PORTLAND — The prostitution case involving a Zumba instructor from Wells and a businessman from Thomaston took a turn Tuesday with a prosecutor’s assertion that child pornography may be on a computer hard drive that was seized in the investigation.

The information emerged during the first court appearances of Alexis Wright, 29, and Mark Strong Sr., 57. Each defendant pleaded not guilty to the dozens of charges that a York County grand jury handed up last week.

Strong pleaded not guilty to 59 misdemeanor charges: violation of privacy, promotion of prostitution and conspiracy to commit those crimes.

Wright pleaded not guilty to 106 counts, including felonies related to taxes and public assistance benefits and dozens of charges that she prostituted herself and secretly recorded the sex acts.

“Markers” and “imaging” of possible contraband – child pornography – were found on a hard drive that was seized from Strong’s home, said York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan during the proceeding in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.

McGettigan made the statement to explain why prosecutors were not giving the hard drive to Strong’s lawyer as part of the discovery process.

Because of statutes addressing the handling of sexually explicit material involving minors, the state must keep possession of the hard drive, she said.

Strong has not been charged with any offenses related to child pornography. His lawyer, Daniel Lilley, criticized prosecutors for adding fuel to the “fire of humiliation and embarrassment” of his client.

Lilley said prosecutors had indicated previously, in person, by email and in a letter to the court, that they had no sexually explicit material involving minors.

“There’s no child pornography in this case. … As I’ve said before, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Lilley said after the proceeding.

Calls to the prosecutors – McGettigan and Assistant Attorney General Gregg Bernstein – seeking clarification about child pornography “markers” and “imaging” were not returned Tuesday.

William Stokes, chief of the criminal division of the Attorney General’s Office, said he did not know what the terms meant.

Strong and Wright did not speak during the proceeding other than to acknowledge that the judge had their names right and to answer “not guilty” to the counts of the indictments.

Each declined to comment afterward, as did Wright’s lawyer, Sarah Churchill.

In February, a search of Wright’s Pura Vida studio in Kennebunk, a nearby office and her home in Wells yielded records about prostitution clients, the sex acts performed and a ledger key, according to a police affidavit.

The client records, which have not been made public, apparently include more than 150 people, including prominent figures. Police have started issuing court summonses charging suspected “johns.”

Dan Breton, the owner of a convenience store and deli in Kennebunk, told The Associated Press that many people would rather not see the names made public because it will hurt families, children and careers.

“I think most of my customers were shocked this was going on,” Breton said. “But any time something like that happens, people get curious. It’s almost like the newspapers are teasing us that there are prominent names on the list. But maybe it’ll be nothing.”

The superintendent of schools issued a memo to teachers and staff members last week, telling them to watch for students who have relatives on the list and may be teased or have trouble coping.

Much of Tuesday’s court proceeding focused on the dispute over the evidence prosecutors have provided to Lilley. His client was charged in July with a single count of promotion of prostitution. No other charges were filed in the case until last week.

Lilley has filed two motions – the first has already been denied – to dismiss the case, arguing that he hasn’t received materials from prosecutors.

After hearing from both sides Tuesday, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills said the case will be expedited.

“At some point, the defendants’ rights are going to come into play. I think they’re coming into play,” she said.

Mills said prosecutors must provide evidence in a timely and organized manner. She criticized some of the ways prosecutors have handled the process.

Lilley complained that he received a small, unorganized box of “pretty  skimpy discovery” and a hard drive that he was unable to access with computers at his office. He estimated that he has a quarter of the information that prosecutors have.

McGettigan said prosecutors have been “more than diligent” while dealing with large amounts of complex information. She said materials, including eight terabytes of data on the hard drive, were delivered to Lilley’s office on three occasions.

The prosecutor said that in complicated cases, discovery is an ongoing process. Among the outstanding items are more than 80 interviews with alleged prostitution clients, she said.

Mills decided Tuesday not to sign either of the prosecution’s proposed orders to keep materials in the case confidential.

“I don’t see any good cause in this case to impose a confidentiality order at this time,” Mills said, adding that it’s her preferred practice to keep criminal cases public.

One of the prosecution’s proposals cited Lilley’s comments in a Portland Press Herald article as justification for an order to prevent parties from discussing elements of the case, including evidence, strategy and progress.

The Press Herald and the York County Coast Star argued that the state hadn’t met the standard to justify such confidentiality.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:
akim@pressherald.com
Twitter: AnnKimPPH