Tuesday, March 11, 2014
The prostitution scandal that drew international attention to Kennebunk now has the town on the pages of Vanity Fair magazine.
The prostitution scandal in Kennebunk is the focus of a feature story in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, going on sale nationally Tuesday. “This article puts the spotlight back on Kennebunk,” said one Portland lawyer.
Courtesy of Vanity Fair/Ellen von Unwerth
The February edition of the national magazine includes an in-depth story, "Town of Whispers," by contributing editor Bethany McLean, gauging "the damage done" by the scandal, according to an advance version made available by the Cond?ast publishing company.
The issue hit newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on Thursday, and will be available nationally and on iPads, Nooks and Kindles on Jan. 8.
The article starts with a list of items that police seized in February from the home, office and cars of Alexis Wright: "One bottle of Astroglide. Four bottles of baby oil. One Nikon 35-mm camera, one Sony camcorder ..."
It describes Kennebunk as a "lovely, quaint seaside town" and "home to Tom's of Maine, the heart of the land originally settled by the Puritans, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Kennebunkport, where the Bush family has its Walker Point summer compound."
The story goes into titillating detail, drawing from blog entries and police records about Wright's alleged sexual activities, and locals who were swept up in the case after being misidentified as suspected prostitution clients of Wright. It cites lawyers, Kennebunk residents and weekly newspaper staffers.
The article's publication came one day after a judge scheduled the trial for the other key defendant in the case, Mark Strong Sr. of Thomaston.
Strong, 57, who is accused of conspiring with Wright in the prostitution operation, is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 22. The trial is expected to renew media attention to the case as detailed evidence is revealed in court.
Strong has pleaded not guilty to 59 misdemeanor charges of promotion of prostitution, violation of privacy and conspiracy to commit those crimes.
Wright, 30, of Wells, has pleaded not guilty to 106 counts, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible. Her trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in May.
Authorities say Wright, a former Zumba instructor, ran the prostitution operation from her Kennebunk studio.
The case has drawn international media coverage, in part, because Wright allegedly kept detailed records of more than 150 clients, including some prominent figures.
Since October, at least 66 people have been charged with being prostitution clients of Wright. Fourteen have pleaded guilty or been found guilty of the misdemeanor of engaging a prostitute and been fined.
Timothy Zerillo, a Portland-based attorney who is quoted several times in the Vanity Fair article, said he "just got a call one day" from McLean and then spoke to her several more times as she worked on the piece.
Zerillo represents three of the men who have been accused of engaging Wright for prostitution.
He said some of the media attention has subsided since Wright and Strong were indicted and police began naming alleged prostitution clients, but the lull may be misleading.
"I think that, to the extent that Kennebunk is attempting to stay out of the spotlight, this article puts the spotlight back on Kennebunk," Zerillo said. "For anybody whose New Year's resolution was that they never hear about this case again, that will never happen in 2013."
While the audience in Maine and nearby states may have been inundated with minute details of the case, the national and international audiences will start paying attention again when the trials of Strong and Wright begin, Zerillo said.
"Even though we know all about it, the readers of Vanity Fair will get a really good look at what's going on up here," he said. "I'm guessing that the Vanity Fair type reader might be the type who might vacation in New England."
Zerillo said he thinks the piece tells the story from a perspective that will give outsiders a look inside the town and the scandal, in broader strokes than local news outlets may have taken.
He described interest in the story as a fire in a fire pit that someone is trying to put out. "You may not see it at the surface, but there are some burning embers below that may flare up at any time," Zerillo said.
The Kennebunk town manager, the Maine Office of Tourism and another attorney quoted in the Vanity Fair story did not return phone messages seeking comment Thursday.
Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member who specializes in ethics at the Poynter Institute, an organization in Florida that teaches journalism and advises newsrooms around the world, said Kennebunk residents may not see the international appeal of the scandal, but the story is compelling for many reasons.
McBride said most news stories about prostitution focus on very low-income people and are scant on titillating details.
"Prostitution is not really uncommon," she said, "but it's not too often that we get to see it documented" and involving people with middle to high incomes.
"Because you have local law enforcement that is insisting on prosecuting so many people, you have the story of prostitution laid bare," she said. "Your law enforcement agencies are making the choice to pursue all the charges against all the people. They are opening the story up to everyone."
McBride said a magazine like Vanity Fair can tell the story from a different perspective from other news outlets.
"Vanity Fair has a very distinct journalism function with a very distinct journalism audience," McBride said. "It may very well seem to the people of Kennebunk that this is too much. But it's more for Vanity Fair's audience worldwide.
"The frame that they put on the story is the juxtaposition of a prostitution ring to a very picturesque, coastal New England town. You can't argue that this frame is inaccurate, but it probably glosses over some of the nuances of the story," she said.
McBride said she consulted early on with newsrooms, including the Portland Press Herald's, regarding whether to publish the names of accused prostitution clients, but has not followed the step-by-step developments.
She said extensive coverage of the case in the local media makes sense because local authorities have devoted so many resources to investigating and prosecuting the case.
Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: