On a quiet street outside an abortion clinic in Charlotte, Sallie Saxon clutched a Bible, closed her eyes and prayed.
It was a clear morning a few months ago, just cool enough so that mist rose off a nearby lake and Saxon wore a quilted white jacket over blue jeans.
She is a pretty woman, slender, with a Southern lilt to her voice and full lips she highlights with cherry-red ChapStick. Her cheeks have none of the usual lines of age. Her hair is colored honey-blond. The only hints that she is 61 are the age spots on her hands.
"Dear Lord God," she prayed, "thank you for bringing us here today where we can hear the sounds of the beautiful lake and the birds - sounds of life. Yet we know this is not a place you condone. We pray that there will be at least one lady who will choose life today."
You may remember Sallie Saxon from a photograph taken in 2007 as she was being led away in handcuffs on charges she ran a multi-million dollar prostitution business. She wore a leopard coat over her shoulders and had a client list that threatened to expose some of Charlotte's richest and most prominent men.
The "SouthPark Madam," TV newscasts called her.
At the mention of the photograph, Saxon frowned. "I'm tired of that leopard coat being thrown over my shoulders," she said. "Would you like to have it?"
The coat is symbolic of a sinful lifestyle she now disdains. She is a born-again Christian, and she speaks with regret about her years as a prostitute and with disgust about certain men and their sexual perversions.
Her new passion is ending abortion, and she is eager to spread that message. That is why, despite misgivings, she said she agreed to tell her story, from the rise and fall of her HushHush prostitution ring, to her baptism in jail, then back home with her husband, Don, and weekly prayer vigils at the abortion clinic.
"I have no more secrets," she said. "With the courage that God gave Don and I to come back to Charlotte, we have nothing to hide any more."
But she is still hiding other people's secrets. She holds damning information about the men who were once her clients, and that is what continues to intrigue people about Sallie Saxon - and threaten some of them.
'Let us help you, honey'
Early one morning, she was at the abortion clinic as usual, on Latrobe Drive near Wendover Road. She was reading aloud an anti-abortion prayer, when a nurse pulled in.
"She hates us," Saxon confided and prayed: "Forgive us, Lord, for how we feel about the girl coming in here."
The manager drove up next and the sight of him aroused more prayers of confession.
Soon patients arrived. Saxon peered through a hedge that separates the public sidewalk from the private lot and called to a woman in a soft voice she might use to comfort a child:
"Please, mother, let me give you some information."
Then to a man driving a car: "Sir! You chose life for your own daughter. Please don't take her in there. Sir! We're praying for you. Please know that God loves you regardless."
And to the girl in the back, she implored: "Let us help you, honey. You don't have to do this. You have other choices."
Saxon said she knows what it's like to feel trapped. Several times in the last few years of her prostitution business, she said she wanted to quit but felt she had no choice.
"I want no sympathy," she said. "I am not a victim. I chose my way."
Two sides of Sallie Saxon
In interviews with people who knew Saxon before and people who know her now, two images emerged:
The reclusive madam who delighted in gifts of David Yurman jewelry from well-connected clients, and the anti-abortion crusader who has launched a website (http://www.salliesaxon.com) and a Facebook page, and hands out brochures promising "a true story of God's redeeming love."
"She is smart and tough, and extraordinarily controlling," said an acquaintance who, like so many people, didn't want her name in this story. "As you get to know her, you can see why she ran such a successful operation."
Saxon talks openly about what she did. But some people won't talk about her. They don't want to be publicly connected in any way with the stigma of her former life. She said she doesn't blame them. She doesn't want her family or friends caught up in her mess any more than they already have been. She doesn't want more bad publicity for her former clients. Not for their sake, but for the sake of their families.
"Think of their wives," she said. "If you can't think of their wives, think of their children. I don't care about the men. But I do care about their wives and children."
'I was horrified'
Like many women who resort to prostitution, Saxon was abused by men.
Her grandparents helped raise her and exposed her to some of the best that Charlotte society has to offer. She took piano, ballroom dancing and etiquette classes. She attended Myers Park United Methodist Church, dined at Charlotte Country Club and modeled for Ivey's and Montaldo's department stores.
But in her early teens, she said, an older man abused her. At 18, she got pregnant and was forced to marry. Even then, Saxon refused to have an abortion.
She said her husband came home from the Vietnam War a changed man, and their marriage turned explosive. He would later serve time in prison for assaulting women. She said she tried to kill herself, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given shock therapy. She still takes medicine for bipolar disorder and sees a psychiatrist once a month.
She got into prostitution, she said, out of desperation. It was in the late 1970s. She was divorced and struggling to support herself as a sales trainer for a chemical company.
She was in her late 20s, good-looking and in need of quick cash. "There was this guy up at the City Club, and we would go have lunch," she said. "I was pretty much of an arm piece. He asked me, would I like to make some money."
She said he arranged for her to have sex with his friends and business associates.
"The first time, I was just horrified, horrified. I felt like I needed to take a Brillo pad. Once you do that and you violate yourself and you become hard, the second time is easier. And the third time gets even easier."
From mistress to escort
One man led to another, from the City Club to the Speedway Club and eventually, she said, to a relationship with a married businessman. She said he bought her a car, paid her rent on a two-bedroom apartment in southeast Charlotte, paid her bills and gave her spending money.
"I was all into appearance, into myself, into cars and money," she said.
The more provocative she looked, the better. "You're in it before you realize and you're caught up in it. I'm liking the money. I'm liking the jewelry."
And liking the sex?
She said she felt used, and it angered her.
"I wish you could sleep with one of these clients," she said. "They don't respect you and when they leave, you feel absolutely filthy."
After a couple of years, she said the married man dumped her for another woman and she found work with an escort service. That didn't last long. She said she went on a call to a motel room one night and discovered other men hiding in the shower. She fled. "I lost my high heel, I left my purse, my jacket and my blouse was ripped."
It was around 1980. She began prostituting herself, and hired other women to work for her.
'A cesspool of sin'
Saxon married and divorced two more times before she met Don Saxon in 1988. She had enough call girls working for her by then that she no longer sold herself.
"He was innocent, accepting, nonjudgmental, a sweetheart," Saxon said. "He wasn't a client. He's the first man I truly loved, the first man who truly loved me."
She worked out of their home in southeast Charlotte, a 1,600-square-foot ranch on Coatbridge Lane, where she grew roses and fed bluebirds. Don Saxon worked for a dental company.
"I went to work making crowns and implants and she arranged meetings," he said. "It was just business. When you love somebody you overlook whatever they do. After awhile you can rationalize anything."
Saxon prided herself on running a high-class operation. She hired women with college degrees, and let them keep 70 percent of the fee. She set up assignations in SouthPark hotels, and she said she required them to use condoms.
"I gained a reputation as being fair and good," she said. "That consoled me that I was a 'good person.' And I was not a good person. I was exploiting women."
Including the wives of her clients?
"I was hurting all of them," she said. "It's all a cesspool of sin. You don't think you're hurting anyone. You're thinking only of yourself."
She was breaking the law. Selling women for sex is illegal in the United States except in parts of Nevada. But not just that. She sent women into a world of AIDS, venereal disease and mental, emotional and physical trauma.
"I would be so hurt to think that some young woman in a desperate position read this story and saw glitz and glamour," Saxon said. "High-class, low-class, you can get herpes and AIDS. It's all sin. It's all rotten. It's all dangerous."
Smart and controlling
As the Internet exploded, investigators said, so did her business.
She taught herself to navigate the web and launched hushhush.com and asouthernlook.com. Investigators said her call girl ring was one of the most sophisticated in the country, with 1,200 clients and hundreds of prostitutes over the years. On any given day, she said, as many as six women would be working for her, each hooking up with one man or with several.
An undercover officer first heard about HushHush around 2000, after Saxon had been in the business for 20 years. But investigators said it took seven more years to gather enough evidence to bring charges.
"A lot of criminals have common sense. They're shrewd," said Thomas Cullen, a former U.S. attorney in Charlotte who prosecuted the case. "Saxon is high-IQ smart."
When a client arrived at a hotel, she required both him and the woman to call her. She sometimes made the man strip naked while he was on the phone so the prostitute could make sure he wasn't wearing any sexual devices or wasn't an undercover officer.
She rarely left her house, rarely met the prostitutes or clients in person. Most knew her over the phone as Sandy or Cassandra. Toward the end, she got a cell phone with a 404 area code - Atlanta's area code - hoping people would assume she had moved there.
Don sometimes collected her take from the prostitutes, but they didn't know he was her husband.
"She did a very good job of insulating herself," said Matt Grimsley, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detective. "We had to go through great measures to get to her."
All about making money
Investigators said Saxon's clients included businessmen, doctors, lawyers. She found out intimate details about their lives, from their Social Security numbers to their sexual preferences.
She charged them an $1,800 membership fee and up to $700 an hour, with credit card and PayPal accounts. One man paid $10,000 for a weekend in Chicago with a prostitute.
Occasionally, she said, a wife would line up a prostitute as a birthday gift for her husband.
"It was not a good life," Saxon said. "I had no friends. I alienated my family. I tried to buy their love with expensive gifts. ... They knew I was up to something."
She said she turned against Don, and threatened him with divorce. "I treated him terribly at times because I was so angry at myself. I wasn't real easy to live with. You wouldn't have liked me. I was just totally focused on making money."
A prostitute who had a falling out with Saxon over money provided the evidence that eventually led to her arrest.
For about a month in fall 2007, investigators taped Saxon's phone calls. "She's a smooth talker," detective Grimsley said. "But she's brutal if you don't do what she wants."
A calculating businesswoman, said Bruce Lillie, an assistant Mecklenburg County district attorney who prosecuted two of her clients on solicitation charges.
"I don't see how you could say you're taking care of women that you're sending into extraordinarily dangerous and criminal situations," Lillie said. "When the girls would come back and complain about how they were treated, she would go on a verbal rampage about the client, about men in general. But she would send the girls back out to them."
'I am free!'
In her new life as a born-again Christian, Saxon marks the day of her arrest, Nov. 2, 2007, as her birthday. "I am free!" she wrote in her Bible while in the Mecklenburg County Jail. And: "I cry and beg for mercy. Psalm 6. My bed swims with tears."
She said a chaplain baptized her in the jail by sprinkling water on her head.
"God forgave me," Saxon said. "The biggest thing I had to do was to forgive myself."
People often turn to faith after a jarring experience, said professor Peter Judge of Winthrop University's Philosophy and Religious Studies Department. "You not only are forced to look at yourself," he said, "but you come into contact with others and that forces you to look at things in a new way."
While in jail, Saxon went to a Sunday school class taught by a volunteer from First Baptist Church in uptown Charlotte. Don Saxon was home alone and dejected. She urged him to call First Baptist. When he did, two men from the church drove to his house to minister to him.
Don took Sallie with him to church after she was released on bond. "It was hard for Don and I to walk into that church, knowing everything that had been exposed," she said. "They just loved us unconditionally."
Both Sallie and Don Saxon pleaded guilty in January 2008 to conspiring to entice women to cross state lines to engage in prostitution, and conspiring to commit money laundering. They forfeited more than $650,000 in cash and property.
Sallie was sentenced to two years in prison; Don to 21 months.
There was no trial, no public airing of the sordid details. Five clients were charged, and none went to prison. Only those five men, out of 1,200, were publicly identified. Others waited nervously to find out what would happen next. Some called lawyers.
What did Sallie Saxon have about them in her records, and would she tell?
The keeper of secrets
On her first day at the federal prison in Lexington, Ky., she said a guard sat down with her.
Sal-lie Sax-on, she remembers the guard saying, drawing out each syllable. How many secrets you have been keeping for so many years?
Saxon said she began to cry.
Isn't it wonderful? the guard asked. You don't have to keep them any more. Now let's work on getting you out of here.
Where do we start? Saxon said.
With the toilets.
As the newest inmate, Saxon's job was to clean the restrooms. As a rite of passage, she said, other inmates made the job as disgusting as possible.
Over the next 18 months, she said, she ministered to many women. She helped them prepare for the GED, taught them to read and talked with them about God. She said many of the most hardened women told her they had had abortions, and she began praying about abortion. Her sister, who committed suicide, had had several abortions.
Saxon said she felt God leading her to help unborn children and their mothers.
Since their release from a halfway house in early 2010, Saxon and her husband have been renting an apartment and living on his salary at a dental company. She said she mended relationships with her family, and is a better mother to her two children, now grown.
First Baptist is the center of her and Don's lives.
He sings in the choir and goes door to door in poor neighborhoods with other men from the church to talk about the Bible with anyone who will listen. Sallie volunteers with the 40 Days for Life anti-abortion movement. She hopes to write a book.
She knows not everyone will believe her story. Just another jailhouse conversion.
First Baptist senior pastor Mark Harris said people "in the lost world" simply cannot understand. He said he has seen God working through the Saxons. Because of Sallie, Harris said, First Baptist is committed to 40 Days for Life. Because of her, pregnant women who changed their minds about abortions have worshiped at the church.
A change of conviction
Saxon arrived at the clinic as usual early one morning. While other protesters shouted at the women - "Abortion is evil!" and "Don't go in there and kill your child!" - Saxon and a friend quietly talked a man into trying to persuade his wife to change her mind.
The couple returned outside a few minutes later.
"You're doing the right thing, father," Saxon called out through the hedge and gave him the thumbs-up sign.
The man tried to pull his wife back toward the car. She jerked away. They argued.
"It's his baby, too, sweetheart," Saxon called out. "Your baby's heart is beating."
Eventually, the woman walked back inside.
It was a tense, emotionally raw few minutes. But the protesters didn't pause. They began yelling at the next woman.
"It is very unsettling out here," Saxon conceded.
Yes, she said, some of her prostitutes had abortions.
No, she didn't help them.
Yes, she condoned it.
"I felt," she said, "like it was a woman's choice."
She said God changed her mind.
Saxon finds herself again in a place where women are at a crossroads. Is she taking advantage of them at their most vulnerable, or is she rescuing them from a precipice? It depends on which expert you ask. Some, like her pastor, believe she is saving women; others believe she is harassing them for exercising their legal right.
Abortion is a decision best made between a woman and her doctor, her family and her faith, said Melissa Reed of Planned Parenthood Health Systems, which runs a health center in Charlotte where a woman can get an abortion.
"It's unconscionable," Reed said about the protests by anti-abortionists. "They don't know the reason a woman took that step. They don't know if that woman was raped, or if she had wanted a pregnancy that went wrong. Women should be able to access those services without fear, intimidation and harassment."
Nothing to hide
Saxon was talking about the Bible with a friend at Caribou Coffee on Fairview Road one day last year, she said, when a man walked up and greeted them.
Saxon said she recognized him as a client from her days as a prostitute. After he went inside, she told her friend.
What are you going to do? the friend asked.
I can't hide, Sallie said.
As the man walked by on his way out, Saxon said she smiled up at him and said: I remember you.
She is sure he remembered her, too, but he asked: What's your name?
I'm Sallie Saxon.
She said he seemed uncomfortable and blurted out: What are you doing here?
More than three years after her secrets were exposed, Sallie Saxon is talking. To the hundreds of men who were her clients, rest assured: You are safe with your dirty secrets.
Sallie Saxon is talking, but she's talking about God.
Researcher Maria David contributed