Alexis Wright, Maine Zumba instructor accused of prostitution, pleads not guilty

Alexis Wright turns toward her attorney Sarah Churchill, left, during her arraignment. AP Photo/Joel Page

(CBS/AP) KENNEBUNK, Maine - Alexis Wright, a fitness instructor in a southern Maine town, was charged Tuesday with running a prostitution business out of her Zumba dance studio and secretly videotaping her encounters, prosecutors say.

Wright, 29, pleaded not guilty 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. Her alleged 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 was 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," Strong's lawyer Daniel Lilly said at the hearing.

Police have begun issuing summons to Wright's customers and will release the names in the weeks ahead. Townspeople said 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.

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 in 2010 teaching Zumba, a Latin-inspired fitness program that combines aerobics and dance, about 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 accused 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 read.

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-hour or hour at a time, according to a police affidavit released when Strong 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 said.

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. Police said that judging by what they found, Wright's alleged 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.

Wright is a single mother of a young son. It wasn't clear whether Wright still has custody of her son; the agency that oversees child welfare says it can't comment.

Both Wright and Strong are now free on personal recognizance.