‘It was a dark world’: Lead investigator recalls depth of Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case

Kennebunk Police Officer Audra Presby (right) and York County Deputy District Justina McGettigan speak to reporters outside the York County Courthouse in Alfred on Wednesday, March 6, 2013, after a jury convicted Mark Strong on 12 counts of promoting prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution.
Kennebunk Police Officer Audra Presby (right) and York County Deputy District Justina McGettigan speak to reporters outside the York County Courthouse in Alfred on Wednesday, March 6, 2013, after a jury convicted Mark Strong on 12 counts of promoting prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 13, 2014, at 11:38 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 14, 2014, at 4:39 a.m.

KENNEBUNK, Maine — Kennebunk Police Officer Audra Presby was the lead investigator in the highest-profile case the town of Kennebunk has seen — one that spanned more than two years and, with its scandalous nature, attracted nationwide media attention.

Presby followed the whirlwind prostitution case through to the end, starting in October of 2011 with claims of prostitution out of the former Pura Vida Studio and culminating with Alexis Wright pleading guilty to prostitution charges, the conviction of her business partner Mark Strong after a lengthy trial and the convictions of more than 60 individuals who solicited Wright’s services.

With the sprawling case now finally completed, she sat down with the York County Coast Star in the new year to reflect on the investigation that placed her smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s biggest news stories in 2012 and 2013.

“It’s two years of my life,” Presby said. “I slept, dreamt, lived this whole case. It became what I did every day. Once I get my nose into something, I won’t let go until it’s done and it’s done right.”

Over that time Presby, 40, poured through mounds of evidence that included watching countless hours of pornographic videos and identifying individuals and services through detailed client ledgers, turning to more than 30 other agencies for assistance — from the Maine State Police to the U.S. Secret Service. While she worked to remain focused on the task at hand, the case became personal for Presby during Strong’s trial when she was targeted by Strong’s attorney, Daniel Lilley, who called into question her credibility and professionalism.

Through it all, Presby held her head high, representing the town of Kennebunk and its police department in a positive light. Presby was recently honored by the department with its 2013 Distinguished Service Award and this past September she received a special recognition award from the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce for Public Service in honor of her work on the case.

“Obviously this incident was probably the largest investigation we’ve ever had. Largest by the amount of work we had to put into this, the hours upon hours of investigation that we had to put into this, and Audra bore the brunt of that with the assistance of every other agency that was involved,” Police Chief Robert MacKenzie said. “She really did a phenomenal job with it.”

Presby came to the Kennebunk Police Department in 2006, first working as a summer reserve officer and then as a dispatcher, before becoming a full-time officer.

“It’s always something new. It’s never the same,” Presby said. “It’s a big family. It becomes not only a family, but it’s part of your family. It’s a lifestyle, not just a job. It’s become me. It’s what I am.”

Presby turned to her law enforcement family for support as she worked on the prostitution case. Because of the nature of the evidence she had to review, Presby worked in a private office space everyday, away from the other staff she was used to working alongside.

“It was a dark world for a while, just because of the sheer subject matter,” she said. “I needed to see all those videos, I needed to know what we had.”

To better understand the complexities of the case, Presby said she had to put herself “in the mind set.”

“The criminality of it. That was what she became every day,” she said, referring to Wright. “She would get in that studio every day, turn on the camera, and she became that. It took a part of me. I’ll always be a part of that case.”

Aside from the topic and length of the investigation, Presby faced a trial, something many patrol officers never see. Along with Strong’s lengthy trial came intense media involvement and personal scrutiny, with Presby on the witness stand for three days, facing questions that at times made it seem she was the one on trial. Lilley questioned Presby’s handling of evidence, made allegations that the charges against Strong were in retaliation for his own investigation into the Kennebunk Police Department, including Presby’s relationship with her now-fiance, Nicholas Higgins, who was once her superior.

“I knew without a doubt we had a solid case. It was professional, it was thorough,” Presby said. “I know I did a professional job. My integrity was 100 percent.”

The trial was perhaps the most trying point of the case, Presby said, but also the most gratifying.

“It happens to a lot of cops. You put on the bullet-proof vest and you have to stay bullet-proof. You can’t let emotions get in the way. But it was an emotional time,” she said. “All the rumors, all the lies, all the secrets were put to rest.”

With the charging of alleged clients at an end, the Kennebunk Police Department has faced scrutiny from those who say all the clients on Wright’s list were not made public, as only 68 of the 140 people police initially said were on that list ended up being charged.

Presby said only those who police had enough evidence against could be charged with engaging a prostitute.

“Yes it’s frustrating that there are johns out there. They know who they are, they know what they did, and they will live with that for the rest of their lives,” she said. “They are living with that guilt.”

Most importantly, Presby hopes that the community knows the Kennebunk Police Department did not take the case lightly.

“We wanted people to know that we took this case seriously and that Kennebunk didn’t need to be known for this,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that it was done and done right, especially for the community. It affected so many people.

“I think the results speak for themselves.”

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