The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Lady Vanishes, Again

I wasn’t expecting the traffic. In fact, it was the last thing from my mind when, late last week, I read the news that Deborah Jeane-Palfrey — a/k/a “The D.C. Madam” — committed suicide. I shouted the news to my husband, over the din of Dylan’s babbling and Parker “watching” a Tivo’d television show while playing with his race cars, and then I just thought what damn shame it was.

And how I wish she hadn’t done it. I realized that some part of me was rooting for her; wanting her to come out on top, even if only after serving a few years in prison. I remember thinking, not that anyone else in particular should have been one of the two (at least) casualties in this story, but about the significance of who was on that casualty list, and whose career’s weren’t.

But I wasn’t thinking about traffic until I noticed an uptick in visits, and the search term that seemed to be leading visitors to an old post.

Around the time of Palfre’s trial, I’d written about Brandy Britton, an employee of Palfrey’s who’d committed suicide on the even of her own trial for prostutition.

But, honestly, that wasn’t the kind of story story thought about when I first heard Palfrey’s story. Rather, it reminded me of a story of another woman in the metro D.C. area involved in prostitution, whose story ended very differently.

She was a former college professor who had lost almost everything — her stellar academic reputation, her financial well-being and her anonymity in the swanky suburban neighborhood where she was accused of working as a high-priced prostitute.

With Brandy Britton’s trial planned to start next week, the former University of Maryland Baltimore County professor apparently took her own life over the weekend, hanging herself in her living room, Howard County police say. A family member found the body Saturday afternoon. Police say they do not suspect foul play.

It was a grievous end to a life that friends and colleagues say was once filled with remarkable promise and ambition.

…Her trial date on four counts of prostitution — which she had decided to fight in a jury trial instead of accepting a plea agreement — was set for Monday. Police would get a chance to air their version of Brandy Britton: that in her $400,000 home at the end of a cul-de-sac where children ride Razor scooters and moms drive minivans with soccer decals, Britton had been selling herself as a call girl.

She called herself Alexis, police said and advertised on a Web site that described Alexis as a “quintessential ‘brick house’ ” and “sophisticated, refined, educated and articulate. She has two Bachelor of Science degrees, one in biology and the other in sociology. She also holds a Ph.D. from an elite university.” It continued: “An athlete, cheerleader and dancer in high school, Alexis . . . is extremely flexible in excellent shape.”

In a sting, Howard police sent an undercover officer to her house last January and arrested her.

Britton appeared to be troubled, and her story is complicated as a previous Post article makes clear. But in the article on her suicide, her attorney poses an interesting question.

In a statement yesterday, Flohr said that Britton’s death “underscores an important question: Was the public benefited at all by the resources spent on her arrest and prosecution? As we ponder the apparent senselessness of her passing, we must openly wonder about . . . a criminal justice system that seeks to punish a person rather than heal them.”

Britton’s name came up in reports of Palfrey’s suicide.

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.”

But it turns out she was made of the same stuff. And I find myself asking about Palfrey the same question that was asked in the wake of Britton’s suicide: “Whas the public benefited by all the resources spent on her prosecution?” What exactly was gained by her prosecution?

It’s been suggested that some had something to gain from Palfrey simply vanishing from the scene, taking with her anything thus far not revealed.

All over the Internet, from reader comments on The Lede to the far misty corners of conspiracy-theory land, hardly anyone seems inclined to accept the initial police judgment that Ms. Palfrey simply committed suicide. A quick search turns up scores of variations on the same theme: She knew too much about too many powerful men, so it must have been murder. (More about all that in a minute.)

…Back to the dead-women-tell-no-tales story line: It seems to be widely taken for granted that Ms. Palfrey had more, bigger, juicier names to name than the handful of prominent customers who have surfaced — Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, who has clung to office; Randall L. Tobias, who had to resign his senior State Department post but who soft-landed as head of the Indianapolis Airport Authority; and Harlan Ullman, a top military strategist who advised the Bush Administration.

Whether she actually did remains open to question, though. She famously gave ABC News her business phone records, and their scrub, while not 100 percent comprehensive, failed to turn up any other major notables, just some midlevel bureaucrats and military officers. (Part of the cover-up too, the skeptics say, unsurprisingly.) And Ms. Palfrey herself has said that she didn’t know who most of her customers really were: they used false names and transacted in cash, for the same reason her employees did. Ms. Palfrey even tried (unsuccessfully) to subpoena ABC’s results for use in her defense, which meant that she either genuinely didn’t know or was prepared to go to elaborate lengths to avoid being seen to have named them herself.

But, having lost in court and been sentenced to prison, perhaps she had nothing to lose. I think, however, the theorizing about possible conspiracies is due to the nagging — if unnamed — feeling that someone’s getting away with something here.

Why do we feel so sad?

…Maybe we feel sad because of the gendered irony. The powerful men whose names surfaced in the scandal, the ones who did not appear in the courtroom, who did not have to discuss their menstrual cycles publicly, have all remained unscathed.

David Vitter is still that good-looking junior senator from Louisiana. Harlan K. Ullman (creator of “shock and awe”) is listed as a senior associate on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Former State Department official Randall L. Tobias, who previously oversaw AIDS relief, promoting abstinence and a policy requiring grant recipients to swear they opposed prostitution, slunk back to Indiana after his resignation. There, he was appointed president of the board of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. The city’s mayor said that America “believed in second chances.”

We anticipated that Palfrey would be sentenced to a few years in prison, do her time quietly and then emerge like Heidi Fleiss, like Lil’ Kim, like Martha Stewart, like any number of the bad girls for whom a prison sentence functions as a cleansing ritual, a path back into society’s embrace.

She wouldn’t have had a permanent shunning. There would have been book deals, movies, forgiveness, VIP tickets to charity balls. People can forget almost anything these days.

Especially what’s not revealed in the first place. It’s one thing to read the claims of a professional dominatrix that Bush is bisexual and was a bad boy in the BDSM world, but it’s another to identify phone numbers and the powerful names connected with them. It could be that there were unexploded bombshells in the Palfrey’s records or in what she knew. (Whatever happened to those 30 names Larry Flynt was going to reveal?) Or it could be that there never was anything explosive there. But, we’ll never know now. The lady has effectively vanished.

Depending on which possibilty is true, that could be the point.

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