Sunday, March 9, 2014
It was the moment all of Maine -- and the rest of the world, for that matter -- had been waiting for: Alexis Wright, aka the Kennebunk Zumba Madam, finally taking full and unequivocal responsibility for evading income taxes, fraudulently collecting welfare benefits and, oh yes, having sex with well over 140 men who paid dearly for an hour of her precious time.
But as Wright appeared in York County Superior Court on Friday before heading off to jail for the next 10 months, the woman who once dropped her bath towel in front of a startled pizza delivery guy had something slightly different in mind.
"I'm a person who knows the difference between right and wrong," Wright told Justice Nancy Mills between the countless sniffles that punctuated her nine-minute prepared statement. "And for this reason, I chose to take the time in jail (and) to take responsibility for my actions."
So far, so good.
"However," Wright continued, "these actions were not taken because I wanted to. I did not feel like I was in a position to choose."
The tawdry sex scenes that to this day remain scattered across the Internet, the meticulously kept records (including secretly recorded videos) of her unwitting customers, the stacks of cash that she collected at the end of each "lesson" inside her "dance" studio -- none of that was Wright's choice?
And while we're on the subject, what about the pizza guy?
"No person should ever be forced to do something like this and not have someone to reach out to hear their story," Wright told the judge. "My story may be crazy, but you can't argue with the truth. At the end of the day, the truth will prevail."
Not to mention the movie rights.
Listening to Wright in the hushed courtroom Friday, it was hard to tell whether she was delivering her pre-sentencing statement or auditioning for the leading role in her own Showtime blockbuster, "Zumba Diaries: The Studio That Rocked."
Her sniffles -- and there were many -- were never accompanied by visible tears.
Her use of the words "I" or "me" (as in 82 times) far eclipsed specific references to her crimes (as in not once).
And most significantly, her rap sheet will include 20 misdemeanor convictions for prostitution, tax evasion and theft of welfare benefits, but not a single felony.
For all the anticipation in recent months (Does that BBC documentary crew ever take time off?), courtroom drama this was not.
Rather, it was part self-pity from a perpetrator who presented herself as the real victim here, and part relief that Wright's tons of dirty laundry will not be aired during a lengthy "spectacle of a trial," as defense attorney Sarah Churchill so aptly put it.
So exactly what was Wright's story?
It begins with a traumatic childhood that included sexual abuse by her own father -- himself a convicted pedophile, although he was never charged with molesting his daughter.
Tragic? Despicable? Damaging to Wright's emotional and mental well-being as she grew into adulthood?
Without a doubt, just as it is to anyone whose early years are forever scarred by the perversions of a predatory adult.
But from there, Wright's tale takes a whopper of an unexpected turn -- starting with when she met Mark Strong, 57, of Thomaston back in 2003. Her partner in crime already has paid a $3,000 fine and served a 20-day jail sentence for 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy.
"She meets an older man (Strong) and over a period of years is taken in by him first as a model, then as part of his private investigation firm," wrote Churchill in the defendant's sentencing memorandum. "And (Wright) is told a story, which she all too readily believes, about how she is an operative working for the State to investigate all manner of sexual deviants."
Meaning Wright, at least in her own mind, was no prostitute. She was a secret agent!
"At first blush this seems too farfetched for anyone to believe," conceded Churchill in her memo. "Nevertheless, text messages between Ms. Wright and Mark Strong Sr. bear it out."
Nice try, counselor. But as much as Wright now wants us to believe cavorting with all those hapless johns was her idea of public service, the evidence suggests otherwise.
What about the videotape, shown at Strong's trial in February, where Wright drops her towel while standing in a picture window so men walking by outside can see her?
"And now I'm going to drop the towel," Wright narrates in the one-minute, 45-second video. "And he's taken notice. They've both taken notice. And they're watching."
Just a thought, but at what point did these two passers-by become "sexual deviants"? Upon their first peek? Their second? When they finally walked headlong into a telephone pole?
Then there's the poor guy who owns Toppings Pizza in the same Kennebunk shopping plaza as Wright's Pura Vida Zumba Studio.
At Strong's trial, the shop owner testified that he once delivered an order of spaghetti and meatballs to Wright at her apartment. There she was in that towel again -- and darned if it didn't fall off just as she was paying him.
It was, the pizza man recounted in one of the trial's more memorable moments, "really awkward."
Churchill, smart attorney that she is, did not pursue the secret-agent defense in her presentation to the court on Friday. Nor did Wright.
Instead, she pinned the blame for her predicament not on herself, but on the madam that Strong "forced me to be."
In fact, Wright told the court, "When I heard (Strong's) ridiculous statement about this being an affair and a friendship (between the two of them), I found it to be incredibly nauseating."
That was incredibly nauseating? And what was having paid sex with every slob who walked through the door to her Zumba studio, a minor case of acid reflux?
Watching Friday's hourlong sentencing unfold, it was hard to avoid the impression that nobody much cared about who said what as long as this case reached its pathetic conclusion: 364 days in jail, with all but 10 months suspended, along with $58,280 in fines and restitution to be paid in installments of $250 per month. (The latter subject to renegotiation, of course, when the movie deal comes through.)
At the same time, the proceeding felt positively buoyed by the realization that Alexis Wright is finally going away. And with her goes the prospect of a trial that everyone, from the judge to the attorneys to the scores of potential witnesses and their innocent families, had long prayed would never happen.
Thus we can read what we want into Justice Mills' final words as Wright, her makeup unstained by tears that never quite fell, retreated to the defense table and a fresh tissue.
"I know you will succeed. I know you will prevail," the judge told the Zumba Madam. "I wish you success."
That and a good agent.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: