A sign advertising space for lease hangs in the former Zumba studio of Alexis Wright on Kennebunk’s York Street on Wednesday. Wright’s studio didn’t do much business, says a neighbor who wondered how she paid her rent.
By Ann S. Kim
KENNEBUNK - Less than a week after Christopher West began leasing Alexis Wright an office in his building on High Street, he began suspecting she was doing more in there than paperwork for her Zumba business.
A "Do Not Disturb" sign was sometimes posted on her office door, saying nutritional counseling was taking place. In the mornings, male customers would go inside for about an hour, West said. He said he also heard unusual sounds coming from the room.
Eventually he decided to go in when she wasn't there and have a look around. Inside, he said, he found a massage table and a camera on a tripod. He searched online and found what he said was pornographic footage made in the rental space.
"Unbeknownst to me, I walked into a hornets' nest," West said. "I shooed it away as quickly as possible."
At the time, West had no idea that police were investigating Wright. Still, he decided to evict her and, as a courtesy, stopped by the Kennebunk Police Department to tell them. When West informed them that the tenant was Wright, he said, their eyes lit up: They had been monitoring her but didn't know she was renting office space.
On Valentine's Day, authorities searched Wright's studio and office, and her home in Wells. According to a police affidavit, the searches yielded evidence of prostitution, including hours of footage of sexual acts, meticulous client records and a price list for various sexual acts. The existence of a client list -- rumored to include prominent figures including attorneys and law enforcement officers -- has fueled speculation about who is on it.
According to an affidavit, their investigation uncovered links between Wright and Mark Strong Sr., a 56-year-old insurance agent and private investigator from Thomaston, through postal, telephone and bank records. The affidavit indicates that Wright sent video footage to Strong and asked him to run license plate numbers and that police found video footage of the two having sex.
Strong is charged with promotion of prostitution, a misdemeanor. Neither Wright, 29, nor any of her alleged clients has been charged in the case, but the investigation continues. Wright's lawyer, Sarah Churchill, has said that she expects Wright to be charged with some offense at some point, but it's not clear what or when.
Wright, through an email message, directed all questions to Churchill. Since Strong's arrest in July, Wright has stopped offering classes and has apparently moved out of the tidy blue Cape Cod-style house in Wells that is owned by her mother.
Public records, published reports and interviews with others shed some light on the woman at the center of the case.
Wright arrived in the Kennebunk area as a single mother. She was an honor roll student and a member of the class of 2001 at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham. She had a child in 2005, and the family lived in Gorham and Standish until 2007, according to family court documents. The parents share parental rights and responsibilities, with Wright providing the primary residence for the child, according to a 2008 court order.
Wright was teaching Zumba classes around Kennebunk in 2009 before opening her own studio the following year. In 2010, she also earned a baccalaureate degree in natural and applied sciences from the University of Southern Maine, taking classes at the Lewiston-Auburn campus.
That summer, someone started a website full of accusations about Wright. "I hope her Zumba clients wake up & realize who their teacher really is!!!!!!!" the creator wrote in the opening post.
Police started fielding anonymous complaints about Wright about a year later.
Vaughn Mason was oblivious to the commotion around Wright and her studio, which was just across the parking lot from his Hot Digity Dog lunch van. Mason described Wright as a "very pleasant young lady" about whom he would have nothing bad to say. She would greet lunch van workers when passing by and sometimes get burgers for her staff, he said.
"The only thing I ever wondered about is, how did she pay her rent? It didn't seem like there was much business," he said.
The allegations came as a big surprise, said Paula Rosander, who works for Mason.
"We were shocked -- right under our nose!" she said.
Wright recently married her boyfriend, Jason Trowbridge, whom neighboring tenants described as a fixture around her studio. Trowbridge declined to be interviewed and referred questions to Churchill.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's not involved in the case," Churchill said. "He's not going to be. As far as I know, nobody's planning on charging him."
Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee of the Kennebunk Police Department said his department is not investigating Trowbridge.
In March 2010, Wright signed a five-year lease for the studio space. The landlord, Bee Nguyen, said he told her he needed someone with good credit to be involved. A week later, Wright returned with Strong, who signed the lease as a guarantor.
At the time, Nguyen said, the two made an impression on him: an older man and a younger woman who seemed "real friendly" with each other.
Nguyen said he was surprised to learn of Strong's arrest. He did a credit check on Strong, who appeared to be a solid businessman.
"I felt this guy is such a nice guy -- good business guy," Nguyen said.
Now, Nguyen said, the pair owes him $6,000 in rent. Wright started getting behind in her rent in February, he said.
Some around Kennebunk will be glad when Wright's case is out of the news.
"We have been advised by the Zumba home office not to comment," said Joyce Bagshaw, an instructor who teaches at another location in town.
Selectman Richard Morin said most of the discussion seems to be taking place online.
"In the absence of the truth, people make up their own stories," he said. "We're seeing all these uninformed speculations: They're delaying for this reason or that reason. Who knows?"
Morin said he's looking forward to the town being able to focus on more pressing issues, such as infrastructure improvement in Lower Village and preparations for the town's Christmas Prelude event.
West, Wright's office-space landlord, said his only regret is that her presence -- and the attention that followed -- was difficult for his other tenants.
"I understand there was quite the buzz around town (about Wright) that everybody was happy to share with me after the fact," he said.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:
Vaughn Mason and Paula Rosander of Hot Digity Dog talk Wednesday about an alleged prostitution operation in Kennebunk. Mason’s lunch van is located in a parking lot on York Street where Alexis Wright operated a Zumba studio.
Alexis Wright demonstrates Zumba at a festival in Wells last year. According to a police affidavit, searches of Wright’s office yielded evidence of prostitution.