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'Affairs are bad decisions but not crimes': Opening arguments begin in Zumba prostitution case

ALFRED, Maine — An insurance agent accused of helping a Zumba dance instructor run a prostitution business was deeply involved and consulted frequently with her — especially on days when patrons visited, a prosecutor told jurors on Wednesday.

But the defense for Mark Strong Sr. countered that he was guilty only of having an affair with a younger woman and of trying to help his lover's dance studio, which he thought was wholly legitimate.

"He got close to her. He liked her. He wanted to protect her. You'll have to see if he stepped over the line, and stepped over the line beyond a reasonable doubt," defense attorney Dan Lilley told jurors. "Affairs are bad decisions but not crimes."

The lawyers delivered their opening statements after lengthy delays in picking a jury.

Jury selection stalled for more than three weeks after prosecutors appealed the dismissal of 46 invasion-of-privacy counts against the married businessman. Strong, 57, of Thomaston, is standing trial on 13 other counts dealing with promotion of prostitution.

Both he and the fitness instructor, Alexis Wright, have pleaded not guilty. Wright, who will be tried later, faces charges including engaging in prostitution.

Strong, who ran an insurance agency, helped Wright launch her Pura Vida dance-fitness studio by co-signing for her lease and loaning money with commercial notes that were repaid with interest. He contends he didn't know about allegations of prostitution.

But York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan told jurors that Strong knew exactly what was going on and used his private investigator's license to run license plate registration checks on johns.

"Mr. Strong was actively engaged in that business enterprise," McGettigan said, pointing out that Strong and Wright communicated frequently via video link, text and email.

Lilley said Strong never promoted the business nor did he profit from it.

"The question is did he promote prostitution or fall in love with a woman and have an extramarital affair," he told jurors.

The case has generated national and international headlines because of its location in a quiet seaside hamlet next to Kennebunkport, home of the Bush family's Walker's Point summer compound, and the scale of the prostitution alleged.

Law enforcement officials say Wright kept meticulous records suggesting the sex acts generated $150,000 over 18 months.

A lawyer who's seen the client list says it includes more than 150 names, some of them prominent. Those who've been charged include a former mayor, a high school hockey coach, a minister, a lawyer and a firefighter.

Lilley told jurors Wednesday that Strong is a former selectman, little league coach and umpire, husband of 30 years, and father of two grown sons.

He said Strong is not a saint but that he's not a criminal, either. While the charges are all misdemeanors, they're still serious and must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, Lilley told jurors, urging them to take their job seriously.

"If you make a mistake, you take it to your grave," he said.