ALFRED, Maine — Attorneys for the prosecution and defense in the trial of Mark Strong Sr. clashed Thursday over the testimony of a Kennebunk pizza parlor manager, who suggested to the court that accused prostitute and Strong accomplice Alexis Wright attempted to seduce him during home delivery of spaghetti one night.
Strong is facing 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution for his alleged role in a prostitution business Wright is accused of running out of her Kennebunk fitness studio.
Defense attorney Daniel Lilley, representing Strong in the highly anticipated case, said the testimony of Toppings Pizza manager Dan Racaniello did not show that any prostitution took place, nor did it directly involve his client. After cross-examining Racaniello, who was called as a witness by the prosecution, Lilley asked Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills to strike his testimony from the record.
But the judge denied the motion, convinced by York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan that Racaniello’s overall testimony could help establish that prostitution was being conducted at Wright’s Zumba studio, which was next door to the pizza parlor in an 8 York St. Kennebunk complex.
Racaniello said he saw men parking at the fitness studio during hours in which exercise classes were not being held, and entering the building through a back door.
The pizza parlor manager said on one occasion he was also called upon to deliver a spaghetti and meatballs meal to where Wright was living at the time, a unit at the Day Street Cousens School Apartments in Kennebunk.
Racaniello said she met him at the door wearing only a towel and invited him in, then, while going through her wallet to get money to pay for the food, dropped her towel.
“She was standing there in front of me naked,” Racaniello told the court. “I looked away, and when I looked back, she was still standing there naked. It was awkward.”
He went on to say that he saw a couch covered in a white sheet, as well as “a couple computers and laptops” and Web cameras set up in Wright’s apartment.
Racaniello told the court Wright gave him $40 and told him to keep the change despite the cost of the meal being only about $8. During cross-examination by Lilley, he admitted that Wright “hit on” him during the encounter, that he believed she “intended to start some kind of relationship” with him.
Racaniello said he rebuffed the advances — “I was uninterested,” he said — and acknowledged that he’d “never seen [Mark Strong] until today” in court.
Lilley disparaged the testimony as not proving that any prostitution took place — noting that Wright paid Racaniello, not vice versa, and that no sex took place — and said it had nothing to do with his client’s guilt or innocence.
But McGettigan convinced Mills to let the testimony stay in the record, suggesting that the off-hours traffic at the dance studio and description of the scene at Wright’s apartment could contribute to the prosecution’s ultimate goal of proving she was engaging in prostitution. McGettigan said prosecutors must prove that prostitution was taking place before they can argue that Strong is guilty of promoting it.
An earlier witness in the trial said Thursday he heard “moaning and groaning” in a space he rented out to the man’s alleged partner.
The landlord of 1 High St. in Kennebunk, where accused prostitute Wright rented out office space associated with her nearby Pura Vida Zumba studio, told the court Thursday morning he also saw used condoms, adult toys and a video camera set up in the space. Christopher West also said he saw that office in the background of a video of Wright masturbating on the Internet.
But Lilley argued that the testimony only suggests that pornography might have been filmed at the site. Lilley noted that pornography is not illegal.
Testimony was also heard from Kennebunk code enforcement officer Paul Demers, as well as Maine Drug Enforcement Agents Paul Shaw and Kyle Moody on the first day of evidence presentation in the highly anticipated trial of Strong, which began with opening arguments Wednesday afternoon.
The opening arguments had come after a four-day jury selection process and lengthy delays in the pretrial portions of the case triggered by two appeals to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
On Thursday, prosecutors from the York County district attorney’s office first called West to the stand, asking him about his relationship with Wright, who faces a separate trial scheduled to begin in May. West said after he rented out second-floor office space to Wright at his High Street building in January 2012, he quickly began receiving complaints from other tenants in the building.
West said to evaluate the complaints, he began spending more time at the building, including in the first-floor salon underneath Wright’s office to watch the traffic to the office and listen in on the space.
“I was there to directly observe some of the complaints directed toward Alexis Wright, and observed a high volume of men showing up at her rental space in approximately half-hour to one-hour increments, starting very early in the morning and lasting up until about 2 [in the afternoon],” West told Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan.
The landlord, who is also a captain with the Saco Fire Department, said he heard “moaning and groaning” from the space above, and in February of that year, went into the office on two different occasions to find a massage table, video camera and tripod, as well as a box of adult toys and used condoms, among other things.
But Lilley argued that even if pornography was filmed there, doing so was not explicitly restricted in the lease or by law.
During their testimonies, Shaw and Moody were asked to describe their roles aiding the Kennebunk Police Department’s investigation into the alleged prostitution business. Shaw said he helped local police execute search warrants at Wright’s office, home and studio on Feb. 14, 2012, and Moody told the court that in his capacity as an undercover agent, he placed a call arranging to have sex with a woman who went by the name of “Lydia” in exchange for money.
The presentation of evidence in Strong’s case may last at least two weeks and will include the questioning of nearly 60 witnesses — including 18 men who have pleaded guilty to paying for sex at the Zumba studio — and the playing of video of alleged sex acts performed at the site.