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.
Speaking through 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 who was tasked with investigating "all manner of sexual deviants."
Her attorney, Sarah Churchill, insisted Friday that it was true 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.
Churchill told the judge that the defendant had a difficult childhood, witnessing domestic violence and suffering 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 that were reduced from felonies. 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, who has acknowledged having an affair with Wright, was originally charged with 59 counts.
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.
"It's my intention to stand up for what is right. 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."
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.
It came as little surprise that Wright opted to avoid standing trial by pleading guilty because evidence against her was overwhelming in Strong's trial, with jurors watching a video of her engaging in sex with a client who left $250, which she pocketed.
Prosecutors say paid sex happened in her Kennebunk studio, apartment and an office, where tenants complained about moaning and groaning.
Electronic evidence was plentiful because Wright and Strong kept in touch via text, email and Skype, which Wright used to send a live video stream of sex acts to Strong.
Evidence unsealed after the trial indicated electronic exchanges in which Wright talked about the business goals: nine clients a week, 45 clients a month. They also openly discussed scheduling, insurance payments, her sexy outfits and clients' preferences. She even appeared to seek advice from Strong after encountering an unhappy client.