her death beyond saying, "This is tragic news, and my heart goes out to her mother."
Palfrey's civil attorney, Montgomery Blair Sibley, who was helping her fight a government effort to seize her assets, called her death "a great personal tragedy" and said, "I don't have any comment except to say that I'm devastated."
The medical examiner in Pinellas County will make an official ruling on the cause and manner of Palfrey's death when police finish their investigation, Young said.
"Obviously, the mother's very distraught," he said. "Discovering your child in this state is not something anybody wants to go through."
ABC News reported on its Web site that Deborah Palfrey said in an interview last year that she would never return to prison.
"I sure as heck am not going to be going to federal prison for one day, let alone, you know, four to eight years," ABC quoted her as saying.
Appearing on ABC's "20/20" program a few months after her indictment, Palfrey spoke of Brandy Britton, a former college professor who hanged herself in her Howard County home in January 2007 shortly before her scheduled trial on prostitution charges. Palfrey said Britton had once worked for her.
"She couldn't take the humiliation," Palfrey said. "Her whole life was destroyed."
Moldea said Palfrey's 18-month California prison term was a terrible memory for her.
"The first time she did time, it damn near killed her, she told me," he said. "She wound up in a fairly tough prison, and the stress caused some sort of an illness that affected her eyesight. It was just a horrible, horrible period for her."
After Palfrey was released, Moldea said, "she began looking forward to what she was going to do with her future. Although she had a college degree, she viewed herself as a convicted felon who couldn't do anything else. So she came to Washington and got back into the business again."
Her business, Pamela Martin & Associates, was a "legal, high-end erotic fantasy service," Palfrey said. The mostly young women she hired as escorts were required to be college-educated, socially refined and conversant in current affairs. She dispatched them to homes and hotels in the Washington area for what she said was "quasi-sexual" game-playing with male clients, at $250 an hour.
She said she had been unaware that many of the 132 women she employed from 1993 to 2006 were engaging in sex acts with clients for money.
But a jury agreed with federal prosecutors, who argued that Palfrey knowingly ran the business as a front for prostitution.
Palfrey caused a stir in Washington after her indictment when she gave volumes of her phone records to ABC and posted them on the Internet, resulting in public identification of some prominent clients.
An IRS agent testified at the trial that the business, which Palfrey ran by phone from her Northern California home, took in about $2 million over the years.
Moldea said he and Palfrey had lunch April 11, during the trial. "That was the last time I saw her," he said. "She was upbeat. She thought she was going to walk. I think she felt confident that the government hadn't made its case."
The place where she died, Sun Valley Estates, is a community for people ages 55 and older, with dozens of mobile homes lined on small streets with clean-swept sidewalks and driveways.
Neighbors said Blanche Palfrey has kept to herself in the past year since the scandal involving her daughter broke.
"She's tore up," said a woman who lives across the street, declining to give her name.
Her husband added, "It's a terrible thing for a mom to find her daughter like that."
Duggan reported from Washington. Staff writers Petula Dvorak, Allison Klein and Carol D. Leonnig and staff researcher Madonna Lebling, all in Washington, contributed to this report.