By Scott Malone
ALFRED, Maine (Reuters) - A Zumba instructor who admitted to using her exercise studio as a front for a prostitution business tearfully described a history of abuse before being sentenced to 10 months in county jail on Friday.
The instructor, 30-year-old Alexis Wright, and her 57-year-old conspirator Mark Strong, had recorded Wright's sessions with clients and maintained a list of about 150 local men -- disclosures that shocked the seaside town of Kennebunk, Maine, where Wright operated.
"I've spent my entire life hiding the abuse and bad experiences that I have had," Wright said in the historic courthouse, where the words "fidelity," "decorum" and "virtue" were carved above the windows.
"I'm a person who knows the difference between right and wrong and because of this reason I chose to take the time in jail and take responsibility for my actions," said Wright, sobbing into a tissue given her attorney by a court employee. "Those actions were not taken because I wanted to do it. I did not feel like I was in a position to choose."
Wright in March pleaded guilty to charges including prostitution and conspiracy, heading off a trial in which jurors would have seen photos and videos of the accused prostitute engaged in sex acts with johns.
The videos were recorded on a computer in Strong's office in Thomaston, 100 miles up the Atlantic coast, a step the pair took as a security measure, according to court papers.
About 68 of Wright's clients have been charged as a result of those records and another 40 cases are still being evaluated, prosecutors said.
Wright, her dark hair curled and dressed in a gray suit, blamed Strong, who in March was convicted of charges of promoting prostitution and sentenced to 20 days in prison. The two met about eight years ago, when Wright was working as an exotic dancer to support a former boyfriend, Wright's attorney, Sarah Churchill, told the court.
Churchill said that as a child, Wright witnessed her father abusing her mother and later was sexually abused by him.
'PARTNERS' IN CRIME
Deputy District Attorney Justine McGettigan told reporters after the proceedings that York County officials did not accept Wright's claim that Strong was to blame.
"She has her reasons why she's saying what she did," McGettigan said. "The state's view is that they were partners together in this crime over a period of time and so the evidence that we have was that she was an active participant."
Wright's sentence was considerably longer than Strong's, a fact that reflected that in addition to prostitution-related charges, she had also pleaded guilty to collecting public assistance illegally, not paying taxes on the cash her prostitution business earned and illegally collecting unearned tax refunds, said Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills.
In addition to the 10 months in county jail, Wright will have to pay close to $60,000 in restitution for fraudulently collected benefits, underpaid taxes and fines, Mills said.
Mills rejected Wright's plea to allow her to serve her sentence in neighboring Cumberland County jail, which Wright's attorney argued would be more suited to visits with her eight-year-old son.
The case has been the subject of intense public interest in a normally quiet Maine town previously best known for its proximity to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush's vacation home in Kennebunkport.
Despite the attention and her looming prison time, Wright said she had felt a great sense of relief since police raided her studio early last year.
"Despite how difficult this has been since February 2012, this is the happiest time of my life," Wright said, before being led off to serve her sentence.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Dan Grebler)