By DAVID SHARP
FILE – In this March 13, 2013 file photo, Alexis Wright, 30, leaves the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland, Maine, after a hearing in the case of the Zumba fitness instructor charged with prostitution and tax and welfare violations. The defense and prosecutors resumed a settlement conference Friday, March 29, 2013, after the first round of discussions failed to produce a plea agreement. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A dance instructor accused of using her Zumba fitness studio as a front for prostitution pleaded guilty Friday to 20 counts in a scandal that captivated a quiet seaside town.
The agreement that followed a second day of plea negotiations spares Alexis Wright from the prospect of a high-profile trial featuring sex videos, exhibitionism and pornography. Prosecutors will recommend a jail sentence of 10 months when she’s sentenced May 31.
Wright quietly answered “guilty” 20 times when the judge read the counts, which include engaging in prostitution, promotion of prostitution, conspiracy, tax evasion and theft by deception.
“We’re very satisfied with it. It’s an appropriate outcome, given the gravity of her actions,” Assistant Attorney General Darcy Mitchell said after the brief court hearing.
The 30-year-old Wright was accused of conspiring with insurance agent Mark Strong Sr. to run a prostitution business in which she kept detailed records indicating she made $150,000 over an 18-month period. She was also accused of using a hidden camera to record sex acts without her clients’ knowledge.
She was originally charged with 106 counts. All the counts in the agreement were misdemeanors, including three counts relating to welfare and tax fraud that were reduced from felonies.
Strong, 57, of Thomaston, was convicted this month of 13 counts related to promotion of prostitution and sentenced to 20 days in jail.
The scandal became a sensation following reports that Wright had at least 150 clients, leading to a guessing game of who might be named publicly in the coastal town of Kennebunk, a community better known for its beaches and sea captains’ homes than for crime. Attorneys who have seen the client list say it included some prominent names. Those who have been charged so far include a former mayor, a high school hockey coach, a minister, a lawyer and a firefighter.
Working together, Strong and Wright represented an unusual pairing.
Wright had attended college classes and ran dance classes for the local parks and recreation program before opening her studio in Kennebunk. But she was also engaging in paid-sex acts in the studio, in her apartment and in her office, law enforcement officials said.
Overseeing the operation and watching the sex acts live on his office computer 100 miles up the coast was Strong, a married father of two who ran a successful insurance agency in Thomaston.
It came as no surprise that Wright would seek a plea agreement because evidence presented in Strong’s trial was so overwhelming. A video played for jurors showed Wright engaging in sex acts with a man who then inquired about her rate before leaving $250 cash on her massage table.
After the man left, the video showed Wright pocketing the money.
There was plenty of electronic evidence because the two kept in touch via text and email and because Wright videotaped the clients and Strong watched live via Skype. Videos showed them speaking openly of ledgers, payments and scheduling.
Under the plea agreement, prosecutors will seek restitution of $57,250 from Wright after she’s released from jail.
Defense lawyer Sarah Churchill said Wright is married and employable, and she expects Wright will be able to enter into a payment plan. Churchill left the courtroom without talking to reporters.
Residents of Kennebunk were frustrated by the media coverage of the scandal.
Names of purported clients trickled out as they were charged, leading to speculation about who else might be on the list. But residents soon grew weary of the media’s attention, especially after it became clear that only a few of clients were locals.
So far, 66 people have been charged as clients, York County Deputy District Attorney Justin McGettigan said. The state will continue to pursue charges against additional people identified on Wright’s ledger if the evidence is strong enough to prove the charges beyond reasonable doubt, she said.
Things have largely returned to normal in Kennebunk. And on Friday night, a free dance was being held at Wright’s old Pura Vida Studio, where Zumba continues under new management and a new name, Danceworks.
Jeremiah Ouellette, manager of New Morning Natural Foods Market, across the street from the fitness studio, said residents have put the prostitution episode behind them.
“I think people have really lost interest,” Ouellette said. “People really don’t care anymore.”