Deborah Jeane Palfrey was blunt at times, rambling and conspiratorial at others in a 1991 letter explaining to a judge why she jumped bail and skipped out on her trial for prostitution-related charges in California.
“Prison is an absurd and unthinkable horror for me to embrace for simply being an enterprising business person,” she wrote. “For God’s sake, I was only running an escort service!”
Now, 16 years later, Palfrey, 51, of Vallejo, Calif., is accused in federal court of running a Washington, D.C.-based prostitution ring. Prosecutors fear history will repeat itself, now that a judge has rescinded a requirement that Palfrey submit to electronic monitoring while she is free on pretrial release.
Palfrey, who ran the escort service Pamela Martin and Associates, is charged with racketeering and money laundering associated with prostitution. Her case has garnered wide attention ever since she told reporters that her client list included prominent Washington officials and supplied ABC News with phone records that might verify her claims. The network plans to air a report on Palfrey’s case Friday night on its “20/20” newsmagazine.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler agreed this week to end Palfrey’s electronic monitoring. Her pretrial release supervisors in California requested the change, saying her frequent travel, including trips to Washington for court hearings, made the monitoring unwieldy.
Prosecutors objected, reminding Kessler of Palfrey’s history of fleeing.
But the judge noted that Palfrey has shown she is complying with court orders and is required only to check in by phone with pretrial services three times a week.
When Palfrey was to have gone on trial in San Diego Superior Court in 1991, she never showed up, instead leaving behind a long, rambling letter with her lawyer. In it, she claimed — much as she claims now — that her lawyers failed her and that police and prosecutors were out to get her.
She said she fled because she “cannot find justice. ... Instead I have found a system replete with dirty rotten cops, avaricious and jaded defense attorneys and prosecutors who have no conscience at all,” she wrote.
Pleaded guilty to attempted pimping
She was arrested a few months later in Montana at the Canadian border. It is not clear whether she was leaving the country or seeking to re-enter. She was later sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to attempted pimping.
In court papers connected to her sentencing, she blamed a nervous breakdown for her decision to flee.
“(It) was not an act of irresponsibility, but one of fear and confusion and poor defense counsel,” she wrote.
She also promised to change careers and become an art dealer. “There is no intent on my part to re-enter the escort business,” she wrote.
In the current case, she has also complained about what she calls prosecutorial misconduct and her court-appointed lawyer. Kessler agreed to give her a new attorney because of “irreconcilable differences.”
Palfrey, who has told reporters she ran a “legal, high-end erotic fantasy service,” gave ABC News 46 pounds of her phone records before a judge’s order barring her from releasing them took effect. She said she hoped that the network could match the phone numbers to customers who would testify that they received only legal services from the escorts.
Palfrey is using court-appointed attorneys because the government has seized most of her assets, accusing her of laundering more than $2 million in revenue she generated over 13 years.
Reportedly oversaw 130 escorts
Prosecutors have said in court papers that she employed more than 130 women as escorts during that time. Palfrey says the women signed contracts promising that they would not engage in sexual activity with customers.
A lawyer for Palfrey said Thursday that a Naval Academy instructor was one of the service’s escorts, and ABC reported that a secretary at the prominent Akin Gump law firm was another escort.
ABC has said that the list of customers includes a Bush administration economist, a prominent chief executive officer, the head of a conservative think tank, lobbyists and military officials.
Last week, senior State Department official Randall Tobias resigned from his post after ABC confronted him about his use of the service. Tobias confirmed to ABC that he used the service but denied having sex with the escorts.
And in court papers filed last month, Palfrey said that Harlan Ullman, a military consultant best known as an author of the “shock and awe” combat strategy, was a regular customer. Ullman has said the accusation does not merit a response.