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Prostitution scandal at Zumba dance studio rocks Maine tourist town

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Oct. 9, 2012: Alexis Wright, 29, turns towards her attorney Sarah Churchill, left, during her arraignment in Portland, Maine on 109 counts of prostitution, violation of privacy, tax evasion and other charges for allegedly providing sex for money at her Kennebunk fitness studio and office. (AP)

This upscale southern Maine town is known for its ocean beaches, old sea captains' mansions and the neighboring town of Kennebunkport, home to the Bush family summer compound.

But the talk of the town these days is the arrest of a local fitness instructor who's been charged with running a prostitution business out of her Zumba dance studio and secretly videotaping her encounters. Now the town is on the edge of its seat, waiting for the revelation of which of their friends and neighbors are among her more than 100 alleged johns.

"There's still some of that puritanical New England left around," said Will Bradford, who owns a copy shop in town. "There are places in the world that would laugh at this."

Alexis Wright, 29, was dressed conservatively in a jacket, blouse and slacks as she pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Portland to 106 counts of prostitution, violation of privacy, tax evasion and other charges for allegedly providing sex for money at her fitness studio and a nearby one-room office she rented. The man police say was her business partner, 57-year-old Mark Strong Sr. pleaded not guilty to 59 counts of promotion of prostitution and violation of privacy.

Prosecutors haven't detailed why Wright would have been videotaping her encounters. But they gathered more than 100 hours of video and nearly 14,000 screen shots from seized computers, Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan said.

"The state's in over its head. This case isn't ready for prosecution," Daniel Lilly, Strong's lawyer, said at the hearing.

Wright's lawyer, Sarah Churchill, has declined to comment, and the defendants did not speak as they left the hearing. Wright, who lives in the nearby community of Wells and is the single mother of a young son, and Strong are free on personal recognizance.

Police have begun issuing summons to Wright's customers and will release the names in the weeks ahead. Townspeople say they've heard that lawyers, doctors, law enforcement officials, a television personality and other well-known people in town are included in a detailed clientele list police found.

A lot of people would rather not see the names made public because it will hurt families, children and careers, said Dan Breton, the owner of a convenience store and deli.

"I think most of my customers were shocked this was going on," Breton said. "But any time something like that happens, people get curious. It's almost like the newspapers are teasing us that there are prominent names on the list. But maybe it'll be nothing."

The superintendent of schools issued a memo to teachers and staff last week, instructing them to be on the lookout for students who have relatives on the list of names and may be teased or have trouble coping.

Wright opened her Pura Vida fitness studio teaching Zumba, a Latin-inspired fitness program that combines aerobics and dance, in 2010 about a block from the downtown business district in this town of about 10,000 people 25 miles south of Portland, the state's largest city. She later rented a one-room office across the street, above a hair salon and a flower store.

That same year, an anonymous blog appeared accusing of Wright of not being the sweet, friendly Zumba instructor she portrayed herself to be. "She's living a double life and is a porn star. She may be a prostitute for all I know," the first blog entry reads.

Police began investigating after hearing reports of cars coming to the studio and the office at all hours of the day and night and men going in for a half an hour or an hour at a time, according to a police affidavit released when Strong, of Thomaston, was arrested in July.

The landlord who rented the office space to Wright told investigators one of his tenants sometimes heard "moaning and groaning" coming from Wright's office, the affidavit says.

When the landlord checked the office himself, he found a massage table and a video camera set up on a tripod. He told police he later found an online porn video of Wright that was recorded in the office, which he recognized by the walls, the floor and the window.

When police raided the studio and office in February, they seized electronic ledgers of sexual acts, video recordings and records of clients and the sexual acts performed by Wright, according to the affidavit. Judging by what they found, police said Wright's sexual activities generated as much as $150,000.

Investigators said there was both a "business and personal" connection between Strong and the activity at the studio. Video footage showed Wright and Strong having sex, according to the affidavit.

Bee Nguyen, who rented the studio space to Wright and Strong, said Tuesday he often saw cars pulling up to the back of the studio and men going in but didn't think anything of it.

"She had a boyfriend," said Nguyen, adding that Wright and Strong owe him about $10,000 in back rent.

It wasn't clear whether Wright still had custody of her son; the agency that oversees child welfare says it can't comment.

It wouldn't be surprising to hear of a prostitution operation with clients coming and going day and night in a big city, residents say -- but not in Kennebunk, a tourist town with traditional white-steeple churches, tree-lined streets and quaint bed-and-breakfasts.

"Still, the fact that it's happening in Kennebunk shows we're not above it all," Greg Patterson said while getting a haircut at a downtown barber shop.

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