ALFRED, Maine — The status of a key witness in the high-profile trial of Mark Strong Sr., the Thomaston insurance broker accused of helping run a prostitution business out of a Kennebunk fitness studio, has been called into question by attorneys representing the town police department.
A letter from attorney Natalie Burns of the Kennebunk firm Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry suggests that the personnel records of town police may not be available for the trial because they are periodically deleted.
The apparent department “purging” of past files may deal a setback to the defense attorneys, who likely planned to reference the records in their cross-examination of Officer Audra Presby, who led the investigation into the alleged prostitution business and is the central figure in Strong’s allegations of police retaliation in the case.
Strong faces 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution for his alleged role helping Kennebunk fitness instructor Alexis Wright run a prostitution business out of her studio. Wright is scheduled to face a separate trial in May.
Strong has alleged that he has been charged in the case as police payback for his research into alleged misconduct on the Kennebunk Police Department, including a previous affair between Presby and her supervisor, as well as subsequent custody battles over her supervisor’s child from his marriage at the time.
Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee has stated publicly in the months before Strong’s trial that Presby was disciplined for the incident long ago, and that it has no relevance to the department’s pursuit of Strong. The supervisor in question is no longer with the department.
In an earlier decision, Mills had ruled that Lilley could pursue the payback argument, rejecting a motion by prosecutors to bar discussion at the trial of alleged retribution by law enforcement.
However, shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday, almost an hour after the lunch recess was scheduled to end, Mills told attorneys from both sides in the case that Presby would not testify during the afternoon session while questions raised by Burns are investigated.
Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan clarified before the court later in the day Thursday that, because of a provision in the union contract, personnel files at the department are periodically purged, and suggested there is no longer any record of the conduct Lilley plans to discuss.
Mills called another recess to allow prosecutors from the York County district attorney’s office to seek another witness to testify in what had been Presby’s time slot, after McGettigan told the judge the prosecution had no other witnesses previously scheduled for Thursday.
Mills noted that Burns seemed to suggest in her correspondence that the department’s law firm had been in touch with the district attorney’s office regarding the personnel records as early as Feb. 10, and the judge seemed irritated the Thursday letter represented the first time she or the defense received word of the dispute.
Mills said she did not believe Presby’s personnel records were “confidential” and added that she already ruled they were “relevant” to Strong’s argument of police retaliation in the case.
The Strong trial has been marked by regular and lengthy delays in the proceedings. On the third day of jury selection on Jan. 24, the Portland Press Herald and its parent group, MaineToday Media, put the case on hold by appealing to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court the decision by Mills to block public and media access to jury selection.
The high court ruled in the newspaper’s favor, but before jury selection could continue the next day, the case was appealed again to the state supreme court by prosecutors, who challenged Mills’ ruling in favor of a defense motion to dismiss 46 privacy invasion charges against Strong. The high court upheld the charge dismissal in a ruling more than three weeks later.
Taking Presby’s place in the Thursday afternoon witness lineup was Maine State Police Detective Lauren Edstrom, who said she participated in the execution of a search warrant at Strong’s Thomaston insurance agency and described the process by which investigators bagged and logged evidence.
Asked to identify the contents of several brown paper bags of evidence collected from the agency, Edstrom picked out several cameras, DVDs and what she called “miscellaneous paperwork.”
Court broke on Thursday afternoon before the defense’s cross-examination of Edstrom. Lilley is expected to begin his questioning of the detective soon after the trial resumes Friday morning.