PORTLAND, Maine — Jury selection begins Tuesday in the trial of a Thomaston businessman accused of conspiring to run a Kennebunk prostitution business. It’s a case that has captured international attention and has been described by the lead defense attorney as an “over-the-top” misuse of government resources.
“It’s [a case of] prosecutors — as I’ve said before, and I’m not trying to be facetious — who are on steroids it appears because I’ve never seen a case of this nature, with such minor charges, have so much taxpayer resources put into it,” attorney Daniel Lilley, who represents Mark Strong in the case, said after the most recent court hearing Friday.
Strong, 57, faces 59 counts — mostly charges of promotion of prostitution — in the high profile case, in which he allegedly worked with fitness instructor Alexis Wright to set up a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio. Both Strong, who runs an insurance business, and Wright have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in their respective cases.
Wright faces a separate trial, scheduled to begin in May.
Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills said Friday that 250 jury summonses have been distributed in York County, where the trial will take place. Those who are able to attend Tuesday will be whittled down to a group of 12 — plus at least two alternates — who will serve as jurors for the trial, which is expected to take between two and three weeks.
The jury selection process could take multiple days.
“Two to three weeks for a trial of this nature is unheard of,” Lilley said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never had anything close to that, particularly for something that’s not even a felony. There must be some felonies out there that these resources could be better directed to.”
Mills denied motions filed in recent weeks by Lilley to dismiss the charges, suppress evidence, delay the start of the trial until at least Feb. 19, and change the location of the trial. She also on Friday denied Lilley’s motion to withdraw from the case, saying Strong is not adequately trained to defend himself in the sprawling, complicated prostitution case.
Lilley had filed the motion to withdraw, in part, because he said Strong no longer has the financial resources to pay him, nor to afford expert witnesses to testify in his behalf. The defense attorney told the court that Strong’s bank accounts are further taxed by a recent lawsuit brought against him and Wright by the landlord of the building where the fitness studio was located, alleging that the pair owes back rent and property taxes.
York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, who is heading the prosecution team, told the court Friday she has added 18 men convicted of engaging a prostitute to a prosecution witness list that already included at least 30 law enforcement representatives and experts. Lilley said he expected that list to grow to as large as 80 witnesses called by prosecutors.
More than 60 men — and at least one woman — have been charged with engaging a prostitute in the ongoing investigation into the alleged Kennebunk operation.
Police have said Wright kept meticulous records of the operation, including a list of nearly 150 names of clients, which in southern Maine has become popularly referred to as “The List.”
That list has not been made public, but Lilley suggested early in the case that it contained the names of several high profile individuals.
From October until late December, alleged johns were only being named publicly as they were officially charged with engaging a prostitute. Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee has said his detectives are combing through massive amounts of evidence collected in the case, and were charging men as clients of the alleged operation as they gather enough incriminating evidence to do so. The names of those charged over each two-week span were then released to the public through the department’s regular biweekly arrest blotter, which also includes the names of people charged with unrelated crimes over the same period.
In recent weeks, the release of those names slowed to a stop as individuals suspected of paying for sex began refusing to speak to police, instead engaging with prosecutors directly in part to avoid appearing in the widely distributed police blotters.
Thus far, the list of men previously charged includes former South Portland Mayor James Soule, former Kennebunk High School hockey coach Donald Hill, local lawyer Jens Bergens, former Portland Planning Board Chairman Joe Lewis and former Church of the Nazarene Pastor James Andrew Ferreira.