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Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Zumba Prostitution Case

     Alexis Wright co-owned and operated Purd Vida, a fitness studio in downtown Kennebunk, a seashore town of 10,000 25 miles south of Portland, Maine. The 29-year-old Wright taught Zumba, an arduous Latin inspired dance workout in rented space above a hair salon and flower store. The studio operated across the street from where Wright's business partner, 57-year-old Mark Strong Sr. sold insurance and worked as a private investigator. The pair opened Purd Vida in early 2010 and in two years grossed about $150,000.

     In September 2011 someone tipped off the local police that some of Wright's male Zumba students were getting more than a good dance workout. According to the snitch (or snitches) these clients were paying the instructor for sex and there were a lot of these customers. The idea of a house of prostitution operating in this quaint upscale community was, for the media and those with a taste for the prurient, a scandal made in heaven.

     On February 14, 2012, officers with the Kennebunk Police Department, the Maine State Police and the Drug Enforcement Agency, armed with a search warrant, raided Purd Vida. The officers seized a hard drive that contained 100 hours of video-recorded sex acts featuring Wright, her business partner Mark Strong, Sr. and dozens of local men who may or may not have also been learning how to do the Zumba. Some of the taped sex sessions had porn film-like titles. Members of the police raiding party also walked off with boxes of business records which included a list of 150 sex clients. In Wright's office the cops found a massage table and a video camera sitting on a tripod.

     In July 2012 the police arrested Mark Strong Sr. on 59 misdemeanor counts of operating a house of prostitution. The York County prosecutor began issuing summons to men on Wright's client list which meant they would eventually have to appear in court to answer misdemeanor charges of engaging the services of a prostitute. (These court appearances would be matters of public record.)

     According to officials familiar with the Purd Vida investigation some of Wright's clients were lawyers, cops, accountants, local politicians, businessmen, firefighters and a local TV personality.

     On October 9, 2012, following their indictments, Alexis Wright and Mark Strong Sr. were arraigned in a district court. Wright had been charged with 106 misdemeanor counts of accepting money for sex and invasion of privacy. (The taped tricks had been secretly recorded.) Both defendants were released on their own recognizance after pleading not guilty to all charges.

     Stephen Schwartz, the attorney representing two of the alleged johns who had received summons, filed a motion to stop the authorities from releasing the 150 names on Wright's client list.

     Laura Dolce, the editor of the York County Coast Star promised to publish the names on the so-called "list of shame." In justifying the decision to publicize the list, Dolce said this to a CNN correspondent: "Many in the community would prefer we not print the names at all. There are people in this community who had their names dragged through the mud for months because people believed they are on the list. We also believe that printing the names of those charged with engaging a prostitute is the fair thing to do...to help set the record straight, and put to rest the ugly rumors that continue to circulate throughout town." (Publishing the names would also sell a lot of newspapers.)

     After the district court judge denied attorney Schwartz's motion to suppress Alex Wright's client list, the attorney appealed the ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court. In speaking to reporters, attorney Schwartz said, "We believe very strongly that their names ought not be released. The mere releasing of their names will have devastating consequences in a case in which the government, we believe, will have a difficult time proving. We fully expect that they [Wright and Strong] won't be convicted, but the damage is done once the horse is out of the barn."

     On October 16, 2012, the judge cleared the way for the authorities to release the names, addresses and ages of 21 suspected johns who have been issued summons to appear in court on December 5, 2012. Their ages ranged from 34 to 65, and all but two were from Maine. One was from Boston and the other New Hampshire. One of the men accused of paying to have sex with Alexis Wright was 58-year-old James Soule, the former mayor of South Portland, Maine.

     Mark Strong Sr., Wright's business partner, issued a statement in which he said, "I never had sex with [Wright] for money. The charges against me are untrue. I will be vindicated in a jury trial."

     In March 2013, following his conviction on 13 counts of prostitution, Judge Nancy Mills sentenced Mark Strong Sr. to 20 days in jail and a $3,000 fine. The judge sentenced Alexis Wright, on twenty counts of prostitution, to ten months in the York County Jail. She was released after serving six months of her sentence.
     In the course of the scandal 21 names on the infamous client list were released to the public. None of the johns were prosecuted in connection with the case.

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