ALFRED — Maine State Police officers who searched the home and business of Mark Strong Sr. last year in the investigation of the Kennebunk prostitution case briefly lost custody of a piece of evidence that’s now central to Strong’s defense, the detective who oversaw the raids testified Friday.
A computer hard drive that Strong claims contained all the information he had compiled as a private investigator looking into unprofessional conduct in the Kennebunk Police Department fell into the hands of an officer Strong was investigating: Audra Presby.
State police Sgt. Mark Holmquist testified on the third day of Strong’s trial in York County Superior Court. Strong, 57, of Thomaston, is charged with conspiring with Alexis Wright to run a prostitution business from Wright’s Zumba studio in Kennebunk.
His attorney Daniel Lilley has argued that Kennebunk police targeted Strong in retaliation for his probe into the department. Strong was arrested and charged with promotion of prostitution months before anyone was charged with engaging in prostitution.
Holmquist, who works in the state police Major Crimes Unit, coordinated the raids in conjunction with Kennebunk police. He testified Friday that all computer evidence seized from Strong’s home and business on July 10 was supposed to remain in the state police evidence locker. All other evidence was supposed to be stored at the Kennebunk Police Department.
“We simply overlooked that one piece of evidence,” Holmquist said of the hard drive. “It went into (Presby’s) trunk instead of our barracks.”
When Presby delivered the hard drive to the state police Computer Crimes Unit in Vassalboro two days later, the serial number of the hard drive wasn’t in evidence records there, he said.
Lilley asked Holmquist why evidence seized in police investigations must be documented correctly and recorded every time a piece changes hands.
“It’s important that everything is documented and gone through methodically because cases usually live or die by the evidence,” Holmquist said.
Strong’s attorneys, Lilley and Tina Nadeau, have a pending motion to dismiss all 13 counts against him — 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiring to promote prostitution — on the grounds that prosecutors failed to release key evidence before the trial.
The defense received a key piece of evidence Friday morning after being told by prosecutors initially that it didn’t exist: a letter of reprimand against Presby.
The trial judge, Justice Nancy Mills, said in a hearing before the jury arrived that she wouldn’t say the prosecution has acted in “bad faith” but prosecutors were releasing key evidence that the defense had requested in July.
Mills said Presby is a “very strong witness for the defense of Mr. Strong.”
She said, “The procedural posture in this case has been something different than what I would like.”
Presby, the primary investigator in the case, was scheduled to testify Thursday afternoon. But just hours before she was supposed to take the stand, an attorney for the town of Kennebunk intervened, arguing that under state law, police personnel files are confidential under most circumstances.
The attorney, Natalie Burns, appeared for the hearing before Mills on Friday morning along with Kennebunk Police Chief Robert MacKenzie.
“The only thing that would not be confidential is a final written disciplinary action,” Burns said, quoting state statute. “There is no final written disciplinary action for any of the officers involved.”
Lilley successfully argued that Burns was wrong, and that Presby did have a public written reprimand against her. He cited a news release issued last fall by the Kennebunk Police Department, and asked the judge to call the chief to the stand to test his claim.
Presby had an affair in 2010 with her supervising officer, Lt. Nicholas Higgins, in violation of the town’s ordinance. Presby was reprimanded and Higgins faced termination but resigned, MacKenzie said.
In August of 2011, Presby was accused by Higgins’s estranged wife, Melissa Higgins, of having sexual contact with the Higgins children.
Under questioning by Lilley, MacKenzie said he never asked Presby about the accusation and assigned another one of her supervisors, Lt. Daniel Jones, to investigate.
MacKenzie, Jones, and Nicholas and Melissa Higgins are scheduled to testify in the trial.
Mills ordered the attorneys to arrange for MacKenzie, Jones, Burns and Nicholas Higgins to be called to court Tuesday to continue the hearing to determine what personnel matters from the Kennebunk Police Department can be discussed in the trial.
Lilley argued that Strong’s constitutional rights to a fair trial “trump” state law on confidentiality of personnel files.
The case has drawn international attention, in part because Wright is suspected of keeping a meticulous list of customers, including prominent figures. Sixty-six have been charged and 18 had been convicted by the end of last year.
Wright, 30, of Wells, is scheduled to stand trial in May on 106 counts, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, violation of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible.
Testimony in Strong’s trial will resume Monday, when prosecutors expect to call another state police detective and police computer analysts.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: