March 29, 2013

Alexis Wright pleads guilty, will go to jail

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The latest chapter in the internationally known Kennebunk prostitution case came to a close Friday as Alexis Wright pleaded guilty to 20 misdemeanors in an agreement with prosecutors, avoiding a trial.

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Alexis Wright appears in Cumberland County Court following an agreement on a plea bargain Friday afternoon. Wright is reacting to the judge's comments regarding possible jail time included in the deal.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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The agreement calls for Wright, the central figure in the case, to serve 10 months in York County Jail and owe more than $58,000 in fines and restitution. Her sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 31, and she will remain free on bail until then.

In return for the guilty pleas, prosecutors reduced three felony charges for federal tax and state welfare violations to misdemeanors.

The case has made headlines since police raided Wright's Zumba studio and business office in Kennebunk and her home in Wells on Valentine's Day 2012.

Wright, 30, was accused of conspiring with Mark Strong Sr., 57, of Thomaston to run a one-woman prostitution business from the Zumba studio, keeping extensive records and video recordings of her sex acts with customers.

Police and prosecutors have said that Wright had more than 140 clients' names in her ledger and took in at least $150,000 from the business from July 2010 to February 2012.

On Friday, she pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of theft by deception for income tax and welfare fraud, two misdemeanor counts of evasion of state income tax, one count of promotion of prostitution, one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution, and 14 counts of engaging in prostitution.

Wright had faced 106 charges. The two most serious -- theft by deception -- were punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Under the agreement, 86 counts were dismissed, including 46 counts of invasion of privacy.

Prosecutors and Wright's attorney, Sarah Churchill, reached the agreement after about 13 hours of closed-door negotiations with a judge in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court: five hours on March 13 and eight hours Friday.

Wright, dressed in a black-and-white patterned skirt, a pink blouse and a black jacket, appeared in court once the deal had been reached and spoke quietly after Justice Nancy Mills read each count, saying "guilty" after each one.

"It was an appropriate outcome," said Assistant Attorney General Darcy Mitchell, whose office prosecuted the tax and welfare charges. "She's taking responsibility for her actions."

Churchill said by phone after the hearing that she left the courthouse first, declining to comment as she was trailed by a group of reporters and camera operators. She then drove back to the courthouse and picked up Wright, who waited unnoticed at a side door, to keep Wright away from the media.

She said the last thing Wright wanted after a long day Friday was to "walk through the gauntlet" of cameras and shouted questions.

Churchill said Wright was pleased to avoid conviction on the felony counts but disappointed at the length of the jail sentence.

"I think it really is the hallmark of a good compromise," Churchill said. "Everyone walked away a little disappointed."

Churchill said speculation that Wright plans to profit from the intense media attention she drew is, so far, unfounded. Wright has signed no book or movie deals and has turned down offers to appear for pay on national news outlets.

The plea agreement does not forbid her from profiting from the case.

"This entire nightmare was never designed or made out to catapult her into the national scene with book deals and movie deals," Churchill said.

She said the story is Wright's to tell in her own time.

"The hard part in this case is, there's a whole lot more to this story. Just because the story doesn't come out in the criminal case doesn't mean it won't come out," Churchill said. "There's obviously a backstory to why this all started and why it went on for as long as it did and whether my client wanted it to happen."

Strong was convicted earlier this month in York County Superior Court of 13 misdemeanors -- 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy with Wright.

He was sentenced on March 21 to serve 20 days in jail and pay a $3,000 fine. This week, he withdrew an appeal seeking to overturn the jury's verdicts.

The evidence presented at Strong's trial would have been particularly damning for Wright. One explicit video, which was played for the jury at his trial, shows her having sex with a man and then collecting a stack of cash from him.

In addition to the jail time, fines and restitution, Wright will be given a one-year suspended jail term to be served after her release. She will be on administrative supervision as she begins to pay restitution on a payment plan.

"She is currently married. She's living with her husband. And like any married couple, they have debts," Churchill said in court. "She does have the ability to work, so we expect the payments to be made from the household income."

The lead prosecutor in the case, York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, said Wright's plea does not end the case.

So far, 66 of more than 140 people in Wright's records have been charged. Police put charges against others on hold while the cases against Wright and Strong dominated their attention.

"This continues to be under investigation," McGettigan said. "Two prominent people have been found guilty or accepted responsibility. There have been a number of the 66 charged who have been convicted or accepted responsibility. It remains to be seen, of the others, how many will be charged."

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

 

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