Tuesday, December 10, 2013
BIDDEFORD – A last-minute attempt to prevent the release of the names of Zumba instructor Alexis Wright's alleged "johns" has succeeded -- at least for a while.
Alexis Wright leaves the courtroom on Tuesday after her arraignment at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland. She entered a plea of not guilty to 109 counts including prostitution and tax evasion charges.
Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer
The suspected clients got the reprieve Friday, the day police had been expected to release a list of names of individuals charged with the misdemeanor offense of engaging a prostitute. Authorities will not make the names public before the state's highest court acts on an appeal filed by two of the alleged clients.
"It will be our last attempt. That's our last best hope," said their attorney, Stephen Schwartz.
Another defense lawyer representing accused prostitution clients filed a separate motion late Friday seeking to keep the names private for different reasons.
The flurry of activity began late Thursday afternoon as Schwartz filed a motion for a temporary restraining order in Biddeford District Court. The action against Maine State Police Chief Robert Williams, Kennebunk Police Chief Robert Mackenzie, York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery and state Attorney General William Schneider sought to prevent them from making public the names of any of Wright's clients -- even those who had been charged.
Kennebunk police had been expected to include the names of the first group of clients served with summonses in a police blotter news release distributed to the media Friday.
Speculation about Wright's alleged clients had been fueled by the existence of records authorities say they found during searches of her home in Wells and her fitness studio and office space in Kennebunk. The records -- which have come to be known as "the list" -- include more than 150 names and feature some prominent figures, according to individuals familiar with it.
District Court Judge Andr?anelle quickly denied Schwartz's motion, writing that the names of those charged is public information.
"While it is the role of the judiciary to protect the rights of each individual appearing in court and to take measures to insure that a criminal defendant obtains a fair trial, the judiciary's role in protecting a defendant's rights does not extend to shielding the identity of an adult criminal defendant who has been charged by criminal complaint and summoned to appear in court," Janelle wrote in his order entered Friday morning.
Schwartz subsequently filed requests for an appeal at the District Court level, an expedited hearing and a stay pending an appeal to a higher court. Janelle denied them all.
Schwartz then filed a notice of appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court late Friday afternoon.
"We think there's a really important principle at stake here: These people are presumed innocent. Once these names are released, they're all going to have the mark of a scarlet letter, if you will," Schwartz told reporters outside Biddeford District Court after filing the notice.
Among Schwartz' arguments are that the release of the names would prejudice a jury, that the "johns" are also alleged victims of invasion of privacy by Wright and Mark Strong Sr., her alleged business partner, and that the state will have a hard time convicting his clients without the testimony of Wright, who has a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Schwartz said the supreme court will have to weigh the transparency of government administration and freedom of the press versus the rights of people accused of crimes. "I think we have an uphill battle," he said.
Wright, 29, is accused of prostituting herself and secretly taping the encounters at her studio and office. She faces 106 charges in the case, mostly the misdemeanor offenses of prostitution and violation of privacy but also three felonies related to taxes and receiving public assistance when ineligible because of her alleged prostitution income. She entered not guilty pleas to all the charges earlier this week.
A police affidavit indicated that authorities had evidence that the sex acts Wright performed would have generated $150,000.
Strong, a 57-year-old businessman from Thomaston, has pleaded not guilty to 59 misdemeanors: promotion of prostitution, violation of privacy and conspiracy to commit those crimes.
One of Schwartz's clients, John Doe 1, described himself in an affidavit as a disabled person who has children and is a productive member of society. He said the nature of the charge against him is so "notorious" that it would severely harm his reputation and his family and professional relationships.
"I am deeply concerned that a public spectacle will be made of the allegations as they pertain to me. I am also concerned that I will be prejudiced by reading the 'list' if it is published by local media," John Doe 1 said in the document.
Gary Prolman, who represents other alleged "johns," said late Friday he had filed motions in York County Superior Court in Alfred asking that the names of victims of the alleged violation of privacy by Wright and Strong be kept confidential in the cases of those two key defendants as well as in any related cases.
"They allege my guys had their privacy invaded. As such, they should have the rights any other victims have," he said.
The Portland Press Herald and the York County Coast Star had fought the state’s effort to impose a gag order in the high-profile case, saying that the state’s argument did not meet the standard for confidentiality.
“The Supreme Court has said, ‘Openness ... enhances both the basic fairness of the criminal trial and the appearance of fairness so essential to public confidence in the system,” wrote Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty, the lawyer for the newspapers.
For their part, Kennebunk residents said they were simply tired of the attention. Tired of being asked questions. Tired of the rumor mill churning. Tired of the fishbowl scrutiny of their small town. A national crew from ABC News spent Friday in Kennebunk interviewing townspeople. Reporters from several Boston media outlets were there as well.
Ann Whetstone, who owns Mainely Murders Bookstore in town, said there has been a lot of fuss over something that's "not that serious a crime," but she admitted that things might be different if her family was affected.
"People are going to talk but my life isn't going to change too much," she said. "If people are stupid enough to do this in their hometown, they need to accept what happens when they get caught."
Greg Butterworth, an artist and gallery owner downtown, said he moved to town earlier this year, not long before Wright's Zumba studio closed down, but has been following the case.
"I guess people deserve what comes around," he said. "But life goes on. People have short memories."
Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of schools for RSU 21, which includes Kennebunk, already started reaching out to teachers last week to be on the lookout for any bullying of children once the names start to come out.
Marc McClellan, 17, and Chris Arsenault, 16, both students at nearby Wells High School, said the client list has been the talk of their school.
"Everyone is talking about it," McClellan said. "Even the teachers."
Added Arsenault, "It's going to ruin some reputations, that's for sure."
Susan Marcoux, who lives in Arundel but was shopping in Kennebunk on Friday, said the release of the names was going to create a lot of awkward and uncomfortable situations around town. Part of her hopes that most of the names are from out of town.
"I want to think the best of people in our little part of the state," she said.
Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: