KENNEBUNK, Maine (Reuters) - Every summer, vacationers come to this lighthouse-studded stretch of the Maine coast to nibble on lobster and admire the scenery.
Now locals are confronting allegations that dozens of men from the surrounding area have also been visiting the picturesque town of Kennebunk to rendezvous with a Zumba fitness instructor charged with running a prostitution business out of her downtown studio.
Even more disturbing for many, what’s become known as “the list” - the names of alleged clients that fitness instructor Alexis Wright kept - is in the hands of the Kennebunk Police Department.
The names of 21 of the estimated 150 johns documented by Wright were released by police this week on the orders of a judge. Dozens more are expected to be disclosed as charges are brought. Those named so far include prominent Maine businessmen and professionals as well as men from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Wright, 29, of neighboring Wells, and her business partner Mark Strong Sr. of Thomaston, have been charged with running the prostitution business from her studio and a nearby office space.
The two also face charges of invasion of privacy for allegedly conspiring to secretly videotape Wright’s encounters with the men. A lawyer for Wright did not return a call seeking comment.
Though the charges against the men would be a misdemeanor likely to generate no more than a fine, the very fact that prosecutors are going after the men as well as the woman points to broader questions about how to deal with prostitution.
The case has also led to much soul-searching in a community unaccustomed to scandal.
A local newspaper ran an article advising families on how to cope with the airing of sexual infidelity.
Donna Littlefield, a 45-year-old hair stylist in the town, described the situation as “a big mess.”
“Let’s move forward and have it come out so we can all deal with it,” she said, adding that release of the names of Wright’s clients was a question of fairness.
“You play, you pay. It’s no different from anybody who gets arrested for drunk driving,” she said. “Of course, if you know your husband is on the list, it’d be different.”
Videos of a woman appearing to be Wright have surfaced on the Internet, offering a glimpse into the dual life police allege she led.
In one video, she is leading a dancing group of middle-aged women clad in pink t-shirts in a Zumba class to raise money for breast cancer research. In another, one of several provocative videos linked to the case, she appears to perform a striptease in the Zumba studio clad in a revealing evening dress.
Adding to the drama was the tortuous way the names were released. After two of the men lost a legal fight to block the release on the grounds that it was an invasion of privacy, a judge ordered the names of the first 21 men facing charges be released, but without ages and addresses.
After this stirred confusion, he issued orders allowing police to release the alleged clients’ middle initials, addresses and ages.
“The issue is weighing and balancing the individual’s privacy interests versus the state’s rather minimal interest in prosecuting a crime classified as among the least serious in the state of Maine,” said Stephen Schwartz, a lawyer for the two men who tried to fight the release. “The frenzy is incredible in our community.”
Kennebunk is a few miles away from the more famous town of Kennebunkport, known as the location of former President George H.W. Bush’s summer home.
Lieutenant Anthony Bean Burpee, who is heading the investigation for the Kennebunk police, said he has gotten more than 300 messages of criticism and support for the department’s effort to prosecute the alleged johns.
The next round of names is likely to be released on October 26, with more to come in the weeks that follow.
Burpee said he could not recall a single prostitution case in the small town in his 14 years on the job.
“This is Kennebunk. It’s a postcard community,” he said. “We certainly wish she could have rented space elsewhere.”
Editing by Claudia Parsons