Saturday, March 8, 2014
The infamous list of suspected clients in the Kennebunk prostitution scandal now stands at 58 names and counting. At first blush, the names appear to have no connection to one another.
However, a review by the Portland Press Herald of the clients charged to date reveals that as many as half the men work or worked in a business associated with home building or construction. Indeed, given the employment backgrounds of the men, they could probably build and sell a house using their collective job skills.
The trades include general contractors, painters, drywall and concrete specialists, window and flooring professionals, Realtors, appraisers and real estate attorneys.
There is no obvious connection that links them all besides the same charge leveled against each of them. They never worked together on one project, nor did they hang out at the same bars or attend the same conferences.
Former Zumba instructor Alexis Wright has been charged with 106 counts of promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible. The case garnered international attention in part because Wright is alleged to have maintained a list of more than 150 clients, including public figures. Kennebunk police have been releasing the names of men charged at intervals as part of their crime blotter.
Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University and an expert on prostitution, said the fact that a large number of Wright's alleged clients appear to be in similar professions "does suggest that there was some referring going on."
Documents linked to Wright and Mark Strong, her suspected business partner, have not shed much light on the clients, other than the fact that Wright reportedly kept meticulous records of the services she provided. No detailed court documents associated with any clients have been made public.
Weitzer said most prostitution in this country falls in the category of what he calls "indoor" prostitution, not the on-the-street variety often depicted in movies. At a time when people routinely use the Internet, such prostitutes often maintain websites to reach potential clients, usually by offering escort or massage services, he said.
That was true of Wright -- court documents suggest that she advertised for "body rubs" on various websites.
Still, Weitzer said it's unlikely that Wright built her client list of 150 names solely through websites. Maine is a small state and Kennebunk an even smaller town.
"There is going to be some word of mouth," he said.
For instance, if a person becomes a regular client and some level of trust is established, a prostitute is more likely to mention that she's interested in taking on more clients, he said.
At least 28 of the 58 men are linked to jobs related to home building or construction, according to information culled from business networking websites and, in some cases, directly from the businesses' own websites.
One man owns a construction firm in Turner that bills itself as a "Christian, family-owned company." One is a real estate developer who recently purchased the historic Daniel Stone Inn in Brunswick. One co-founded a machine and electrical consulting company in Biddeford. Others include a self-employed roofing contractor, an electrician, and a heating and cooling specialist.
Several of the men are employed in tangential but related fields. One is a real estate and forestry contractor, another an attorney who sometimes practices real estate law and another the co-owner of an appraisal company. The list also includes the former chairman of the Portland zoning board and an alternate member of Scarborough's zoning board.
John Napolitano, president of the Maine State Building & Construction Trades Council, said it's not uncommon for contractors to talk with one another, whether they are working together on a project or not. But he said he hasn't heard talk of any connection between the men charged in the Kennebunk case, and said he didn't recognize many of the names.
Kennebunk police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee said he wasn't aware of any formal connection between the men, but the case is still ongoing and police are expected to charge more suspected clients over the next several weeks.
Daniel Lilley, an attorney for Strong, the Thomaston insurance agent who police believe acted as Wright's business and romantic partner, also said he was unaware of any formal connection.
"Word of mouth gets around in any business, legitimate or otherwise," he said. "I have seen some occupations that are similar, but I have no information that they are connected."
Sarah Churchill, Wright's attorney, did not return calls for comment. Several attorneys representing some of the suspected clients declined to discuss the case or talk about any possible connection among their clients.
"I'm not aware of any connection whatsoever between the people that have been charged," said Stephen Schwartz, a Portland lawyer who represents five clients from the list. "From what I understand, people found her in myriad ways but mostly through online advertisements for massages."
Asked whether there were any word-of-mouth referrals, Schwartz declined to say.
Peter DeTroy, a Portland attorney who represents one of Wright's suspected clients, said he wasn't aware of any connection between his client and the other men.
"My understanding is that these people found her through websites," he said.
Weitzer said informal referrals likely played a role in Wright's client list, in a vein similar to recommending a mechanic, he said.
Prostitution clients do not have a standard profile, Weitzer said, although indoor prostitution typically filters out low-income, working-class clients. Women like Wright often can charge more, so the client list becomes more exclusive.
The 58 men charged in the Kennebunk case so far include some business professionals likely to have disposable income, such as the president of a savings trust company, a trustee of a local country club, the CEO of a Portland information technology firm, and a senior vice president of capital markets for a Boston-based investment company who is also a financial adviser for the town of Scarborough.
Weitzer said two things have stood out for him in the Kennebunk case: Wright reportedly filmed her encounters and posted them online. "That's the first time I've ever heard of that," he said. And Wright was relatively brazen and visible in her allegedly illegal activities.
"She opened herself up to be caught," he said.
In turn, she likely made it easier for her clients to be caught as well.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: