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Call Her Madam : Elizabeth Adams Likens Her Business to a Finishing School; Police Call It the Classiest Brothel in Town

Times Staff Writer

The maid has brought in a plate with several jumbo shrimp curled in a pink heap and hands it to the woman on the vast, pillow-piled bed.

Elizabeth Adams cleans the shrimp swiftly, chopping them into shreds and piling them onto a blue and white Chinese saucer.

A smoke-gray Persian cat that has been lolling across a Battenberg lace pillow on the antique mahogany desk steps loftily onto a marble-topped table, and thence onto the bed. The shrimp is for him, as it is every day.

“So handsome,” purrs the heavyset woman fondly, explaining that Georgie the cat, the king of a clowder of a dozen adored Persians, is “the love of my life.” And if, at age 55, the time comes that she has to go to prison, well, that’s what would break her heart--leaving Georgie.

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When she first bought this house in the hills above the Sunset Strip, Elizabeth Adams had it painted green, mindful of the old wives’ notion that lucky green attracts money.

And so, allegedly, it has.

From this blue and white bedroom, police say, Adams--a.k.a. Alex Fleming and a half dozen other names--has run the most lavish, the most lucrative and perhaps the most genteel prostitution business on the West Coast. It was, they say, an international network dispatching charming young women to Saudi princes and millionaire businessmen, to costly Beverly Hills hotel suites, to Europe, to Bahamas cruises.

Below, beyond the line of sight of the swimming pool and antique-appointed rooms, are the gone-to-seediness stretches of Hollywood, where raw and rough hookers turn a trick for as little as $20, and some men argue for a discount. Up here, police say, elegant young prostitutes--some of whom have adorned the pages of magazines like Penthouse--were sent forth to ply a pricier trade: $300 for two hours, $1,000 a night and $2,000 a day for out-of-town trips.

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The sums were paid without a murmur, police say, by men like a sheik who ordered up a companion for his son’s Colorado ski trip; often there were tips--cash, diamond trinkets. One woman reportedly found her baksheesh outside: a Mercedes with a mink coat draped over the seat.

It was an enterprise managed for almost a decade by the thin reins of a telephone cord, police say, connecting Adams to the women who earned the money, and to the men who paid it. Of each $1,000, $400 went to Adams herself, often at a rate of $100,000 or more a month, police allege.

The money, the quality of “girls,” the caliber of clients, says Los Angeles Police Detective Alan Vanderpool, made Adams’ business “the best,” the top of the pyramid of the hundreds of prostitution services of every stripe here.

But pandering is illegal, whether the toll is $20 or $2,000. And with two arrests this spring, prosecutors are seeking to put an end to the discreet business Elizabeth Adams allegedly ran from the white bed in her orchid-filled master bedroom, catering to a network of rich clients on almost every continent.

“I had a very good run,” Adams says of an enterprise she describes as “like a dating service.”

“If it was legal, I wouldn’t give it up, ever. The wonderful people you meet, people you’d only read about. Mostly it’s lonely people who want a beautiful companion who’s nice and polite and well groomed and listens to them. People call them hookers and prostitutes,” but such clients “wouldn’t be seen with girls like that.”

Besides facing a preliminary hearing in November on felony charges of pandering and receiving stolen property, Adams is under investigation for money laundering, officials say.

From four other prostitution-related arrests since 1972, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Ferrero, came one early felony conviction, one misdemeanor guilty plea, fines and probation.

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“I didn’t want to file a felony that would end up as a misdemeanor,” Ferrero said in court last month. “Anything that happened in the past was not going to happen again.”

For a long time, police say, they knew what Adams was up to. Getting to her was another matter.

Detectives Vanderpool and Patricia Corso routinely bust escort service women who are happy to turn in their panderers. Those who worked for Adams, according to Vanderpool, and who he said numbered as many as 150, were altogether different--defiant and “so loyal.”

Little wonder. Adams was their fairy godmother to a jet-set life. Girls who may not have finished high school suddenly saw New York restaurants flung open for them, were handed $1,000 for a day’s shopping in Hong Kong, sailed the Caribbean aboard yachts, sources said. “It’s just like going on a date, but you get paid for it,” Adams said in a tape-recorded talk with an undercover policewoman posing as a prospective prostitute. “You never made money like this in your life.”

It was, police say, strictly a telephone business; Adams knew her clients by voice. Trying to crack so impenetrable a setup, a policeman once flew to Chicago, checked into a hotel and phoned Adams back in Los Angeles to persuade her he was a lonely out-of-town big-shot.

Even when they did arrest her, says Administrative Vice Capt. James Docherty, “madams never did get (jail time)” before mandatory sentencing was adopted six years ago.

Court files hint that Adams might have aided law enforcement over the years, which she denies. She testified last month to having “conversations” with but never “fingering anybody” to an Organized Crime and Intelligence Division detective. “He was my friend,” who visited her after her arrests “to commiserate with my misfortune.”

In any case, Docherty said, “when somebody wants to (make a) deal, you have to deal up . . . and how do you deal up from her position? She can’t give us anybody who’s bigger in her business.”

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Adams “may know some people that are of interest to OCID and maybe the information is worthwhile (to them), but we don’t deal among divisions.”

‘A Personal Crusade’

In pretrial hearings, Adams’ attorney, Richard Sherman, moved unsuccessfully to have charges dropped, alleging prosecutorial and police misconduct and a “personal crusade” by Vanderpool against Adams.

Sherman alleged that officers had sex with call girls during a 1982 Westside “sting” operation. But a woman who made the charge, Docherty said, “disappeared, and we could never interview her. We tried every which way possible to find out, and nothing . . . there was no criminal conduct or no misconduct on the part of the officers that we could ever find.”

And Adams prospered, Docherty said, “a multi-buck, big-time madam.” There is no vendetta; “she was dropped in our lap,” he said, by one Russell Lucas.

For a few months in 1987 and 1988, Lucas cooked for Adams’ household. The woman who had introduced him to Adams was Gretchen Westreicher.

According to Lucas and court records, he and Westreicher kindled a romance. They moved to a loft to house-sit the owner’s objets d’art, and when the owner didn’t pay them what Lucas says he promised, the couple began selling things to Adams--a Miro print, a Limoges bowl. (Lucas and Westreicher have since married, and grand theft charges against Westreicher were later dropped.)

Later, though, the couple quarreled, and an “upset” Lucas said he went to police in February and agreed to take an undercover policewoman to Adams as a prospective “girl.”

On Feb. 29, records state, a young blonde policewoman was ushered into the hillside house and recruited. “Get a passport,” Adams allegedly told her. “Paris, Geneva, you get to see the world.”

In April, police sent to Adams’ house one of the alleged “girls,” who was facing charges of bouncing a check for a BMW. After a recorded conversation, another pandering arrest resulted.

Prosecutors sought a million dollars’ bail, noting that Adams, if convicted, faces a minimum mandatory three-year prison sentence. They also were worried, they said, that she “has been offered asylum in Saudi Arabia.” At present, Adams is free on $210,000 bail.

Last month, still another search warrant was issued, for evidence of money laundering. Adams’ Brentwood antique shop, Melange, closed in 1987 after months of negligible sales; on a March arrest report, Adams was listed as an “unemployed laborer.” Yet she apparently has house payments of nearly $5,000 a month. Where, investigators asked, were those thousands coming from?

Adams sits up and fluffs her gray dress, one of those smocks in whose pockets police say she habitually carries a roll of $100 bills to tip those who have done her a nice turn.

“What am I laundering?” Adams asks. “I’m the worst mathematician--I can’t balance checkbooks, I don’t want to bounce checks, so I pay cash.

“It’s so bizarre, " she says with a sigh, and for a moment, one doesn’t know whether she means her life, her arrests, or both.

The Manila-born woman, of Filipino, German and Spanish descent, came here more than two decades ago. She was by turns a florist, a mother, a widow and an antique-shop owner. By her own account she was approached by a local “English madam” to buy out her client “book.” A second “book,” Adams says, came with another madam’s name--Alex Fleming. And Alex Fleming she has been.

Even before the arrest, she wanted to retire to “a nice quiet life.” She has diabetes now. “I wanted to open a fat farm in Washington state,” she says.

What is with the police? she wonders. “What do they want to nail me for? After 14 years, how ungrateful can they be? For nine years, whenever they needed something from me--and I’m not talking about information--I was here,” she says, stressing her denial that she provided information to police.

“How could they listen to a low-life scumbag like (Lucas), and treat me like that? . . . If I see I’m going to go up in smoke, I’ll have someone call Time and People and tell them about the misconduct and how they (the police) treat their quote friends.”

She once called up a detective and kidded him: “Why don’t you take the business and use it for sources of information?” She smiles at the thought. “For some reason, when it’s sack time, (men) make revelations. . . . (The women) hear things that the State Department would give its eyeteeth for.”

In all the movies that passed the old censorship code, film makers had to tote up the wages of sin by the end of the picture--vice brought ruin, illicit love was punished.

If Elizabeth Adams were to make her own film, there would be no such reckoning.

“This business really should be legalized,” she says, sighing. “Not only that,” she adds, “if they legalized it, the girls would pay taxes.”

Pimping and pandering laws were for the old days, for “tough, mean women” who enslaved girls. Those who worked for her, she says, are “happy,” as pampered as her cats, refined in etiquette and dress. “Where do you learn poise and style? It’s the greatest proving ground for girls.”

“Four of my girls married into very prominent families--my alumna,” she giggles, rocking onto the pillows. “They’re so polished. These people improved their lives, thanks to me.”

Others would rewrite her glossy ending, detectives Vanderpool and Corso among them.

For starters, there is a scent of drugs and violence, they say, about almost any lawlessness. An affidavit says an informant saw cocaine change hands at the hillside house, for example.

On the stand, Westreicher admitted she was frightened. Vanderpool testified that Westreicher told him that she had heard Adams say “that if any of her girls ever turned against her, she’d have them killed and dumped in the ocean.”

Then there is a ruthless finiteness to rarefied prostitution. The first policewoman Lucas brought to Adams was too old, she allegedly said, for the “cutoff age"--25.

“I don’t care how good (women) like Alex are to her girls,” Vanderpool said. “Alex drops them and she goes on with her life. There’s always new girls out there.”

And lavish living can be as addictive as any drug. “That’s the way you think life is gonna be forever, but it’s not,” Vanderpool said. “It always stops.”

One woman who worked for Adams said although she was thrilled to finally get a real paycheck, with deductions for “normal” things--pension plan, dental care--she missed the high life. “I wish you and I could live the way I was living,” she told her boyfriend wistfully.

The woman, who asked not to be named, said some made it--to movies, to rich marriages, even law or medical school, wringing from “the life” what they needed and getting out. Others sniffed the money away on cocaine, or spent it on boyfriends, she said. She heard that one woman who made a fortune in the business, lost it on drugs and a man, contracted AIDS and is now, in her late 20s, “a bag lady . . . turning tricks on the street for $20.”

Lucas said Adams told women “about the parties and the glamour, but she doesn’t tell them when they’re 25 it’s all over, and what are you gonna do for the rest of your life? I always thought it was a victimless crime, but where are those girls now?”

The marble steps are new, and so is the paint. Adams says she is redecorating the house to rent. It is done in her favorite blues and greens and the best pieces from her antique collection. Those stolen things she is charged with buying--she says she did so unwittingly, to help a former “girl” who needed money: “I have Imari and Delft and Steuben and Lalique . . . on my worst day I wouldn’t be caught buying that stuff.”

Just look around--the Empire mahogany, the vitrines of Staffordshire figurines and pre-Columbian pottery: “Does this look like a bordello?” she asks, confidently rhetorical.

There is one little thing, and she points it out with a Cheshire-cat smile.

Over the loo in an upstairs bathroom hangs a framed, faded scrap of wallpaper. It comes from Lulu White’s place, Mahogany Hall, turn-of-the-century New Orleans’ most deluxe, most sybaritic brothel.


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