Strong found guilty in Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case

Mark Strong speaks to reporters outside the York County Courthouse in Alfred on Wednesday, March 6, 2013, after a jury convicted him on 12 counts of promoting prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Mark Strong speaks to reporters outside the York County Courthouse in Alfred on Wednesday, March 6, 2013, after a jury convicted him on 12 counts of promoting prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution. Buy Photo
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff
Posted March 06, 2013, at 2:29 p.m.

ALFRED, Maine — Jurors on Wednesday found Mark Strong Sr. guilty of conspiring to organize a now-famous prostitution business in Kennebunk.

The 12-member jury, seven men and five women, was apparently not swayed by defense contentions that Strong was simply having an affair with Kennebunk Zumba instructor Alexis Wright, and was helping her launch a legitimate fitness studio, but was not an active player in the woman’s alleged prostitution operation.

The group rendered guilty verdicts on all 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiring to promote prostitution. It deliberated for just under five hours.

“I’m not surprised,” Strong said of the verdict. “It’s not easy, obviously, [for my family]. It will take time. I have some hearts that need mending.”

Strong’s wife and son were present at the verdict.

Strong will be sentenced March 19 and has been released on personal recognizance. Until then, he is not allowed to have any contact with Wright.

Each of the 13 counts, Class D crimes, are subject to a maximum penalty of up to 1 year incarceration and a maximum fine of up to $2,000.

Strong, a Thomaston insurance agent and part-time private investigator, was on trial for allegedly conspiring with fitness instructor Alexis Wright to run a prostitution business out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio.

Wright faces a separate trial scheduled to begin later this spring.

Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan told reporters that her team was “very pleased” by the guilty verdict.

“[Jurors] believed the overwhelming evidence in the case proved that Mark Strong was indeed guilty of promoting prostitution,” she said.

Attorneys on both sides made closing statements to jurors Tuesday, foregoing dozens of witnesses who had appeared on each party’s pretrial lists. Perhaps most visibly, prosecutors from the York County district attorney’s office rested their case without calling any of the 18 men convicted as johns in the prostitution ring, instead agreeing with defense on a stipulation to be read to jurors that the men did pay Wright for sex, but that none of them had ever seen or interacted with Strong before.

The abrupt ending to witness testimony and evidence presentation in the case came on the trial’s 10th day. Attorneys in the case suggested in January they expected the trial to last as long as three weeks, but late curtailments of witness lists on both sides blunted those expectations.

The trial’s quick finale stands in stark contrast to its extended lead-in. The normally routine jury selection, which Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills said had never before in her 19 years on the court taken longer than a day to complete, took four days spread out over four weeks.

The trial at the Superior Court level struggled to gain traction as pretrial rulings on two occasions were appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

During the heavily covered trial, prosecutors showed jurors as many as 100 sexually explicit images found by police on computers at Strong’s Thomaston properties, as well as nearly 45 minutes’ worth of video depicting Wright having sex with a man and then charging him $250 for the encounter.

Strong has been accused of watching Wright’s alleged sex-for-money appointments remotely from nearly 100 miles away through a hidden camera and the Internet videoconferencing program Skype.

Defense attorneys in the case have argued that Strong simply had an affair with Wright and helped her financially launch a legitimate fitness studio — and even that he may have watched the sex acts — but have denied his involvement in the prostitution. Having an affair and being a “voyeur,” defense attorney Daniel Lilley told jurors, are not illegal acts.

But prosecutors have pointed to nearly 14,000 explicit images, taken from the videos of Wright having sex with alleged johns, found on Strong’s computers in Thomaston, as well as more than 25,000 cellphone correspondences between the two. Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan read a selection of the emails and text messages Wright and Strong exchanged during her closing argument Tuesday, reminding jurors about detailed client ledgers — listing appointment times, client names, sex services rendered and prices charged — sent to Strong for apparent approval.

“Why is she sending [calendars and ledgers] to him?” McGettigan posed during her closing argument. “Not because she’s having an affair with him. Not because he just likes watching her have sex. It’s because he’s a business partner. He wants to know who the clients are, when she’s meeting them, what they’re doing and how much she’s getting paid.”

Strong’s team during the trial also pushed the narrative that the defendant was the victim of police retaliation, that he was investigating past misconduct by members of the Kennebunk Police Department and that the town police charged him in the prostitution case in part to prevent him from exposing embarrassing information about the force.

McGettigan called the police payback argument a “diversion” during her day-ending final rebuttal statement Tuesday.

Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee in October 2012 told reporters that Presby received a written reprimand for the 2009 affair and that Higgins left the department at the time. Bean Burpee said in a news release that the misconduct was covered in the local media three years earlier, and that police had nothing to gain by attempting to cover it up during the Strong investigation.

Witnesses in the trial have included embattled Kennebunk police Patrol Officer Audra Presby, whose past affair with a supervisor was among the incidents Strong was allegedly researching at the time of his arrest, and Kennebunk pizza parlor manager Dan Racaniella, who testified that Wright dropped her towel and apparently attempted to seduce him one night during home delivery of a spaghetti and meatballs meal.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/03/06/news/portland/strong-found-guilty-on-all-counts-in-kennebunk-zumba-prostitution-case/ printed on July 24, 2014