BIDDEFORD, Maine — Of the 21 men scheduled to appear in court Wednesday to face charges of paying for sex in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case, only two pleaded guilty.
Another man pleaded no contest — which triggers a guilty verdict in court — to the charge of engaging a prostitute, while 18 pleaded not guilty.
The otherwise routine slate of arraignments Wednesday at Biddeford District Court drew intense media attention as the first court appearances for men charged as johns in the sensational case, which has garnered headlines around the globe.
Only three men charged with engaging a prostitute in the case appeared in person Wednesday, with attorneys representing the other 18 filing letters with the court pleading not guilty on their respective clients’ behalf.
Claude S. Palmer, 47, of Oxford pleaded no contest to the charge before District Court Judge Andre Janelle and paid a $700 fine, while Kenneth A. Fairbanks of Lisbon Falls also appeared in person and pleaded guilty, paying a $1,000 fine. Paul A. Main, 43, of Biddeford initially pleaded not guilty before the judge and received a trial date of Jan. 8, but returned to the courtroom later in the afternoon, changed his plea to guilty and was assessed a $600 fine.
Neither the prosecutors nor judge were available for comment immediately after the arraignment to explain why some men were required to pay higher fines than others.
None of the three men who appeared in person Wednesday commented on the case to reporters. But Main’s brother-in-law, Robert Dion, said outside the court that the ordeal — and all of the associated publicity — has been devastating for his sister, Main’s wife. He said the couple, who are still married, have three children under the age of 18.
“I think the authorities should focus their attention on bigger crimes,” Dion said. “They should never have put their physical addresses out there.”
Sarah Moon of Sanford agreed with that sentiment. She stood outside the courthouse with a bright pink sign reading “Decriminalize Sex” throughout the arraignments. Moon, who said she has never worked in the sex trades, said prostitution should be legalized and that she would be among the first in Maine to “open a brothel” if that happened.
“Let me do what I want with my vagina and I will pay you [taxes],” she said.
The 18 others scheduled for arraignments Wednesday avoided the television cameras present in the courtroom by entering written not guilty pleas included local attorney Jens Bergens and former South Portland Mayor James Soule.
Police claim all 21 men were clients of fitness instructor Alexis Wright, who faces 106 counts — including prostitution and tax evasion — tied to a prostitution business investigators allege she ran out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio alongside Thomaston businessman Mark Strong. Strong faces 59 counts associated with the case, including promotion of prostitution.
Thus far, 62 men have been charged as johns in the alleged operation, most of whom were named over the course of four biweekly blotter releases issued by Kennebunk police going back to Oct. 15. Another group of men charged as clients in the case is expected to be released Friday, continuing in an incremental process that is likely to last into next year.
Police have said Wright kept thorough records of her alleged business, including a ledger of nearly 150 client names. That list, however, has not been made public.
The names of men accused of being johns are only coming to light as they receive official summonses for engaging a prostitute. Kennebunk Police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee has said investigators are combing through massive amounts of evidence, and are charging each man with engaging a prostitute as they compile enough incriminating evidence to do so.
At least 15 more individuals charged as johns in the case are due to appear in court on Dec. 14.
Both Wright and Strong have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Nancy Mills has agreed to separate trials for the two, as requested by their respective attorneys, but prosecutors from the York County District Attorney’s Office have filed a motion asking Mills to reconsider her decision and rejoin the two cases.
On Tuesday, Justice Mills ordered prosecutors to provide evidence supporting that motion to the court and defense by Thursday.
That evidence, however, will be sealed from public view at the judge’s direction. The attorneys for the two defendants will have until Monday to inform her whether they will file any written opposition to the state’s evidence.
Strong’s attorney, Daniel Lilley of Portland, had successfully urged Justice Mills to separate the trials, arguing that his client wants a trial sooner than Wright does. He also contended that the charges against Wright are more serious and would make it difficult for Strong to get a fair trial.
If kept separate, Strong’s trial is scheduled to begin in January, while Wright’s is slated to begin in May.