Wright, Strong plead not guilty in prostitution caseJudge seeks to expedite case
Portland — Story and photos provided by Journal Tribune.
Alexis Wright, 29, of Wells, the owner of a Zumba fitness studio in Kennebunk that is alleged to have been the site of a prostitution business, was arraigned at Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to all 106 counts against her, including multiple counts of violation of privacy, engaging in prostitution, evasion of income tax, and a count of theft by deception.
Mark Strong Sr., 57, of Thomaston, who was arrested in June in connection with the investigation into Wright’s Pura Vida Studio by the Kennebunk Police Department and Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit, was arraigned simultaneously on Tuesday. Strong pleaded not guilty to 12 counts of promotion of prostitution, a count of conspiracy to promote prostitution and multiple counts of violation of privacy.
Both Wright and Strong were placed on personal recognizance bail and were forbidden contact with each other.
Strong was arrested in June in connection with the investigation, and was the only one charged with a crime until an indictment against Wright was issued last week. Documents from the Department of Health and Human Services contained in the indictment indicate that Wright allegedly collected food stamps and other state aid while operating the prostitution business, and claimed to be making as little as $6,000 a year, while electronic ledgers indicate the alleged prostitution business generated approximately $150,000.
At a court hearing in September, prosecutors for the case, including Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan and Maine Assistant Attorney General Gregg Bernstein, claimed to have hours of video files on hard drives allegedly kept by Wright that depict her engaging in sexual acts with clients for money.
Dan Lilley, defense attorney for Strong, made a motion at that hearing to have the case against his client thrown out on the grounds that the prosecution had failed to provide discovery evidence in a timely fashion.
On Tuesday, Lilley made a second motion to have the case against Strong dismissed, based on the similar claim that he had, to date, only received about 25 percent of the discovery evidence the prosecution claimed to have in its possession.
“They haven’t turned over what the court has asked them to,” said Lilley on Tuesday.
McGettigan countered that the state had provided Lilley with an internal hard drive containing eight terabytes worth of data, as well as an external hard drive that contains, among other things, an image of the computers that were seized during the collection of discovery evidence. McGettigan claimed to have also provided Lilley with an itemized list of the key documents to look for.
Lilley said that his office has been unable to view the documents on the internal hard drive, and has been unable to assemble a sound defense due to the lack of most of the discovery evidence.
Justice Nancy Mills, presiding over the case for the first time, admonished the prosecution for failing to deliver evidence in a timely fashion, and while she denied the motion to dismiss the case against Strong, she set a firm deadline for the state to provide documents and materials to the defense.
“At some point, the defendants’ rights are going to come into play,” said Mills. “This is not acceptable. This case is going to be expedited from this moment forth.”
Mills was assigned to the case after Justice Joyce Wheeler recused herself. Lilley had previously made a motion to that effect, on the grounds that the husband of Kate Lawrence, an assistant attorney general involved in prosecuting the case, works as Wheeler’s court clerk. The same man also works for Mills, and in fact both Lilley and the prosecution made a motion for Mills’ recusal, but Mills declined, saying, “The fact that he is my law clerk would have no effect whatsoever on my objectivity in this case.”
Mills also struck down a request by prosecuting attorneys to enact a protective order – commonly known as a “gag” order – that would have prohibited any parties from distributing or disseminating any information pertaining to discovery evidence, particularly to the press.
“We were concerned about the type of discovery being provided to council,” said McGettigan, citing the explicit nature of the materials.
After being pressed by Mills to explain further why the nature of the materials should warrant a protective order, McGettigan said an image seized from a hard drive at Strong’s home allegedly, and indirectly, insinuated the existence of pornography involving minors on that hard drive.
Lilley insisted that documents provided to him by the state expressly indicate the lack of any such pornography, and said to Mills, “They have no idea what they’re doing.”
He added it was a “sad irony” that the state requested a protective order while, at the same time, “providing detailed affidavits containing explicit descriptions of some of these alleged acts.”
Mills cited the right of public access to information as her reasoning for striking down the motion for a protective order.
“The leaning of the judiciary is to make things public so people know what’s going on in the courts,” she said.
— Staff Writer Jeff Lagasse can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 319 or firstname.lastname@example.org.