The Capital Call Girls

Jim Bunch got mixed up with Austin escorts—first for sex, then for money. When the police closed in, the career state bureaucrat felt he had nothing left to live for.

In the emotion-parched arena of prostitution, Jim Bunch was a fool for love. He signed the many letters he wrote to hookers “Love, Jim,” and he fell hard for the women who sold him their affection by the hour. Bunch had no more business running an escort service than he did igniting a state government scandal. But he did both, for love and money, and paid with his life.

Jim Bunch was but a humbled gray figure in a year that has been shaded garishly by Tonya Harding, the Bobbitts, and O.J. Simpson. When, upon Bunch’s arrest, it came time to tell his story—the story of a state employee, who, from his cubicle at the Texas Department of Human Services, ran a high-volume escort service that was said to involve not only Austin’s most fetching prostitutes but also a blue-ribbon client list of state politicians and the local jet set—he did not perform up to the standards of Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood’s self-promoting glamour madam. Instead, he shrank from the camera lights like the nocturnal creature he was, and ultimately blew his scandalous life away.

Today Bunch’s brother says flatly, “The media exposure is what killed Jim.” But James Almer Bunch’s hidden life was wobbling recklessly long before its exposure and violent culmination. The underworld of prostitution tempted Bunch, his girls, and his clients with just enough hedonistic adventure to ensnare them all. That Bunch was right in the center of the action, where he had always wanted to be, only meant that he could not fully recognize the precariousness of his double life until its inevitable collapse.

HERE IS HOW THE STAGE WAS SET IN 1991: Jim worked for the state, Natalie worked for Aimes (pronounced “Amy’s”) Escorts. Jim evaluated regional Medicaid facilities. Natalie turned tricks. Jim was twice divorced. Natalie was strung out on heroin. Jim loved Natalie. Perhaps the feeling was mutual.

Jim Bunch was 43 and new to Austin, having just transferred from the Department of Human Services (DHS) office in San Antonio, where he had spent all of his adult life. His family would later attribute Bunch’s troubles to his new environment: “In moving to Austin,” says his brother, “he probably became a little lonely and met another side of life that he wasn’t prepared to handle.” Bunch was an intelligent and good-humored man, but he had always been shy around women. A boyhood bout with polio had left him with a slight limp. By his senior year in high school, his hair was thinning rapidly. Bunch was entirely acceptable looking, but remained bedeviled by his shortcomings. As the son of a career military man, he moved from one city to the next throughout his schooling. Just out of high school, he began dating a woman for the first time, a girl from his hometown of Mexia. When she ended the relationship after two years, Bunch was crushed. He attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of aspirin.

Through most of college, Bunch seldom dated. After graduating from Stephen F. Austin University in 1970, he was hired by the DHS and moved to San Antonio. His first marriage lasted eight years, his second marriage five. Insecure, lonely, and unlucky in love, Bunch sought out “another side of life” in Austin—the side that forfeits romance for the sake of control. He dialed the phone numbers of the escort services listed in the Yellow Pages of the Austin phone directory. But he could not resist his softer impulses. Bunch was a generous man, and the prostitutes he hired were often desperately poor. The escort service call girls may have had it easy compared with street prostitutes—who worked all night on South Congress and gave all their earnings to their pimps lest they be whipped with wire coat hangers—but none of them was living the Pretty Woman life. Some were teenage runaways whose first introduction to Austin was a middle-aged man’s proposition. Others had husbands in jail, children to feed, drug habits to support; the cause of their poverty did not matter to Bunch. His state salary was a little more than $30,000, but he had credit cards and used them liberally to buy meals, clothes, or whatever else the prostitutes required. He may have missed his family back in Mexia, but Bunch discovered another family life in the Austin underworld—on in which his generosity would always be needed. “He couldn’t say no to any of us,” recalls one prostitute.

Above all, he could not say no to Natalie Dudney. Natalie was redheaded, buxom, and about 35, a veteran by call-girl standards. She had been plying her trade in Austin for nearly two decades, through the massage-parlor era of the mid-seventies, which followed the closing of Hattie’s on South Congress in 1960 and of La Grange’s infamous Chicken Ranch in 1973. She had seen the once wide-open Austin prostitution business go underground, the bandidos biker gang take over the business in the early eighties, and the Asians claim their turf by the middle of the decade. Natalie had acquired a long police record and a taste for heroin along the way, but she was charming and savvy, and Bunch found her impossible to resist. At his request, she moved in with him in July 1991. Time and again Natalie would disappear, returning weeks or months later, broke and wasted. Bunch always took her back, and after delivering a few unheeded lectures on the evils of heroin, he would nurture her back to health so that she could go on calls again.

Natalie’s employer was Sherry Beard, the 25-year-old owner of Aimes Escorts. Sherry had been arrested for prostitution in 1985 at 19, but otherwise ran a discreet operation out of her South Austin home and knew to shut down the business whenever she felt the heat from the Austin Police Department vice squad. Her girls were for the most part attractive, and her extensive client list featured several prominent attorneys, doctors, lobbyists, and entrepreneurs. While dating Natalie and sometimes paying

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