Saturday, March 8, 2014
THOMASTON - Mark Strong Sr. lives in an 1800s-era sea captain's home on Knox Street, halfway between Thomaston's small downtown and the St. George River. He grew up in the house, which has been in his family for years. His wife, Julie, sells antiques from an attached barn.
Mark Strong Sr.
Mark Strong Sr. is known as a shrewd businessman and civic leader in his hometown of Thomaston, where he still lives in this 1800s-era sea captain’s home in which he grew up. Townspeople were shocked when Strong was arrested in July on a charge of promoting prostitution.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
About a mile away, in the former Maine State Police barracks on Route 1, is the Strong Agency, where the 56-year-old former selectman has sold insurance for more than two decades. He's known throughout town as a hard worker, a shrewd businessman and a sports enthusiast who has been a Little League coach and umpire.
He is also suspected of leading a prostitution ring in Kennebunk, about 100 miles from his hometown. So far Strong is the only person charged in the case, but local police have said other charges are expected. Strong's attorney said a list of alleged clients, which police seized during a search of two Kennebunk properties, is long and includes politicians, police and clergy members.
After a lengthy investigation into suspicious activity at the Pura Vida Studio on York Street in Kennebunk, police arrested Strong in July on a charge of promoting prostitution. An affidavit filed in Biddeford District Court indicates that police seized evidence connecting Strong and Alexis Wright, the Zumba studio's owner. That evidence includes bank and telephone records, and several video files of the two engaging in sex acts.
Wright has not been charged, but the affidavit alleges that men paid her to perform sex acts over a period of several months. The woman also is suspected of videotaping the sex acts without the consent of the patrons, sending them electronically to Strong and posting them online.
Strong, sitting behind a neat desk inside his office, politely declined to talk about the case or the charge he faces.
"Every time my name's in the paper, it hurts me," he said.
Strong's attorney, Daniel Lilley, has filed a motion to dismiss the charge. Strong's next court date is Sept. 14.
So far, the case has focused on Strong and Wright, but their attorneys have said that many johns could face charges of soliciting prostitution. Lilley said he's heard that the list is long and includes prominent figures.
Some court documents associated with the case are sealed, but Strong's attorney said he has every intention of making sure all those names are made public. Wright's attorney, Sarah Churchill, said she wants the documents made public as well.
"How can you charge someone with promoting prostitution and not charge anyone with engaging in prostitution?" Lilley said. "I've never had a case like this."
TOWN 'SHOCKED' TO LEARN OF CHARGE
Leaders in the town where Strong has spent his entire life aren't sure what to make of the charge against him.
Jim Leonard, the athletic director for Oceanside High School, used to co-host a sports talk show on public-access cable several years ago with Strong and others called "Sports Nuts." He said Strong's reputation in town is "rock solid."
"I was shocked. I still can't believe it," Leonard said. "This came out of left field."
Peter Lammert, a town selectman who served with Strong in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was equally surprised. "The whole situation is such a wild thing there has to be more to it," he said.
Shannon O'Brien worked for Strong at the insurance agency until a few months ago and often heard gossip about her former boss. Still, she said, no one would have ever suspected Strong might be involved in prostitution. "Nobody had a clue," O'Brien said, adding that those who still work for Strong at his insurance agency are "in denial."
Strong has been an insurance agent at least since the 1980s, and by most accounts he's a successful agent. In 2006, a local newspaper readers poll named Strong the region's best.
"I guess I wouldn't have insurance with him if I didn't trust him," said Chuck Kruger, a state legislator who has known Strong for more than 30 years.
In addition to his insurance agency, Strong is a licensed private investigator, a fact that was well-known around town, and has operated a small photography and modeling business, a fact that was not as well-known.
Town Clerk Joan Linscott graduated from high school with Strong in the early 1970s but doesn't remember having much of an opinion of him back then. She said she's crossed paths with him often in the years since and recalled that his three years as a town selectman were sometimes controversial, including voting to dismiss a former police chief because of a feud with the town manager at the time.
"He didn't care what the voters had to say," she recalled. "He was going to do things his way."
STRONG'S SIDE BUSINESS 'RAISED AN EYEBROW'
Most in town seemed to know that he was a private investigator, although no one knew how successful he was or whether he had a specialty.
Few seemed to know about Strong's other side business, Strong Photography and Modeling Agency Inc.
That business does not appear to have its own website, but his work is linked on other photography websites. The sample photos depict young women in suggestive poses. Some are partially undressed. The email address associated with the photography business is Strong's email address at his insurance agency. The physical address is 75 Mechanic St. in Rockland, an office building overlooking the water.
Jim Sharp, the office manager there, said he rented space to Strong for the modeling and photography business in 2007 and 2008. "I never noticed anything unusual about that business," Sharp said. "I'm absolutely astounded about what has come out about (Strong). I guess he was good at keeping it under wraps."
O'Brien said she remembers a photo hanging in the bathroom at the Strong Agency. It was taken by Strong and depicted a young woman with her shirt off, her hands covering her breasts. She thought it was a little strange.
Strong declined to comment on the status of his photography and modeling business.
Kruger said that when he saw some of Strong's photos online, it "raised an eyebrow," but he didn't give it much thought.
"I guess on one hand I wasn't surprised when I heard about (the prostitution charge)," Kruger said.
Some of Strong's photos are posted on the website modelography.com. Two of the photos are of Alexis Wright. The copyright date on both is 2007.
'THE REST OF THE STORY ...'
Among the many unanswered questions is how Strong came to know Wright. No one in Thomaston seems to know how the two might have met.
Even Strong's attorney said he doesn't know.
"I think she was interested in private investigation and she contacted him that way," Lilley said.
The affidavit says Strong "did knowingly promote prostitution" from October 2010 through Feb. 14, 2012, though Strong's photos of Wright seem to indicate they knew each other as early as 2007.
Police have said that Strong co-signed the lease for her studio and Lilley also confirmed that Strong lent Wright money so she could start her dance studio in Kennebunk.
O'Brien, Strong's former employee, said that was entirely plausible.
"He was very generous," she said.
Asked about the videos seized that reportedly show Strong and Wright engaging in sexual acts, Lilley said police and prosecutors have not shared that evidence with him.
Wright's attorney declined to comment on her client's relationship with Strong, but she also said she has not seen all the evidence.
The court documents also allege that, in many of the videos seized, Wright can be seen on the telephone or chatting via Skype with Strong. Additionally, every video was sent electronically to Strong. The affidavit does not say why.
Police also confirmed that Strong, as a private investigator, had access to the InforME system, a database run by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and that he was using it to run license plate numbers of johns given to him by Wright.
Lilley has maintained that his client hired Strong as an investigator because local police were harassing her. Police have said they were investigating her activities.
The buzz about Strong in Thomaston has died down in the month or so since his arrest, O'Brien said, but people are still talking.
"I think people want the rest of the story," she said.
Leonard, the athletic director, said he's holding out hope the allegations are false. "I want to think the best of people," he said.
No matter what happens, Kruger said he thinks Strong missed an opportunity to reach out to his insurance customers.
"I'm disappointed that he hasn't sent a letter to us saying something about this," he said. "If nothing else, I'll probably look for another carrier."
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:
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Peter Lammert, a town selectman who served on the board with Mark Strong Sr. in the late 1980s and ’90s, was surprised to learn of the charges against Strong. “The whole situation is such a wild thing there has to be more to it,” he said.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer