ALFRED, Maine (AP) — A Zumba fitness instructor at the center of a prostitution scandal featuring sex videos, adultery and more than 100 clients told a judge who sentenced her Friday to 10 months in jail that she's happy to have escaped her former life.
Sniffling and fighting back tears, Alexis Wright said she felt relief when police raided her business on Feb. 12, 2012, because she wanted out.
"In my eyes I'm free. I'm free from this," she told the judge. "I have an incredible amount of strength that I knew was in me somewhere. Now that I have the strength I want to encourage others to come forward. I want them to know that there's at least one person out there who'll believe their story, no matter how crazy it seems."
The former single mother was accused of conspiring with insurance business owner Mark Strong to run a prostitution business in which she videotaped clients without their knowledge and kept detailed records over an 18-month period indicating she made $150,000 tax-free. She also collected more than $40,000 in public assistance.
In an odd twist to the already strange case, the defense said in a court document that Wright became part of Strong's private investigation firm and was manipulated into believing she was an "operative" working for the state with the task of investigating "all manner of sexual deviants."
Her attorney, Sarah Churchill, said Friday that Wright, coached by Strong, thought she was investigating sex, even as she was getting paid large sums of money by clients.
Churchill said self-deception is a coping mechanism for women involved in prostitution.
"Because of her trauma history, it makes her more easily manipulated," she said. "As this all unravels and charges are brought, you look back on it, like everybody does, you say to yourself, 'What was I thinking? How did I fall into this?' You just don't see it while you're in the middle of it."
Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan, however, said investigators continue to believe Wright was "a willing participant" in the prostitution business.
"The state believes she and Mark Strong were equal partners and that she played an active role in the operation," she told reporters.
The scandal in the seaside town of Kennebunk, known for its sea captain's mansions, beaches and New England charm, became a sensation following reports that Wright had at least 150 clients, some of them prominent. So far, those who have been charged include a former mayor, a high school hockey coach, a minister, a lawyer and a firefighter.
So far, 68 accused clients have been charged and more than half have been convicted, McGettigan said. Another 40 remain under investigation, she said.
Churchill told the judge that the defendant had a difficult childhood; she witnessed domestic violence and suffered sexual abuse before becoming an exotic dancer and meeting Strong. She said Strong used her troubled background to manipulate her.
The 30-year-old Wright was sentenced under a plea agreement to 20 counts including prostitution, conspiracy, tax evasion and theft by deception. Afterward, she was led from court to begin serving her sentence at a county jail.
Wright was originally charged with 106 counts. All the counts in the plea agreement were misdemeanors, including three counts relating to welfare and tax fraud. Under the agreement, prosecutors will seek restitution of $57,280.54.
Strong, 57, of Thomaston, was convicted of 13 counts related to promotion of prostitution and was sentenced to 20 days in jail. The married father of two acknowledged having an affair with Wright.
On Friday, Wright looked back at her husband, whom she married last year, before addressing the judge, telling her it was "incredibly nauseating" to hear Strong speak in the media of their relationship as one of love and friendship.
Wright said she was relieved that the relationship ended. "These actions were not taken because I wanted to. I did not feel I was in a position to choose," she said.
She said she intends to make good on her vow to help others.
"When I'm out, I'm going to pursue helping people fight through situations that are similar to mine," she said. "I'm optimistic that something good will come out of this."
Wright's husband, Jayson Trowbridge, left without speaking to reporters. But he gave a statement to the judge describing his wife as a good mother who was anguished over her actions, and explaining that he was there for her.
"My vow of marriage was a choice to stand up for her when she couldn't find the strength to stand up for herself," he wrote.
After agreeing to the plea bargain, Justice Nancy Mills had words of encouragement for Wright.
"Based on what you have to say and what I know about you from your attorney, I know that you will succeed when you're released and that you will prevail. I wish you success," Mills said.
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