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Friends defend Zumba teacher in prostitution case in Maine

KENNEBUNK, Maine — The dance instructor accused of turning her Zumba studio into a place of prostitution was an honors high school student who attended college and ran dance classes for the local parks and recreation program. She hosted charity events benefiting Toys for Tots and breast cancer research.

That is why some who know Alexis Wright say she is the last person they thought would get caught up in a headline-
grabbing scandal.

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The prostitution case involving the fitness instructor and more than 100 accused clients has made international headlines from this seaside town of 10,000 known for its beaches, charming homes, and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, as well as the nearby ‘‘summer White House’’ while President George H.W. Bush was in office.

For local residents, the criminal case has been evolving in slow motion, with police releasing more names of accused clients every two weeks. Thirty-nine men have been identified, and more names are being ­released Friday.

Police said Wright videotaped many of the encounters without her clients’ knowledge and kept records suggesting the sex acts generated $150,000 over 18 months. Explicit sex videos also surfaced online.

While she is portrayed as Zumba instructor gone wild, those who know her say that there is another side than the one in the news coverage.

Andrew Scherzer, a longtime friend, said Wright is a great mother to her 7-year-old son and has lived a life full of Hallmark-­style moments, with camping and canoeing trips and outings to the Portland Children’s Museum and the New England Aquarium.

‘‘If you were an outsider and spent time with her and her kid, the last thing you’d suspect is that she had this side business going on,’’ said Scherzer, who went to high school and reconnected several years ago with Wright, who attended concerts given by his Afro-Cuban band.

Others feel the same way.

Evelyn Barbour, who met Wright, 29, in the fifth grade and remained friendly through high school, said classmates at Mount Ararat High School were shocked by the charges.

‘‘I thought she was a really nice person,’’ said Barbour, now a science teacher at the high school. “I never, ever saw her be mean or rude to anyone. She was extremely kind.”

Wright was an honors student at Mount Ararat, where she played field hockey and participated in the concert band, wind ensemble, and chamber singers.

‘‘She was really nice kid, a sweet kid,’’ said Allen Graffam, the director. “She worked hard. She did what was expected. She blended in with lots of kids. She didn’t stand out in any bad ways. She was just a nice, sweet kid.”

After high school, Wright took classes at Keene State College and Southern Maine Community College before earning a natural sciences degree in 2010 from the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. Around the same time, the single mother was becoming known around Kennebunk for her Zumba classes, first offered in the auditorium of the Town Hall. She hosted Zumba charity events for earthquake victims in Haiti, the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer, and Toys for Tots, among others. Those who attended her fitness classes remembered her as fun and energetic.

But police said there was more than Zumba going on ­after she opened a dance studio on Main Street and later rented an office across the street.

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