(This story ran in The Star-Ledger on June 5, 2005)
To undercover detectives, the woman on the phone sounded a tad old to be running an “escort agency.”
For one thing, she had trouble catching her breath as she described her available call girls. For another, she used the word “dear,” as in, “That’s all-inclusive, dear.”
“You get a feel for how old someone is when you talk to them,” State Police Detective Sgt. Thomas Cornely said. “She sounded like an 80-year-old woman.”
If the accusation is true, Vera Tursi, charged in a statewide sting last month with promoting prostitution, could be New Jersey’s – perhaps even America’s – oldest madam.
The Camden County grandmother, who ambles about with a walker and requires frequent pulls from an inhaler, ran August Playmates from her garden apartment in Lindenwold, dispatching prostitutes to area hotels and homes, authorities said.
Tursi was one of two senior citizens busted in Operation Risky Business, an ongoing probe outlined by investigators May 17. The other, 67-year-old Margaret C. Cook, ran a somewhat pricier outfit, Mam’selle de Paris, out of her home on a nice block in suburban Gloucester Township, police said.
While the investigation has netted 42 arrests so far, it is Tursi who has made the biggest impression on detectives.
“We were a bit surprised by her age,” said Cornely, a supervisor on the case. “I’ve never come across a madam that old.”
Police in Chattanooga, Tenn., turned up a pair of 70-year-old procurers during a sweep of escort agencies in 1999. Sixteen years earlier, a one-legged 78-year-old woman, Mamie Harris, pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution in Buffalo, N.Y., earning her the sobriquet “America’s oldest madam.”
A computer search of a quarter-century of newspaper archives yielded no additional cases, and the director of a New York City group that conducts research on the sex industry said she was not aware of any others.
Tursi, described by police and neighbors as a stooped woman of average height and dyed light brown hair, didn’t answer the door on the two occasions a reporter stopped by her home. And while she did answer the telephone, she had little to say.
“I’m not interested in giving any story,” she said. “I can’t afford to have my name in the paper.”
Cornely said Tursi conducted business by phone from her two-bedroom unit in the Coachman Manor apartments, a large, low-income development about 15 miles southeast of Camden.
Tursi’s apartment is among the tidiest on the outside. Wind chimes and plants dangle from an overhang, and ceramic frogs and squirrels sit on a small patch of mulch, surrounded by flowers.
Neighbors said Tursi ventured out only occasionally, usually to smoke a cigarette. No one suspected she might be involved in anything illegal. Indeed, when police arrived several weeks ago, the neighbors thought she had taken ill and summoned help.
“I’m shocked straight down to my legs,” said Elizabeth Chase, who lives a few doors away. “I’m 82 years old, and I couldn’t dream of doing something like that.”
Neighbor Justino Aguilar, 15, called Tursi a “normal, nice old lady.” The only thing Aguilar questioned was Tursi’s smoking, which seemed a bad idea given the elderly woman’s breathing troubles, the teen said.
A grandson lived with Tursi in the apartment, but Cornely said the man was unaware of his grandmother’s business dealings. The grandson has not been charged.
August Playmates was one of 13 escort agencies or massage parlors targeted in the three-month State Police investigation, and while Cornely was reluctant to discuss precisely how detectives chose Tursi’s operation, he did note that all of the businesses had placed advertisements in the phone book or area newspapers.
“All these businesses are basically a front for promoting prostitution,” Cornely said. “There are no legitimate escort agencies out there.”
Undercover detectives twice called the August Playmates phone number to arrange liaisons with alleged prostitutes. Tursi answered both times, the sergeant said.
“We explained to her that we were looking for a date, and she would go through the descriptions of the girls she had,” Cornely said. “On both occasions, she gave descriptions of three different girls, so she had at least that many working for her.”
Tursi quoted a price of $160 for the hour, “all inclusive,” the sergeant said.
Investigators arrived at her home with a search warrant May 4 and found client records and credit card receipts scattered across a desk in the apartment’s back bedroom, Cornely said.
Tursi wasn’t surprised to see them. Cornely said she’d been tipped off by Margaret Cook, the Gloucester Township madam. Police had arrested Cook two days earlier.
“Vera knew Margaret’s whole situation when we got there,” Cornely said. “It was obvious they knew each other very well.”
Cook, on the advice of her lawyer, declined to comment about her own case last week. But she offered a short, spirited defense of Tursi.
“She’s just a really nice old lady,” Cook said. “She’s the most delightful, darling, wonderful person you could ever meet.”
Cornely said Tursi spoke openly about her business, telling detectives she took over August Playmates a few years ago from her daughter, who died suddenly.
“She said she didn’t have a lot of money and needed something to supplement her Social Security,” Cornely said.
Public records appear to bear out Tursi’s money woes. She declared bankruptcy twice, in 1986 and 1989. In addition, records show an open judgment of nearly $2,000 against August Playmates. A phone book publisher filed the lawsuit, apparently for nonpayment.
Cornely said investigators don’t know how much money Tursi took in as a madam, in part because of her scattershot record-keeping. Of the agency’s $160 hourly fee, the sergeant said, Tursi claimed $60.
Detectives placed her under arrest in her home, but because of her fragile health, they did not insist she come to a State Police barracks to be processed and photographed. In addition to her reliance on a walker, Tursi required regular treatments with a nebulizer, an inhalation device.
Cook, authorities said, wasn’t as willing to talk with detectives when they descended on her single-family house May 2. But her organized and thorough records made up for the lack of communication, Cornely said.
“She had piles of notebook, with first and last names of clients, forms of payment, and what girl was sent to what location,” he said. The records covered five years, Cornely said.
Cook charged clients of Mam’selle de Paris $185 per hour, with her cut amounting to $100, Cornely said.
Tursi and Cook, each charged with a single count of promoting prostitution, face up to five years in prison if convicted. But because neither woman has a criminal record – and given their ages – it’s more likely they’ll receive probation, Cornely said. The women will be notified by mail when to appear in court.
If the arrests proved shocking to some, they were less so to Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project in Manhattan. Under the auspices of the Urban Justice Center, the group conducts studies on the sex industry and its workers.
While Thukral had never heard of a madam as old as 80 – or 67, for that matter – the need for cash affects all age groups, she said.
“People always talk about entering the sex industry because they need the money,” Thukral said. “This case seems entirely probable to me. People work a lot more now. They haven’t saved for retirement. They live longer. People have to support themselves.”