The woman convicted of running a high-end Washington prostitution ring that snagged a senator killed herself Thursday, police said, weeks after she was convicted on charges she vowed not to go to prison for.
The body of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, 52, was found in a shed near her mother's manufactured home about 20 miles northwest of Tampa. Police said she left at least two suicide notes and other writings to her family in a notebook, but they did not disclose their contents. The mother found Palfrey, who had apparently hanged herself with nylon rope from the shed's ceiling.
A man who answered a phone listed for Palfrey's mother declined to comment. But defense attorney Preston Burton, who represented Palfrey in her criminal trial that ended last month, said: "This is a tragic news and my heart goes out to her mother."
Palfrey's 76-year-old mother immediately called 911.
"Obviously the mother's very distraught, discovering your child in that state," said Capt. Jeffrey Young of the Tarpon Springs Police Department. Young added that Blanche Palfrey had no indication her daughter was depressed to the point of being suicidal. There's no early indication that alcohol or drugs were involved in the death, he said.
Authorities said Blanche last spoke to her daughter earlier that morning, telling Deborah Palfrey she planned to take a quick nap.
Young said the FBI was notified about the death, "due to the ongoing cases we knew Ms. Palfrey had in the Washington area," but they are not investigating.
'This is a real bad tragedy'
Erwin Matthews, 73, who lives five houses down from Palfrey's mother in a community of mostly retirees, said he and his girlfriend heard Blanche Palfrey screaming around 10:30 a.m.
"She said: 'My daughter's hanging there by herself,'" Matthews recalled. "That's when everybody went running over there. This is a real bad tragedy."
Palfrey was convicted April 15 by a federal jury of running a prostitution service that catered to members of Washington's political elite, including Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican. She had denied her escort service engaged in prostitution, saying that if any of the women engaged in sex acts for money, they did so without her knowledge.
She was convicted of money laundering, using the mail for illegal purposes and racketeering.
But the trial concluded without revealing many new details about the service or its clients. Vitter was among possible witnesses, but he did not take the stand.
Channing Phillips, the spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the District of Columbia, said that under sentencing guidelines, Palfrey faced 57 to 71 months in prison. She was free pending her sentencing July 24.
"I am sure as heck am not going to be going to federal prison for one day, let alone, you know, four to eight years here, because I'm shy about bringing in the deputy secretary of whatever," Palfrey told ABC last year when she released phone records that revealed some of her clients. "Not for a second. I'll bring every last one of them in if necessary."
Prosecutors said Palfrey operated the prostitution service for 13 years.
Vitter: 'Very serious sin'
Vitter, a first-term senator who is married and has four children, has acknowledged being involved with Palfrey's escort service and has apologized for what he called a "very serious sin." But he avoided commenting further.
Besides Vitter, the trial also concluded without the testimony of military strategist Harlan Ullman or Randall Tobias, a former senior State Department official. Both men had been named among possible witnesses.
One of the escort service employees was former University of Maryland, Baltimore County, professor Brandy Britton, who was arrested on prostitution charges in 2006. She committed suicide in January before she was scheduled to go to trial.
Last year, Palfrey said she, too, was humiliated by her prostitution charges, but said: "I guess I'm made of something that Brandy Britton wasn't made of."