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Published: Friday, 2/22/2013

Landlord suspicious of Maine Zumba instructor

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Alexis Wright, 29, turns towards her attorney Sarah Churchill, left, during her arraignment in Portland, Maine. Alexis Wright, 29, turns towards her attorney Sarah Churchill, left, during her arraignment in Portland, Maine.
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ALFRED, Maine — A landlord who rented office space to a Zumba instructor accused of being a prostitute testified he became suspicious when tenants heard “groaning and moaning.” A pizza shop manager told a jury that the woman disrobed in front of him during a delivery.

The risque details emerged in court Thursday as testimony began in the trial of Mark Strong Sr., an insurance businessman charged with 13 counts that accuse him of helping the fitness instructor engage in prostitution.

The 30-year-old woman, Alexis Wright, is accused of engaging in prostitution at the dance studio, at an office across the street and at her own home. Authorities have said she videotaped clients without their knowledge. She will be tried later.

Christopher West, a landlord who rented office space to Wright, testified he began receiving complaints from other tenants within a couple of weeks. He testified about loud music, moaning, groaning and laughter coming from the office.

He became suspicious when he witnessed men coming and going. He told police he intended to evict her but was asked him to hold off because of an ongoing investigation. After police executed a search warrant, he said he discovered a box of adult toys, a bin of used condoms and baby wipes, and a massage table. An agent seized two video cameras, including one that was hidden.

Dan Racaniello, manager of a pizza shop next to the studio, testified that when he delivered spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread, Wright came to the door wearing only a towel, which she dropped to reveal she was naked. She paid $40 for the $8 meal and told him to keep the change.

“She fussed around with her wallet and off goes the towel. I felt awkward,” said Racaniello, who left her apartment stunned both by the nudity and a generous tip, saying, “It made my day.”

Both Strong and Wright have pleaded not guilty.

Strong helped Wright launch her Pura Vida dance-fitness studio by co-signing for her lease and loaning money with commercial notes that were repaid with interest. He contends he didn't know about allegations of prostitution, and testimony Thursday indicated that he didn't sign any documents related to the rented office.

The defense contends the married Strong engaged in bad behavior by having an affair with Wright but didn't engage in criminal conduct. Prosecutors, meanwhile, contend Strong communicated frequently with Wright about business details via video chat, email and text.

The case has generated attention because of the size of the alleged operation and its location in a quaint seaside village near Kennebunkport, home of the Bush family's Walker's Point summer compound.

A lawyer who has seen Wright's alleged client list says it includes more than 150 names. Law enforcement officials say Wright kept meticulous records suggesting the sex acts generated $150,000 over 18 months.

Wright's wife of 30 years and several other family members were in court on Thursday.

Afternoon testimony was delayed by a letter sent to attorneys from a law firm representing the town of Kennebunk. In the memo, a lawyer said certain personnel documents sought by the defense cannot be released, and lawyers were told they may have been purged under union rules.

The defense had intended to delve into the background of the lead investigator, including an abuse accusation that was investigated and an extramarital affair that led to a reprimand.

Justice Nancy Mills expressed frustration that prosecutors had been aware of the new wrinkle for more than a week without telling her.

Delays have plagued the trial. Jury selection was halted twice because of legal action, leaving potential jurors in limbo for weeks before selection was completed and opening statements delivered Wednesday.



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