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Timeline of the Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Alexis S. Wright, 29, of Wells listens to her attorney, Sarah Churchill in Cumberland County Superior Court in October 2012 where she was arraigned on 106 criminal charges.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

May/June 2011: Kennebunk police allegedly become aware of sexually explicit video shot by local Zumba instructor Alexis Wright in a public location in the town. A police cruiser passes by in the video. Police Chief Robert MacKenzie sends an officer to ask Wright to take the video down, but later says he could not charge her with any illegal activity.

October 2011: Kennebunk police say they receive tips of illegal activity taking place at Wright’s Pura Vida fitness studio in town, and send Patrol Officer Audra Presby to look into it. Presby later testifies in court that she did not see any criminal activity during initial surveillance of the site, but in further research online discovers pornographic videos featuring Wright.

Feb. 14, 2012: Police execute search warrants for Alexis Wright’s Pura Vida fitness studio on York Street, her second-floor business office on nearby High Street and her home in Wells. Investigators seize computer equipment, condoms and sexual lubricant, among other things, during the raids.

July 10, 2012: Thomaston insurance broker Mark Strong Sr. is arrested on one charge of promotion of prostitution in the case after his home and business are searched by teams largely made up of Maine State Police detectives. Investigators seize computer equipment, among other items. Affidavits filed in Biddeford District Court for the arrest of Strong publicly name Pura Vida as the location where the alleged prostitution had been taking place, but Wright is not initially charged.

July 12, 2012: Maine State Police investigators bring all computer evidence seized from Strong’s properties — with the exception of one external hard drive — from the state police barracks evidence locker in Gray to the state computer crimes task force in Vassalboro for analysis. The one other hard drive was given along with non-computer evidence to Presby of the Kennebunk police, who drove the hard drive to Vassalboro herself the same day the rest of the computer evidence was transported there.

July 18, 2012: Allegations of police retaliation against Strong first surface publicly, through Strong’s attorney, Daniel Lilley, who tells reporters his client was investigating alleged misconduct by members of the Kennebunk Police Department when he was arrested. Mark Strong’s brother, attorney James Strong, would later testify in court that he told police on the scene of the Thomaston raids that Mark Strong was investigating, among others, Presby. James Strong testified that he told Maine State Police not to let Presby take possession of any computer equipment because the equipment may have what Lilley later called “embarrassing” information about her and her department.

Sept. 10, 2012: Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler is assigned to the Strong case.

Sept. 14, 2012: Justice Wheeler denies defense motion to dismiss the single promotion of prostitution charge on the books against Strong at that point. She also initially refuses to recuse herself from the case after both prosecutors and defense attorneys point out that a law clerk who works for Cumberland County judges is married to an assistant attorney general involved in the prosecution.

Sept. 21, 2012: Justice Wheeler ultimately does recuse herself from the case, says that she is not taking the step because of the issue brought up by the attorneys a week earlier, but does not announce a different reason.

Sept. 25, 2012: Cumberland County Superior Justice Nancy Mills is newly assigned to the case.

Sept. 28, 2012: The BDN reports that prosecutors plan to charge many individuals as accused johns in the ongoing case, referencing the alleged client list including the names of more than 100 people who paid for sex at the Kennebunk Zumba studio. “The List” would become the subject of wild speculation in the months ahead, as rumors of high-profile johns began to circulate in southern Maine.

Oct. 3, 2012: The York County grand jury indicts Strong on 46 counts of privacy invasion and 13 counts of promotion of prostitution, and indicts Wright on 106 counts, including privacy invasion, prostitution and tax evasion. The indictment represents the first official charges against Wright.

Oct. 9, 2012: Wright and Strong are arraigned in Cumberland County, each pleading not guilty to all charges.

Oct. 11, 2012: Attorney Stephen Schwartz, representing two unnamed men accused of being clients of the alleged prostitution business, files a motion to prevent the names of individuals charged as johns from being released publicly. The motion is denied the following day, but immediately appealed by Schwartz. The legal back-and-forth postpones the Kennebunk Police Department’s first release of names of men arrested as clients in the case.

Oct. 15, 2012: Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren rules the names of alleged johns, but not their addresses, can be released to the public. The police release the first and last names of the first 21 men charged with engaging a prostitute, but not middle initials or addresses, causing confusion in cases where there are several different men in Maine or New Hampshire with the same first and last names.

Oct. 16, 2012: Warren reverses his partial restraining order from the previous day and allows more identifying information about the alleged johns to be released. With more information, it becomes clear that among the first 21 men charged as being clients are former South Portland Mayor James Soule and Kennebunk High School hockey coach Donald Hill, the latter of whom would go on to resign from the post because of the negative publicity.

Oct. 17: 2012: Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee issues a statement denying any police retaliation against Strong in the case, saying a 2009 affair between Presby and her married then-supervisor Nicholas Higgins, as well as a 2011 fatal shooting of a knife-wielding woman by fellow officer Joshua Morneau, were already covered by local media and police had nothing to gain by trying to block Strong’s renewed investigation into those incidents. Morneau’s shooting was cleared as justified by the state attorney general’s office, Presby received a reprimand at the time and Higgins resigned, Bean Burpee told reporters. The lieutenant said the incidents did not affect the prostitution investigation in any way.

Oct. 26, 2012: Kennebunk police release the names of another 18 men charged with engaging a prostitute in the case, including former Portland Planning Board Chairman Joe Lewis. The department’s biweekly arrest blotters would go on to include fewer and fewer individuals charged as johns in the case, as many suspects began refusing to accept interviews with police and instead going directly to prosecutors to avoid the spotlight.

Nov. 7, 2012: News breaks that the father of Wright’s son is seeking custody, arguing in court documents that the boy was “living in an extremely dangerous environment” with Wright and that he appeared in “inappropriate” pictures with her.

Nov. 19, 2012: Prosecutors from the York County district attorney’s office file a motion to try Strong and Wright in a single trial, a motion which is opposed by both Wright and Strong — and ultimately, Justice Mills, who almost a month later decides that the trials would be kept separate.

Dec. 5, 2012: The first of the alleged johns appear in court for arraignments, with one man pleading no contest and two others pleading guilty. Approximately 21 individuals would go on to plead guilty to the charge of engaging a prostitute over the following two months.

Dec. 12, 2012: Wright and the father of her son, Benjamin Hopkins, reach a custody agreement in which the boy, 7, will live primarily with his father.

Dec. 21, 2012: The first woman is charged with paying for sex in the case, but it would be the last time an alleged client’s name appeared in the biweekly Kennebunk police blotter. The release of names of alleged clients in the case through the police arrest lists comes to a halt as suspects begin refusing police interviews, and instead take their arguments directly to the district attorney’s office. By avoiding the police, the alleged johns no longer appear in the widely publicized blotters, but their criminal records still become public through the court system.

Dec. 31, 2012: Justice Mills denies a defense motion to dismiss all charges against Strong. The defense in the Strong case would ask the court to throw out charges against the Thomaston man on at least seven occasions.

Jan. 2, 2013: News circulates that the landlord of 8 York St., where Pura Vida studio was located, has sued Strong and Wright, who co-signed on the lease, for $67,800 in back rent and property taxes.

Jan. 15, 2013: Defense attorney Daniel Lilley files a motion to withdraw from the case, on the grounds that Strong has run out of money can no longer afford to pay him. The charges destroyed Strong’s reputation and business, Lilley argued. But Mills three days later denied the motion, saying Strong was not qualified to defend himself in the complicated case, and Lilley was forced to stick with the case even though his client couldn’t pay. In this same stretch, Mills denies renewed defense motions to dismiss the charges and, if the case is allowed to continue, delay the trial.

Jan. 22, 2013: Jury selection begins in the Strong trial. Approximately 250 jury summonses are distributed in York County, with more than 140 recipients reporting to the courthouse for the process. The potential jurors are asked to fill out 10-page questionnaires and sit for private voir dire interviews with the judge and attorneys in the case, during which they are asked sensitive questions about their views on pornography and sex. Mills said the personal questions are necessary to determine whether the jury candidates would be impartial in a trial featuring sexually explicit evidence.

Jan. 24, 2013: Jury selection is put on hold for the first time while the Portland Press Herald and its parent group MaineToday Media challenge Mills’ decision to keep jury interviews closed to the public and media. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court rules in the newspaper’s favor that afternoon.

Jan. 25, 2013: Before jury selection can be restarted, Mills grants a defense motion to dismiss all 46 privacy invasion charges against Strong, and the ruling is immediately appealed back to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court by the prosecution. The case is put back on hold until the law court rules on the disputed charges. The law court initially rules that Mills can decide to move a trial forward on the 13 remaining promotion of prostitution-related charges while the higher court considers the 46 privacy invasion counts, but the Superior Court justice opts to wait until a total slate of charges can be cemented.

Feb. 13, 2013: After earlier deadlines to submit briefs in the matter, attorneys in the Strong case present oral arguments to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on the 46 disputed privacy invasion charges. The counts refer to allegations that Strong remotely watched johns engaged in sex acts with Wright without their knowledge, by using a hidden camera and the Internet videoconferencing program Skype. Strong’s team argues the johns cannot expect legal privacy protections while engaged in an illegal act.

Feb. 15, 2013: The Maine Supreme Judicial Court rules in Strong’s favor, upholding the dismissal of the 46 privacy invasion charges.

Feb. 20, 2013: With the issue of the 46 privacy invasion charges resolved, the trial returns to the Superior Court level, where a jury is seated on this date. The four days of jury selection, spread out over a four-week span due to the appeals, represents the first time in 19 years on the Superior Court Mills said she wasn’t able to seat a jury in a day or less. Opening arguments are made in the afternoon after the jury is finally put in place.

Feb. 21, 2013: The battle over Presby’s background picks up steam, as a lawyer representing the police department informs the court that the reprimand the officer received for the aforementioned 2009 affair has been purged from her personnel file in accordance with a union contract provision. The news delays Presby’s testimony and frustrates defense attorneys, who said they had plans to reference the document during cross examination.

Feb. 22, 2013: Defense attorney Daniel Lilley begins asking state police detectives on the witness stand why Presby was allowed to take possession of the Toshiba hard drive seized from Strong’s Thomaston property. The history of the hard drive and Presby’s 2009 affair would be continued points of emphasis during the trial for Lilley.

Feb. 26, 2013: Mills denies two more defense motions to dismiss the remaining charges.

Feb. 28, 2013: Presby first takes the witness stand during the afternoon after jurors see their first sexually explicit evidence in the trial. Prosecutors introduce about 100 pictures of Wright having sex with men, allegedly found on Strong’s computers, and video clips showing Wright having sex with an alleged john and charging him $250 for the encounter. Defense attorneys dispute the introduction of the explicit images, with Lilley arguing the video and pictures could “horrify” jurors and turn them against his client.

March 4, 2013: The prosecution rests in the Strong trial, but not until several heated objections to Lilley’s cross examination of Presby, whose testimony lasts through parts of three days. Prosecutors never called the 18 convicted johns originally on their witness list, instead agreeing with defense attorneys on a stipulation, to be read to the jury, acknowledging that all 18 paid Wright for sex, but none had ever seen or interacted with Strong.

March 5, 2013: The defense rests, and both sides present closing arguments in the trial.

March 6, 2013: After nearly five hours of deliberations, the jury returns guilty verdicts on all 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution against Strong. Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan says a settlement conference with Wright’s attorney, Sarah Churchill, is scheduled to take place in one week.

March 20, 2013: Defense attorneys seek little or no jail time and a maximum fine of $1,000 for Strong; prosecutors recommend at least 364 days in jail and fines up to $24,000.

March 21, 2013: Superior Court Justice Mills sentences Strong to 20 days in jail, starting immediately, and a total of $3,000 in fines.

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