ALFRED, Maine — A key Kennebunk police officer, whose alleged past misconduct has been targeted by defense attorneys as motive for retaliation against their client, took the witness stand late Thursday afternoon for the first time in the town’s high-profile prostitution trial.
On trial is Mark Strong Sr., a Thomaston insurance broker and part-time private investigator, who faces 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution for his role in an alleged prostitution business run by fitness instructor Alexis Wright from her Kennebunk Zumba studio.
Wright faces a separate trial scheduled to begin this spring.
Patrol Officer Audra Presby, who led the investigation into the alleged prostitution business, took the witness stand Thursday afternoon for what has been perhaps the most highly anticipated testimony of the trial.
The room grew silent as Presby entered the courtroom to take the witness stand and told York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan during initial questioning that she was assigned to investigate allegations of illegal activity at Wright’s Zumba studio in late October 2011.
Presby said in her early surveillance of the location, she saw no illegal activity, but during further online research found a website advertising “sensual body rubs by Lydia,” as well as additional sites showing pornographic videos depicting “Lydia.” Presby said she contacted Agent Kyle Moody of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to call the “Lydia” listed on the body rubs website and arrange to pay the woman for sex.
Presby then testified she later met Alexis Wright, and determined that she was the same woman who appeared in the images on the websites as “Lydia.”
Court adjourned for the day Thursday before prosecutors completed their questioning of Presby, after which defense attorneys will begin their cross-examination. She is expected to return to the witness stand Friday morning to continue her testimony.
Strong has long maintained that he was investigating alleged misconduct by members of the Kennebunk Police Department, most significantly Presby, at the time of his July 2012 arrest. Strong has argued he was researching Presby’s 2009 affair with her married then-supervisor Nicholas Higgins, as well as subsequent allegations by Higgins’ former wife that Presby had inappropriate sexual contact with the former couple’s 5-year-old child.
Kennebunk police Lt. Daniel Jones testified earlier in the trial that he served Presby with protection from abuse papers from Melissa Higgins regarding the alleged contact, and that a Maine State Police investigation into the accusations determined there was “no criminal action” by the Kennebunk officer.
“She told me that she washed the child, in his privates and everywhere else, and that was the only time she had contact with his penis,” Jones told Daniel Lilley, representing Strong, during cross-examination on Tuesday.
Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee told media representatives in an October 2012 news release that Presby had received a written reprimand for the affair with Higgins, and that Higgins resigned from the department. Bean Burpee denied that the past misconduct had any bearing on the prostitution investigation.
That written reprimand became the subject of renewed controversy in the trial’s second day, Feb. 21, when just two hours before Presby was initially scheduled to take the witness stand, the court received a letter from a lawyer representing the police department. The police attorney notified the court that Presby’s personnel record had been purged in accordance with the officers’ union contract, and that the reprimand document defense attorneys had openly planned to reference during her cross examination was no longer in Presby’s file.
Lilley the following morning determined during a “voir dire” interview with Kennebunk Police Chief Robert MacKenzie that the reprimand was kept in a file cabinet at the department after being purged from Presby’s official file, and that police attorneys would make the document available for the trial.
During the testimony of Maine State Police Detective Mark Holmquist on Feb. 22 — and again when he was recalled to the stand before Presby on Thursday — Lilley determined that while all electronic evidence seized from Strong’s Thomaston properties in July 2012 were intended to be kept at the state police evidence locker in Gray, Presby took one hard drive with her to Kennebunk.
She took possession of the now-disputed black Toshiba hard drive despite Holmquist’s admission in court that Strong’s brother, an attorney, urged investigators at the time not to let Presby or any other Kennebunk police handle Strong’s computer equipment. Holmquist acknowledged to Lilley during cross examination on Feb. 22 that Strong’s brother told state police detectives that damaging information about Kennebunk police from Strong’s investigation was kept on the computer equipment.
Lilley suggested to the court that Presby had the motivation and opportunity to tamper with the hard drive evidence she took possession of the night after Strong’s properties were searched.