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National and world

March 1, 2013

Lawyers clash over term 'pimp' in Maine Zumba case

ALFRED, Maine — The lead investigator in the case against an insurance agent accused of helping a fitness instructor use a Zumba studio as a front for prostitution testified Friday that she concluded early in her investigation that a "pimp" was calling the shots.

Officer Audra Presby said she later realized she was in over her head and needed extra help.

The Kennebunk police officer told jurors hearing the case against Mark Strong Sr. that she felt someone other than dance instructor Alexis Wright was controlling the operation at Wright's Zumba studio and making money from it.

Referring to her investigation notes, she said: "I felt that the term 'pimp' at that time was someone assisting or controlling the operation of prostitution. He was guiding her. He was assisting her in decisions and had something to do with the money aspect of her business."

The word "pimp" was a key source of disagreement in the trial Friday, with the defense arguing that Strong didn't profit from Wright's activities, and a prosecutor shouting "objection, objection, objection" during defense lawyer Dan Lilley's line of questioning.

Strong, 57, of Thomaston, is on trial on 13 counts related to promotion of prostitution. Wright, 30, who also faces charges, is to be tried later.

Strong's attorneys contend their client had an affair with Wright and loaned her money to start her Pura Vida studio but no crime was committed because he didn't recruit clients and didn't profit from her operation.

Prosecutors say video chats between Strong and Wright are proof that Strong was closely involved in the operation. Jurors watched videos Thursday that indicated Strong watched live video feeds from his Thomaston insurance office as Wright engaged in sexual encounters in which money changed hands 100 miles away in Kennebunk.

The proceeding Friday was marked by testy exchanges between Lilley and Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, who objected often to Lilley's cross-examination with increasing volume, leading to a retort from Lilley: "Let's keep it down. I have ears!"

The alleged prostitution scandal in the seaside community of Kennebunk attracted attention last fall after it was reported that Wright's ledgers indicated she made $150,000 over 18 months and that she had more than 150 clients, some of them prominent.

Presby said she realized her police department needed help after search warrants were executed Feb. 14, 2012, on Wright's office and studio in Kennebunk and her home in Wells.

State police, the Secret Service, postal inspectors, Internal Revenue Service, Maine Revenue Services and other agencies eventually responded to her request for assistance.

But what Presby thought might be a large prostitution operation ended up involving only one prostitute, she said.

Among the items seized during last year's Valentine's Day raid were a gold badge and Wright's state identification as an assistant investigator, both of which were found in her purse.

Strong's lawyers say Wright studied under Strong to become a private investigator. But a state police spokesman said Friday that licensed private investigators aren't allowed to carry badges.

The defense contends Strong was unfairly targeted because he was investigating alleged unprofessional conduct by Presby, who was reprimanded for having an affair with her boss, and other officers in the police department.

Questioned by the defense, Presby acknowledged recovering a yellow legal pad from Strong's desktop in Thomaston with notes about her and other members of the department. She also was questioned about a hard drive that ended up in her possession and contained no data when it arrived two days later at the state police computer lab. The defense has suggested that the blank drive could have contained Strong's investigatory files.

The trial continues Monday.


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