By David Sharp
ALFRED, Maine — An insurance agent accused of helping a Zumba instructor use her fitness studio as a front for prostitution was convicted Wednesday in a case that set off a guessing game in a small Maine town over who was on her customer list.
Mark Strong Sr. controlled, supervised and managed the prostitution business and watched the sex acts live via Skype from his office 100 miles away, prosecutors contend.
The married businessman acknowledged having an affair with dance instructor Alexis Wright and helping her open the Kennebunk studio but contended he didn’t profit from her prostitution.
Wright is scheduled to stand trial in May, barring a settlement. Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan said the guilty verdicts vindicated law enforcement officials accused of putting too much time and money into the investigation.
“Prostitution is not legal in Maine. We don’t promote prostitution. We don’t want it in our communities,” she said. “The Kennebunk Police Department did a fabulous job investigating this despite all of the negative comments that were thrown out that it was a poor use of resources. In fact, it was a good use of resources because it makes our communities safer.”
Jurors deliberated for 4 1/2 hours before announcing that they had found Strong guilty of all 13 counts — 12 of promoting prostitution and one of conspiracy.
Strong, 57, of Thomaston, showed little reaction as the verdicts were announced. His wife buried her head in their son’s shoulder and quietly sobbed.
Later, Strong said his family needs to heal. “It’s not easy obviously,” Strong told reporters outside the courthouse. “It’s going to take time.”
Strong, who was released on personal recognizance, is due to be sentenced on March 19. Theoretically, he could be sentenced to up to 13 years in prison for the 13 misdemeanor counts but consecutive sentences are unlikely, especially since he had no criminal record, attorneys said.
Defense lawyer Dan Lilley said he was disappointed by the verdict but is now focusing on sentencing and possible appeals.
“I never argue with a jury. It’s a useless exercise. We’re going to look over the options we have now,” he told a throng of reporters gathered outside the courthouse. He said he anticipated a sentence ranging from a fine to “weeks and perhaps months incarceration.”
The scandal in Kennebunk, a village known more for its sea captains’ homes and beaches than crime, attracted international attention in the fall after it was reported that Wright’s ledgers indicated she had more than 150 clients and made $150,000 over 18 months.
Authorities then sent the town abuzz with word that they would be charging each of the johns, leading residents to wonder who they were. Residents, though, soon grew weary of the media attention.
Testimony and videos presented to jurors indicated Strong was familiar with operational details of Wright’s activities, chatting via Skype before and after her appointments and watching the sexual encounters from his office in Thomaston. Before each tryst, Wright took time to make sure her video camera was hidden and pointed at the massage table where the encounters took place.
The judge previously dismissed 46 invasion-of-privacy counts that stemmed from videotaping of prostitution clients without their knowledge.
Even as lurid details emerged in the courtroom, Strong’s wife of 30 years and several other family members remained seated several rows behind him. The verdict in the delay-plagued trial came more than six weeks after the start of jury selection, which was halted twice because of legal action that went to the state supreme court, leaving potential jurors in limbo for weeks.
Jurors left without talking to reporters. One thing that was missing from the trial was testimony from Wright’s accused clients. Eighteen of them were on the state’s list of witnesses, but none of them testified after attorneys stipulated that the encounters took place.
As for Wright, her attorney and prosecutors will hold a settlement conference next week, McGettigan said. Barring a settlement, Wright is scheduled to stand trial in May on more than 100 counts that include prostitution and tax violations.
Sarah Churchill, Wright’s lawyer, said the issues are different with her case. She declined to comment on settlement talks.