Sex, Lists, and Videotape
By the time Alexis Wright was arrested, plenty of people around Kennebunk, Maine, had already heard all about the "Zumba Madam" and her amateur porn movies. What they were shocked to discover, though, was how many of their neighbors turned out to be her costars.
Alexis Wright teaching a class. (Photo by Amy Root-Donle)
When you’re a landlord, something’s always coming up—occasional vermin, emergency fix-it sessions, delinquent rental payments—and Christopher West thought he’d seen it all. But something just didn’t seem to be right on the second floor of One High Street, the light-yellow clapboard building he owned in Kennebunk, Maine. The tenant there had told him that she needed a unit in the building—which also houses a hair salon, a florist, a tattoo parlor, and a driving school—as administrative space for her nearby Zumba dance studio, and also to offer nutritional counseling. Pretty pedestrian stuff, so West was surprised to find that within a week of her signing the lease in February 2012, the parking lot had suddenly become unseasonably busy. Also odd was the plastic “Do Not Disturb” sign that was always hanging on her door. And finally there was the “moaning and groaning” that Teresa Houle, the owner of the hair salon directly below, told West she’d been hearing through the ceiling. As a Mainer, West tended to stay out of other people’s business, but before he troubled the police, he decided he’d better check things out for himself. So when his tenant wasn’t there, he used his key to let himself in. The room didn’t have much in it, but her massage table was there. And a camcorder. Camcorder? West went home to Google the name on the lease. Which is how he came across a video, posted to something called tubekitty.com, demonstrating the creative uses his renter had found for a particular sex toy. The video had clearly been filmed right there in his office space. Those were his taupe and cream-colored walls. That was his new hardwood flooring. That was his window. West would know—as a general contractor, he’d installed all of it himself. And there, in the middle of the frame, was his tenant, 29-year-old Alexis Wright, expertly wielding a rubber penis.
Kennebunk, settled in the 1600s, is an easy six exits into Maine. Located 30 miles south of Portland, its slogan is “So close, yet worlds away,” which it shares with its even more postcard-friendly (and old-moneyed) neighbor Kennebunkport, where Bush 41 has hosted such guests as Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev on the family compound. Kennebunk is home to a year-round population of 10,000, much of it working class. The main strip consists of hair salons, insurance agencies, and construction companies, but not a single fromagerie. Talk tends to be about the weather, or hunting, or who serves the better pizza: Toppings or K Hop. It’s not the kind of place used to functioning as the setting for amateur pornography productions, which may have had something to do with Christopher West’s decision in February to go over and have a talk with the police.
West wasn’t making accusations, he just wanted to be certain that nothing other than paperwork was going on in the space he’d rented to Alexis Wright. It turned out that the police had been having suspicions of their own for some time, though they hadn’t been particularly quick about pursuing anything. Five months earlier, in September 2011, Kennebunk police had received the first phone tips that Wright might be doing more than Zumba at her dance studio, called Pura Vida, which was located on York Street, just across the three-way intersection from One High Street. According to a police affidavit, one caller detailed “possible suspicious activity…possible prostitution and criminal activities.” When the police went to check it out, the men working at Toppings Pizza next door told them about the cars pulling up behind the building at all hours of the day and night. Guys were showing up dressed in sport coats and business suits, the pizzeria workers said, and didn’t look like they were coming for Zumba.
But the Kennebunk Police Department is on the smaller side. And things move slow in Maine, the way life should be and all that. And so, though Kennebunk police had received the call in September and suspected that Wright might be running a prostitution business, it wasn’t until December 2011 that an undercover Maine DEA agent called a phone number listed on the website for a business called Sensual Body Work by Lydia. According to the affidavit, “Lydia”—later identified as Wright—agreed to engage in “unspecified sexual conduct for money.” That was enough for a judge to authorize a search warrant for the office at One High Street, as well as the Pura Vida Studio and Wright’s home in neighboring Wells, Maine. On February 14, 2012—Valentine’s Day—about two weeks after Wright moved into West’s space and just a few days following the landlord’s chat with police, the warrant was executed by Kennebunk police.
In addition to lube and sex toys, the February raid turned up many hours of video footage. It seemed that Wright had either videotaped or Skyped—“unbeknownst to the males,” according to a police affidavit—just about every sex act she’d ever engaged in at One High Street and the Pura Vida Studio. Police said she’d also sent the material to a 56-year-old married man named Mark Strong, an insurance agent, hobby photographer, and licensed private investigator who lived two hours away in Thomaston, Maine. Before appointments, according to police, Wright would ask Strong to run the license plates of her potential clients. They had a business relationship, in other words. In fact, Strong said in a statement, “I loaned her money to start a legitimate Zumba dance studio with the usual promissory notes at commercial interest rates and she paid back those loans. I also co-signed a lease so she could rent her studio.” Confiscated bank records show the two shared a “financial link.” And other things. Police say they found footage of Wright and Strong engaged in a number of acts, “including but not limited to sexual intercourse, anal sex, oral sex, and Internet foreplay sex.”
Wright might not have been discreet, but she had admirable record-keeping habits. Police told the court they had found several electronic client ledgers detailing the names of clients, the sexual acts Wright allegedly performed on them, the times of the visits, and how much each john had paid. There was a black appointment book, too, as well as what the police reports refer to as a “domination fetish sheet.” Police say there were as many as 150 people in the records and on the tapes—prominent businesspeople, attorneys, a former South Portland mayor, and at least one pastor among them. All told, Wright is said to have collected approximately $150,000 between October 2010 and February 2012.
Alexis Wright was a Maine girl. She’d grown up in Topsham, a small town about an hour north of Kennebunk that’s home to the annual Topsham Fair, renowned for its sheep-herding demonstrations, pie-eating contests, and oxen pulls. Classmates from Mount Ararat High School, class of 2001, remember her as a “friendly and kind” girl, according to the school paper, one who “never made fun of anyone.” She played field hockey. She made the honor roll. She was in the band. Tall and pretty, with long, dark hair and a welcoming smile, Wright arrived in Wells around 2007. She was a single mother with a two-year-old son. According to court documents, she shared parental rights and responsibilities with the boy’s father, but the child lived with Wright.
Mark Strong’s mug shot. (Photo via Knox County, Maine, Correctional Facility)
Sometime after, while getting a degree in natural sciences from the University of Southern Maine, Wright became a licensed fitness instructor and began leading classes around Kennebunk, including in the town hall, and hosting Zumba charity events to raise money for breast cancer and Haiti. In 2010, she opened Pura Vida, a 2,500-square-foot Zumba studio on York Street in the center of Kennebunk. The lease was cosigned by a man that the building’s landlord, Bee Nguyen, remembers as seeming “real friendly” with Wright. She advertised her Zumba classes—a cardio-heavy, Latin-inspired dance workout that was created in the ’90s and became popular around 2008—as well as yoga and nutritional counseling. According to her website’s instructor profile, now deleted, Wright liked to teach Zumba because “Every class feels like a party!”
Some, it seems, party harder than others. Wright would sometimes use the studio to shoot videos of herself performing repetitive dance steps, humming along with the music, fully naked. There were no shades on the studio’s floor-to-ceiling windows, but Wright didn’t seem to mind if anyone walking by happened to see. In the dozens of videos posted on amateur porn sites, she talked about how much she enjoyed being naked, in public, and showed herself engaging in sex acts: in her car, on a “well-marked trail” near home, at an outdoor park. In fact, many of the videos were filmed in locations that were easily identifiable to anyone who knew Kennebunk. “I love running around parking lots without clothes,” read one video description. “Maybe you will see me sometime.”
Eventually, the rumors began to circulate. “If anyone knows Alexis Wright from Kennebunk, Maine, you probably think she’s a sweet, friendly Zumba teacher,” began an August 2010 post on a website, created anonymously, with the creative name of alexiswrightzumbateacherpornstar.blogspot.com. “The funny thing is she’s not! She’s living a double life & is a PORN STAR!!!!! She may be a prostitute for all I know.… The sad thing is you can see her little son’s toddler bed in the background of one video…. How can you pretend to be such a respectable member of the community when you’re really sleeping around w/everyone’s husbands. I hope her Zumba clients wake up & realize who their teacher really is!!!!!!!”
It wasn’t long before the whole town began to find out. According to a local newspaper, Wright once sent an email to a group of local mothers with the subject line “Got any plans this weekend?” Attached was a topless photo of herself. She later apologized, saying her account had been hacked, though it happened again, with the message this time going to a group of local men. Again, she said her email had been hacked.
In July 2012, five months after the police searches in Kennebunk and Wells, Mark Strong was arrested in the 1800s-era Thomaston home where he had been raised. A white-haired man who’d probably once been handsome, Strong lived with his wife, Julie, who sold antiques out of an attached barn. He was charged with 59 misdemeanors, including promoting prostitution and violation of privacy. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and insists that he’s innocent. Strong’s lawyer has said that Wright was Strong’s licensed investigative assistant from 2008 to 2010, and that Wright requested that Strong perform the license-plate searches because she was concerned for her safety. Strong says that aside from the loan and cosigning of the lease, his involvement in her “business” ended there. He also says that he did not pay for sex with Wright. “The charges against me are untrue,” he said in a written statement issued by his attorney, who did not respond to requests for comment. “I have made some bad choices but I have broken no laws.”
Wright, for her part, wasn’t arrested until October—more than a year after the first complaint to the police. She was indicted that same month by a York County grand jury on 106 counts, including prostitution, invasion of privacy, and charges related to allegedly failing to pay taxes on the $150,000 she allegedly made. Wright has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
As the case unfolded, even those who’d already learned of Wright’s provocative behavior couldn’t have guessed at what was to come. Police say Wright’s main business was one she called “Sensual Body Work by Lydia.” One ad “Lydia” posted in February on the adult classifieds site backpage.com read, “I am currently seeking an upscale clientele to provide services for in my new office. I offer a comfortable environment and your discretion is incredibly important to me.” On sensualbodybylydia.com, “Lydia” wore a see-through bra while advertising $195-per-half-hour services that included nutritional counseling, massage, and “sensual body rubs” conducted in the nude (“fantasy role playing and fetish may be extra”). There was also a blog on her company’s website. “To my regular clients that came today,” read one post, “you put constant smiles on my face, giggles, and other noises that I won’t mention on here!”
On the Erotic Review, a Yelp-style website on which johns rate their experiences with prostitutes, one poster wrote of “Lydia” in Maine: “She has a very sweet, down to earth personality and is easy to get along with. She apparently is a dance instructor. She delivered as promised and has a great body. Definitely will repeat. Wish I could have gone on Valentines Day, but the Mrs. would have figured me out as I would have been too relaxed after work.”
On numerous adult websites—with names like slutload.com, largeporntube.com, and spankbang.com—videos showed up with titles such as “Lexi Wright Does the Zumba Strip,” “The Striptease,” and “Alexis Wright Inserts Popsicle.” On one site, a photo of a woman believed to be Wright appears alongside a personal profile that reads, “I live in a small town in Maine and have my own dance studio, many in my community do not realize that I am an exhibitionist and that I crave sex. I have had sex with many of the married men locally and it is satisfying to know that I am providing them with what they are not getting at home. If the women only knew.”
Wright’s York Street dance studio. (Photos by Bob O’Connor)
The office at One High Street.
Police spent months digging through the names on Wright’s ledger, trying to identify the men who had been secretly videotaped enjoying her services. Not long after her arrest, they began revealing the identities of her alleged johns—releasing them in biweekly batches, as “evidence is processed” and probable cause determined. By late November, 64 of the rumored 150-plus names culled from Wright’s “business records” had been made public.
The list includes some of the area’s more powerful and influential men: the head of a realty company, a restaurateur, a top executive at a Boston-based investment company, a Portland lawyer and former Portland Planning Board chairman, and a few local heroes, like the revered 52-year-old Kennebunk High School hockey coach, who resigned from his position in the days following the release of his name. The men range in age from 29 to 68, and half of them work in construction or home-building, including one man who owns a Turner, Maine, construction firm that bills itself as a “Christian, family-owned company.” The York County District Attorney’s office predicts the case of the “Zumba Madam” may go to trial sometime in late spring.
The news of Wright’s arrest quickly went national, and even international. By early November, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Mail had all run stories—readers in the U.K. could even peruse the Mail’s “List of Shame” of Wright’s alleged clients.
“The saying around town this time of year used to be, ‘Got ya deer yet?’” says Mark “Ned” Nedeau, a spiky-haired former Kennebunk firefighter who, at 50, says he’s had occasion to leave Kennebunk only a handful of times. Nedeau says the ongoing release of names by the police has led to a hot new question around town, one he’s had printed in red block lettering on 150 white cotton tees: “I’m NOT on the client list. ARE YOU?” He says he made the shirts, which he’s been selling for $10 each at Ashby’s, the popular Portland Road deli he runs with his wife, Gisele, to lighten the town’s collective mood, not to profit on people’s shame or embarrassment. All proceeds, he says, are being donated to the local fuel-assistance fund.
There are competing T-shirts, of course (“Free Alexis” reads one, created by Cam Groves, a local musician who also came up with a “love song” to Wright that’s trending on YouTube), and bumper stickers like “Zumba, Plead the Fifth!” and “I Wish I Was on the List!” Nedeau thinks he’ll order up some “I Survived Zumba 2012” shirts once this whole thing blows over, which, he acknowledges, probably won’t be for quite a while.
Nedeau isn’t on the list, but he knows guys who are. Everyone does, he says. On a late-November day at his deli, Ned calls out to a customer enjoying a sandwich below a carved sign that reads Faith Family Friends. “You on that list?” he shouts. The guy smiles and answers, “Not yet.” Nedeau laughs, then says he suspects that the police are saving the best, so to speak, for last. “We’re waitin’ for the big list, the premium names,” he says. “You’re hearing all these people you’ve known your whole life who are supposedly on it, and they ain’t on it yet. So, where are ya?”
Now that the case is out in the open, everyone’s begun to guess at Wright’s motivations. Why would she videotape all of those encounters? Was it part of a plan to try to extort money from clients? To blackmail them into making regular appointments? Or were they simply taken for the enjoyment of Wright and Mark Strong? Or for Wright to post on porn sites? Did she believe the videos would ensure her safety and her clients’ silence? The search for answers has led to all kinds of speculation. For instance, one commenter on that anonymously created blog writes, “My friend’s ex brother in law used to see her (the scumbag). When he decided that he no longer required her services, she claimed to have secretly taped their sessions and threatened to tell his wife. He gave her money a few times, then finally told his wife everything. His story, not mine. And I believe him. She is a sick individual.”
Nedeau says the prostitution allegations against Wright took him by surprise, though her Internet videos had been known about around town for some time. Whatever may have happened, he says, it’s none of his concern. “If you’re my friend and you’re on the list, you can still be my friend,” Nedeau says. “People in Maine can be hesitant to let something go and move on.”
Teresa Houle, a forty-something, soft-spoken strawberry-blonde who’s lived in Kennebunk her whole life, says she wasn’t too concerned with what Wright may have been doing up there above her hair salon, but she does care about the mess it’s caused, and about some of the interpretations of the whole thing that have become popular. “It’s sick how people—men and women—will say it’s because the wives weren’t being good enough to their men,” she says. “I guarantee that’s not what was happening.” Not that it matters. As she puts it, this sort of thing—prostitution, that is, or maybe just sex—happened before Alexis Wright moved to Kennebunk, and it will happen again.
Of course, so much of the fascination with the Zumba Madam is precisely because it involves Kennebunk. Houle thinks it’s funny how people are bemoaning the loss of innocence. “They keep saying, ‘Oh, what happened to our quaint little town?’” she says. “But it’s not so quaint anymore.” When she was growing up, she says, there was a sort of purity and friendliness, but now that’s gone.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/12/kennebunk-maine-prostitution-scandal-alexis-wright-zumba/