Lest anyone in the court of Justice Nancy Mills forget the standards the good people of coastal Maine – where some of the first puritans landed – are expected to uphold, they are etched one by one above each of the courtroom's tall sash windows. They include “FIDELITY”, “DECORUM”, “PROBITY”, “VIRTUE” and “HONOUR”.
The vocabulary being spoken in the court nowadays, however, is not of the same order, beginning with zumba. To most people it is the name of a popular work-out routine imported from Latin America. To people around here, where the principal subject of gossip used to be the comings and goings at Walker's Point, the summer home of George H W Bush, it means something different.
For a year now, residents of the town of Kennebunk and its seaside neighbour, Kennebunkport, have been gripped by the case of Alexis Wright, 30, who has been charged with using her zumba fitness studio, Pura Vida, as a place of entirely ill-repute. That is to say, she used it as a base to conduct prolific prostitution serving the menfolk of hereabouts. Charged with assisting her in this carnal enterprise is the rather older Mark Strong Sr, a Maine insurance agent of previously spotless reputation and occasional private investigator.
That even a town such as Kennebunk, as quaint as its lobsters are sweet, should have a resident prostitute in its otherwise upstanding midst may in itself not be so shocking, even though offering and buying prostitution services is illegal in Maine. But Ms Wright's story is more titillating – and more troubling – than that.
As well as the buckets of used condoms, a collection of sex toys and the bottles of lubricant one would expect to find, police discovered receipts suggesting that over 18 months her sexual services had earned her $150,000. And then there was this: she had meticulously recorded the identity of every man who dropped by. They also found video cameras, one of them hidden. She had been taping the sex acts.
Mr Strong, 57, whose trial began in the York County District Court last week, is facing 13 counts of promoting prostitution. An additional 46 counts of invasion of privacy were thrown out. In court papers the prosecution contends that Mr Strong had his own affair with Ms Wright, helped by providing a loan to secure the lease on the studio, and thereafter viewed the videos of her sexual encounters. The state further asserts that in his capacity as a licensed investigator he ran the number plates of the cars of her clients to help identify them. Ms Wright, who faces more serious charges including engaging in prostitution, will be tried later. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty.
As witness testimony started here on Thursday, the jury heard how Ms Wright apparently extended the more scarlet areas of her business beyond the zumba studio itself, set in a small shopping mall on the edge of town, to a small office she also rented across the street. The landlord related how his other tenants quickly became unsettled because of the “groaning and moaning” coming through the wall as well as loud music and laughter.
The occasionally comic nature of the scandal was evoked by a pizza delivery man to whom Ms Wright allegedly exposed herself one day before giving him a $40 tip for an $8 dollar helping. “She fussed around with her wallet and off goes the towel. I felt awkward,” said Dan Racaniello, who manages the pizza shop next to her studio. He added, however, that the encounter “made my day”, not saying whether it was the view or the tip that pleased him.
But is the Kennebunk citizenry to laugh or cry? Bob, 55, a telecoms consultant, who, like many locals withholds his full name – “it's a small town” – and often sees Barbara Bush with her dogs on the Kennebunkport beach in the summer, thinks it is hyped. “It's all a bunch of bullshit,” he insists, blaming the media.
He concedes however that all the video equipment has given him some pause. “I have an issue with the filming.” The implication he sees is that the defendants may have been preparing to launch an extortion scheme in town. So far, no evidence has been presented to confirm it, however. In court yesterday some of the electronics seized from the studio and the office were opened for the jury to see, including hard drives alleged to contain the record of her X-rated services.
Keeping the lights burning late at the Old Vines wine bar in Kennebunk, Robert, 32, reveals he has seen Ms Wright at a private party just a few days ago. “She seems like a nice person, she wasn't doing anything outlandish or anything.” He then gets to the part of this story that stirs the deepest passions: the famous “list” of her alleged clients. So far 60 men have been charged with engaging a prostitute, but a lawyer who has seen the list says there are 150 names on it.
About 20 men have already had their dealings with Ms Wright exposed. It's the fact that so many lives – and presumably marriages – have been ruined here already that worries Robert. And he knows one of the men personally – the head coach of the Kennebunk High School ice hockey squad who was quick to resign. “Jobs are being lost because of the oldest profession in the world. It's ridiculous,” he says. Others who have also already been shamed by the Wright affair include a former mayor of South Portland, an official with the South Portland Church of Nazarene and a donor to a group called Protect Marriage Maine, which advocates against gay marriage.
Sherrie Laughlin, 64, a nurse's assistant and Kennebunk resident, thinks they are getting their just deserts and is awaiting the release of new names with relish.
“I say nail 'em,” she blurts. “I hope to God it comes out soon. I resent the fact that only 20 names are out there. We need to identify the rest of them. The fact is if you are a married man and you got bagged, well too bad for you. If you are stopped drunk-driving they put your name in the paper. This shouldn't be any different.”
The trial of Mr Strong is merely the prequel for the much bigger show that will be Ms Wright's time in front of a jury. What kind of verdict he is delivered, however, will surely be seen as an indicator of what her fate might be. In her opening statement last week, Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan made the running of the johns' number plates central to her opening statement on Wednesday.
“Mr Strong was actively engaged in that business enterprise,” Ms McGettigan argued. Although Mr Strong's home is two hours away, the defendants communicated frequently, she said, often by video link, particularly on days when she entertained clients. Some of those communications, the court will hear, involved the sharing of the fruits of her taping. The police affidavit presented at the time of Mr Strong's arrest said that the “numerous sex acts were video recorded unbeknownst to the males she was having sex with”.
The defence lawyer Dan Lilley, however, contended Mr Strong merely exercised bad judgement. “He got close to her. He wanted to protect her. You'll have to see if she stepped over the line, and stepped over the line beyond reasonable doubt,” he told jurors in his opening statement on Wednesday. “Affairs are bad decisions but not crimes.”
It is unlikely that Ms Wright will be helped by her postings on the internet, including pornographic photographs of herself and online promotions for her massage business, “Sensual Body Work by Lydia”. The York County Coast Star has also published a posting on another site it believes was authored by Ms Wright. “I live in a small town in Maine and have my own dance studio…I have had sex with many of the married men locally and it is satisfying to know that I am providing them with what they are not getting at home. If the women only knew…”
The world now knows and so do the women in the lives of the 60 johns who have already been charged with purchasing Ms Wright's bodily fare. Mr Strong's trial is expected to last one week or more. If he is found guilty he could avoid jail time. The more serious charges against Ms Wright, however, could theoretically bring 10 years behind bars if she is convicted. But here in Kennebunk, it is the list that matters the most.
Who else is on it (a favourite theory is it includes Secret Service agents assigned to the former First Couple) and when will we know?
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