Kennebunk Zumba prostitution trial testimony focuses on evidence collection, handling

Defendant Mark Strong Sr., right, talks with his attorney Daniel Lilley after a hearing Tuesday  morning, Feb. 19, 2013, in York County Superior Court.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Pool photo | PPH
Defendant Mark Strong Sr., right, talks with his attorney Daniel Lilley after a hearing Tuesday morning, Feb. 19, 2013, in York County Superior Court.
Posted Feb. 25, 2013, at 1:15 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 25, 2013, at 4:49 p.m.

ALFRED, Maine — Attorneys in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case battled Monday on how search warrants were executed at defendant Mark Strong Sr.’s Thomaston insurance agency in July 2012, and on how the evidence obtained at that time was handled.

Maine State Police Detective Herbert Leighton returned to the witness stand Monday, at one point finding himself in a terse exchange with defense attorney Daniel Lilley, who sought to prove that police records from the search included holes that could leave unreported some instances in which different investigators handled pieces of evidence.

Central to the defense case is the argument that Strong is the target of police retaliation for research he was doing into alleged misconduct by members of the Kennebunk Police Department, specifically Officer Audra Presby, who led the local investigation and was part of the team that executed the search warrant at the insurance agency.

Strong, an insurance broker and part-time private investigator, faces 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution in connection with allegedly helping Kennebunk fitness instructor Alexis Wright run a prostitution business out of her Zumba studio. Wright faces a separate trial scheduled to begin later this spring.

State investigators, including Leighton and Detective Terry James, were called by prosecutors from the York County district attorney’s office to vouch for the evidence seized from Strong’s insurance company and nearby Thomaston home. Leighton testified that several pieces of evidence collected at the business, including copies of checks from Wright’s Pura Vida dance studio, appeared in court exactly as he recalled them at the scene.

Cross-examining Leighton — who had begun testifying late Friday — Lilley referenced evidence inventories from the search of Strong’s agency. The defense attorney suggested that while Leighton is listed on the forms as the collector of the evidence because he led the team that executed that search warrant, other members of the team may have physically picked up the pieces of evidence listed and handed them to the detective.

Leighton sharply disagreed with Lilley’s description of the investigation, saying that while he cannot say for certain that no other police touched any of the evidence, the standard procedure involves the exploration of the property by the investigative team, then alerting the team leader about items of interest to be subsequently picked up and logged.

Lilley is pursuing an argument that Kennebunk Officer Presby, the subject of Strong’s alleged expose, had an opportunity to tamper with evidence in the case.

Through the questioning of state police Sgt. Mark Holmquist on Friday, Lilley determined that a black Toshiba hard drive was taken by Presby at the end of the day in which the search warrants were executed on Strong’s properties in Thomaston.

Holmquist testified that Presby was allowed to take possession of the hard drive despite concerns previously expressed by Strong’s brother, an attorney, that she was the subject of Strong’s research and should not be given access to computer equipment that might contain files related to that private investigation. Holmquist also said that the hard drive was the only piece of electronic evidence handed over to Presby that night, while the remainder of the computer evidence was moved into the locker at the Gray state police barracks.

Presby has yet to testify in the trial. Less than two hours before she was scheduled to take the witness stand Thursday afternoon, the court received a letter from an attorney representing the town of Kennebunk and its police department, stating that past personnel records at the department are regularly purged in accordance with the officers’ union contract. As a result, a written reprimand Lilley planned to reference during his cross-examination of Presby was no longer in her file.

The news surprised the defense team and Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who scolded prosecutors and town lawyers for the late announcement despite knowledge since July that Lilley would be pursuing the police payback argument.

In a pretrial ruling just more than one month ago, Mills denied a prosecution motion to block discussion of police retaliation during the trial, paving the way for Lilley to follow the angle before the jury.

Strong has said he was pulled into the prostitution investigation as payback for an investigation he was doing into a 2009 affair between Presby and her married then-supervisor, Nicholas Higgins, as well as subsequent custody battles over Higgins’ child.

Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee said in an October 2012 news release that Presby was reprimanded for the affair at the time, Higgins resigned from the force and that department’s investigation into Strong had nothing to do with the incidents.

Others to testify in the trial Monday were Mark Soucie, Dawn Ego and Jessica Miller of the state computer crimes task force, as well as Saco police Detective Frederick Williams, Detective Joseph Murphy of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department and Matthew Fasulo of the U.S. Secret Service, all of whom testified about the process by which computers seized from Strong’s Thomaston properties were imaged and analyzed.

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