Sunday, April 20, 2014
Police investigating allegations of prostitution at a Zumba dance studio in Kennebunk last year thought they had uncovered a major, organized criminal network during the early stages of the case -- "a substantial prostitution ring," one officer said, and a possible "extortion" racket, said another.
Alexis Wright and Mark Strong Sr.
A leading detective from the Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit, which usually investigates only the most serious felonies, such as homicide, even considered early on that corrupt police might be involved, helping to run license plate numbers of prostitution clients as part of a conspiracy.
A Valentine's Day 2012 raid of Zumba instructor Alexis Wright's dance studio, her business office and other properties left police with so much prostitution evidence -- 120 hours of sex videos with cash being exchanged, meticulous ledgers and a complex coding system -- it looked like they had found the first strand leading to a more complex web of crime, police said.
Those details of the police investigation came out last week as police testified in the trial of Mark Strong Sr., who is accused of conspiring with Wright to promote a prostitution business.
The officers' testimony gave a revealing look at how authorities approached the case in the early stages, escalating from a small-town police case to a multi-agency investigation with the state's top detectives and assistance from federal agents and inspectors.
The police witnesses also explained how some of those worst-case scenarios came to be discounted as they gathered details and analyzed evidence seized from Strong's Thomaston properties in July 2012.
In the end, Strong, 57, of Thomaston, was the only person arrested and held in jail for any length of time. Wright, 30, of Wells, was the only one charged as a prostitute or accused of any crime more serious than a misdemeanor. Strong and Wright were both indicted in October 2012, and since then 66 people have been charged with the misdemeanor crime of engaging a prostitute, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
Strong's trial in York County Superior Court is now entering its third week. About 20 witnesses have testified, with legal challenge after legal challenge slowing the trial's progress. Prosecutors announced over the weekend that they plan to call eight more witnesses. And Strong's defense attorneys planned to call at least 10 of their own witnesses.
Strong has pleaded not guilty to 13 charges: 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution, all Class D misdemeanors punishable by possible jail time and fines.
Wright is scheduled to stand trial in May on 106 counts, including promotion of prostitution, engaging in prostitution, violation of privacy, conspiracy, tax offenses and receiving welfare benefits when ineligible. She has also pleaded not guilty.
The case began in September 2011, when Kennebunk Police Officer Audra Presby was assigned to investigate anonymous complaints left on the department's tips line that prostitution was taking place at the Pura Vida Zumba studio at 8 York St.
Presby testified that in the months leading up to the February 2012 raids on Wright's properties, she had uncovered very little information from surveillance and interviews to shed light on the prostitution complaints coming in to her department.
"We were still trying to confirm all these suspicious-activity calls," Presby said.
Then, on Feb. 9, 2012, she said she was approached by Christopher West, Wright's landlord at her 1 High St. business office. West told her he had heard "moaning and groaning" coming from Wright's rented space. West was the first civilian witness she had spoken to in person at that point in the investigation.
Within a week, Presby went from having nothing solid to police uncovering so much computer, video and cellphone evidence that she thought she had discovered a "substantial prostitution ring," she testified Friday.
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