Word that convicted “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jean Palfrey committed suicide Thursday morning shocked Capitol Hill, where Palfrey’s most famous known client, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), was going about his day’s work.

Palfrey, 52, whose prosecutorial saga ballooned into a full-fledged political sex scandal, was found dead around 11 a.m. in a shed behind her mother’s mobile home in Tarpon Springs, Fla., according to police. Detectives say she was the victim of “an apparent suicide by hanging.”

Her demise stunned defense attorneys around town, who described Palfrey’s suicide as every defense lawyer’s worst fear.

Palfrey’s lawyer, Preston Burton said, “This is tragic news, and my heart goes out to her mother.”

Another D.C. defense attorney, Barry Boss, told the Sleuth, “The whole thing, from start to finish, had a real sense of tragedy for her, her employees and her customers. If this were Shakespeare or the opera, it would seem like a fitting final act.”

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, contending that her company was “a legal, high-end erotic fantasy service” with clients “from the more refined walks of life.” (Jay Mallin — Bloomberg News) The tragedy of how Palfrey wound up taking her own life in a trailer park was eerily foreshadowed in an interview she gave ABC News last year as she awaited trial on prostitution-related charges of racketeering and money laundering.

She vowed that she would never again return to prison. (She had already served time in the 1990s on other charges involving prostitution.) “I sure as heck am not going to be going to federal prison for one day, let alone, you know, four to eight years,” she said.

Palfrey faced up to 55 years in prison for her conviction on April 15 by a federal jury of running a prostitution service. She was free pending her July 24 sentencing.

Palfrey’s was one of the most widely dropped names around Washington for many months last year as the town’s chattering class — namely the media — contemplated a trial that had the potential to humiliate scores of important men at the highest echelons of politics. That never came to pass, though Palfrey did make a name for herself nationally when she provided ABC News with thousands of pages of her phone records last summer.

Though it had titillating potential and most of Washington waited with bated breath for a knockout sex scandal that would implicate high-level politicians, the biggest name on that particular set of phone records was Randall Tobias, the State Department’s administrator of foreign aid programs, who resigned as a result.

But it was a gumshoe reporter working for Hustler publisher Larry Flynt who nabbed the most high profile name of all on Palfrey’s client list: Senator Vitter, whose telephone number showed up six times on Palfrey’s escort service’s phone log between 1999 and 2001, when he was a House member.

Palfrey later posted her phone records on the Internet.

Vitter famously apologized last July for committing “a very serious sin” in his past, but he has so far avoided any political fallout for his involvement in the escort service. He luckily narrowly avoided having to testify last month at D.C. Madam’s trial.

Palfrey claimed all along that her service provided “erotic fantasy,” not actual sex. And she planned to rely on the testimony of her clients, including Vitter, to back up that claim, though ultimately her defense rested its case without calling any witnesses.

The senator’s office did not return a phone call and email seeking reaction to Palfrey’s suicide. Around the time that the story broke Thursday, Vitter was seen walking from the Capitol back to his office in the Senate Hart office building, where just Wednesday night, the Louisiana National Guard hosted a crawfish boil, which Vitter attended.

(Note: While Palfrey’s middle name routinely was spelled as “Jeane” in news accounts throughout her legal ordeal, police in Florida say the name on her California-issued driver’s license was Deborah Jean Palfrey.)

By Mary Ann Akers | May 1, 2008;