The woman, facing prison, was visiting her mom in Tarpon Springs.
Published May 2, 2008|Updated May 2, 2008

Most everyone in Sun Valley Estates mobile home park knew that Blanche Palfrey's daughter was the infamous D.C. Madam, whose black books contained names of the country's political elite.

But the national scandal was never mentioned during poolside gossip gatherings or bingo games out of respect for the 76-year-old resident.

On Thursday, the decorum was shattered by Deborah Jeane Palfrey's suicide.

Facing six to seven years in federal prison, the 52-year-old Palfrey fastened a nylon rope around her neck and hanged herself from a metal beam in the shed behind her mother's pink and white home, according to Tarpon Springs police.

The death shocked the quiet park off U.S. 19, where some 75 retirees putter along in golf carts and feed otters in a 3-acre pond.

But people who knew Deborah Jeane Palfrey said she didn't keep her intentions secret.

Dan Moldea, a writer who interviewed Palfrey numerous times while working on a book proposal about her life, said she told him that she would rather kill herself than go to prison. Still, he wasn't expecting this.

"I'm really upset with her for doing this where her mother could find her," Moldea said.

Police said she left behind at least two notes spelling out her plans, as well as notebooks addressed to her mother and sister.

Police gave this chronology for Palfrey's final morning:

She and her mother spoke early in the morning. Blanche Palfrey was tired, so she settled in for a short nap. When she woke up, her daughter was nowhere to be found.

Stepping outside, Blanche saw a tricycle she usually stowed in her shed. When she walked over to the shed, she found her daughter. Blanche called 911 at 10:52 a.m., but rescuers pronounced Deborah Palfrey dead at the scene.

It was a heartbreaking blow to a mother who accompanied her daughter to trial.

By all accounts, Blanche Palfrey is a friendly, outgoing, helpful neighbor who has lived at Sun Valley for about 14 years. Every Wednesday night, she sits down at the community bingo game. She is an active member of the Red Hat Society and the type of neighbor who smiles and waves on the way to the mailbox. At Christmas, her decorations are a highlight of the park.

She raised her daughter Deborah and her sister in the small town of Charleroi, Pa., population 5,000. Deborah's father, Frank Palfrey, worked for a grocery company and died in 2003. The family moved to Orlando in Deborah Palfrey's senior year of high school and she graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Rollins College. Deborah attended law school in San Diego but didn't graduate.

Around Sun Valley Estates, Blanche didn't talk about what her daughter's life had become, said Lucy Workman, 60, a nearby neighbor.

"I figured that if she wanted to talk to me, she would have talked to me about it," Workman said.

But the sordidness surrounding her daughter's arrest and prosecution took a toll.

"I don't think she liked the situation that this daughter was involved in being a madam so she just kind of kept it quiet, kept it to herself," said neighbor Donald Drobney, 66. "There was animosity, I guess, between mother and daughter."

Deborah Palfrey was convicted April 15 by a federal jury of racketeering and money laundering while running a prostitution service. When phone records of her client list were released, a senator was forced to apologize for his "sin" and a deputy secretary of state resigned.

She had denied her escort service engaged in prostitution, saying that if any of the women she employed in her "legal, high-end erotic fantasy service" 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. Palfrey faced a maximum of 55 years in prison but according to sentencing guidelines she was expected to receive only about six years. She was free pending her sentencing July 24.

Around the country, people touched by Palfrey's fall reacted strongly to news of her death.

Retired U.S. naval Cmdr. Harlan K. Ullman, who Palfrey said was one of her clients, said Thursday that he was prepared to file a libel lawsuit against Palfrey for her "scandalous" and "outrageous" allegations.

"But unfortunately my lawsuit is going to go nowhere," he said.

Others remember her more sympathetically.

Cheryl Deep, 52, a classmate of Palfrey's at Charleroi Area High School in Pennsylvania, dug up her yearbook after hearing about the suicide.

"I'm trying to remember her fondly," said Deep, who lives in Northville, Mich.

She said Palfrey was shy in high school and was a member of the school's majorette squad, the Cougarettes.

The two reconnected about six years ago when Palfrey launched an alumni Web site.

"I came to really respect her - her writing ability and her sensitivity to other people," Deep said.

Palfrey's arrest surprised her.

"There was no indication of anything torrid or illicit at all," Deep said.

Prosecutors had asked the judge to keep Palfrey locked up until her sentencing. But the judge refused, saying she was intelligent and knew she would be punished if she tried to flee the country.

Palfrey had spent time behind bars before and didn't relish the experience. She spent 18 months in state prison after being convicted of prostitution charges in 1991.

Moldea, the writer who talked to Palfrey about a book, said that her stay in custody stressed her body so much it had impaired her vision and she refused to go back. "It damn near killed her," he said.

Preston Burton, Palfrey's attorney, released a statement Thursday saying, "This is tragic news. My heart goes out to her mother."

Prosecutors said Palfrey operated the prostitution service for 13 years.

Her trial concluded without revealing many new details about the service or its clients.

David Vitter, R-La., 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."

He was among possible witnesses but did not take the stand.

One of the escort service employees was former University of Maryland at 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."

At her mother's mobile home park, some were more forgiving.

"She's Deborah Jeane Palfrey, not the D.C. Madam," said neighbor Workman. "She's got a name."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Will Gorham and staff writer Tamara El-Khoury contributed to this report, which included information from the Associated Press. Jonathan Abel can be reached at or (727) 445-4157.