Cross-examination of police officer gets heated in Kennebunk Zumba prostitution trial

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/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 March 01, 2013, at 10:40 a.m.
Last modified March 01, 2013, at 4:25 p.m.

ALFRED, Maine — Prosecutors in the first of two major trials in the high-profile Kennebunk prostitution case blunted defense efforts to pursue contentions of police retaliation Friday, loudly objecting to several questions directed at the top local investigator in the case.

The objections triggered sharp exchanges between attorneys in the trial, and ratcheted up tension in the courtroom, but largely succeeded in derailing talk of defendant Mark Strong Sr.’s alleged investigation into past misconduct by members of the Kennebunk police department.

Strong, a Thomaston insurance broker and part-time private investigator, 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 local investigation into the alleged prostitution business, took the witness stand for the first time Thursday afternoon for what has been perhaps the most highly anticipated testimony of the trial.

Presby returned to the stand on Friday for continued questioning. Strong and his attorney, Daniel Lilley, have in the past argued that Presby focused her investigation on the Thomaston man unfairly as payback for research he had been doing into alleged past misconduct on her part.

But Lilley was not able to directly question Presby on the the topic Friday. York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan objected repeatedly — and increasingly loudly — as Lilley attempted several times to ask Presby if she had been told about Strong’s alleged research into her past.

On one occasion, McGettigan shouted “objection” three times over Lilley’s ongoing question before the defense attorney stopped to await Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills’ ruling on the interruption.

“Let’s just keep it down,” Lilley responded to the prosecutor. “You don’t have to have volume. I can hear you.”

“Well, you keep asking the same question,” McGettigan shot back.

McGettigan’s objections were largely sustained by Mills, who agreed that Presby’s testimony on what another person may have told her about Strong’s ongoing investigation would legally qualify as hearsay and be inadmissible in court.

During a brief session with attorneys before the jury returned to the courtroom from its midday lunch break, Mills told Lilley that, even though she had ruled in an earlier pretrial motion he would be allowed to pursue the police retaliation argument, he would need to produce evidence to support the angle.

“I want an offer of proof of admissible evidence that this defendant was conducting an investigation,” Mills told Lilley before the afternoon session got under way.

Lilley showed the judge a printout of an email Strong allegedly sent the Kennebunk Police Department in early 2012 alerting the force that he was doing the research, a correspondence that took place before Strong was included as a suspect in the investigation.

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.

Regarding the affair, 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.

During the last portion of the day, Lilley explored the affair during his cross-examination of Presby. She acknowledged finding notebooks during the search of Strong’s Thomaston properties in which she was referenced, along with Higgins, her ex-husband and former brother-in-law.

Under questioning, Presby admitted to the affair and the fallout, including the reprimand, and resignation and divorce of Higgins. She also acknowledged knowing an Arundel man named Charlie Neville who was referenced in Strong’s notes as well.

“I believe he’s made a complaint to the Kennebunk Police Department,” she acknowledged.

“Do you agree that it involved you? Let’s leave it at that,” Lilley followed up, but before Presby could answer, McGettigan objected.

Mills then subsequently sustained McGettigan’s objection to a 2008 post Presby admitted making on the social networking website MySpace. The post was never read in court, and was not allowed to be introduced as evidence.

“I don’t think what she said in 2008 is relevant, and I think it’s extremely prejudicial,” Mills later explained.

Before Lilley could pursue that or any other matter further, court was adjourned for the day. Presby is expected to return for continued questioning on Monday.

During previous prosecution questioning Friday morning, Presby identified several pieces of evidence as having been seized from Wright’s High Street office, York Street Zumba studio and Wells residence.

Among the evidence Presby identified were a digital camera, several computer hard drives, a laptop, a weekly/monthly planner, what she described as an “assortment of condoms,” checkbooks, four bottles of baby oil and a bottle of Astroglide.

Presby added that she watched numerous videos depicting Wright exchanging sex for money with various men found by investigators on the fitness instructor’s computer equipment.

“I remember keeping the logs of the hours [spent watching sexually explicit evidence],” Presby told McGettigan. “I know at one point I was well over 80 hours, and by the end, I was closer to 120 hours.”

Presby told the court Thursday afternoon that during online research she 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.”

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