December 14, 2019
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James Peaslee denied new trial in murder of stepfather

Jen Lynds | BDN
Jen Lynds | BDN
James Peaslee, center, was found guilty of murder and using a firearm to intentionally or knowingly cause the death of another in Aroostook County Superior Court in Houlton late Tuesday, June 11, 2019. He is flanked by his attorneys, at left, John Tebbetts of Presque Isle and Stephen Smith of Bangor.

BRIDGEWATER, Maine — An Easton man found guilty in June of killing his stepfather ha s been denied his request for a new trial.

A hearing on the matter was held in Aroostook County Superior Court in Houlton on Nov. 12 before Justice Harold Stewart II.

James Peaslee, 38, was found guilty of murder, following a June 11 jury trial at Houlton Superior Court, for using a firearm to intentionally or knowingly cause the death of his stepfather, Paul Hilenski Sr.

He will be sentenced Nov. 18 in Caribou Superior Court.

Hilenski Sr. died from a gunshot wound to the chest after Peaslee came to his home in the evening hours of January 2018 and fired multiple gunshots at him, according to court testimony.

The 79-year-old victim lived alone at his home on the Boundary Line Road in Bridgewater. Multiple security videos taken from Hilenski’s home depicted the killing.

According to court documents filed by Peaslee’s defense attorney, Stephen Smith of Augusta, Peaslee’s motion stems from the discovery of a letter provided to him by the state that could not have been discovered before the trial.

The letter — from July 29 — said that state police Detective Cheryl Holmes had by chance spoken with an inmate, Stephanie Vierkant.

Vierkant said that George Peaslee had told her that he had actually killed Hilenski, and that his brother had taken the blame because George Peaslee had a family, according to court documents. Vierkant said the confession happened while she was at a trailer park in Washburn to purchase drugs. George Peaslee came into the home, described his brother’s arrest and said that he “didn’t even effing do it.”

George Peaslee was “at the scene of the crime before, and on the morning of the murder,” and had just as much of a motive as his brother “to want [the victim] dead,” Smith wrote in the motion.

Assistant Attorneys General Leanne Robbin and Robert “Bud” Ellis contended at trial that the motive for the crime centered on Peaslee’s fury over a probate decision involving the estate of his mother, Janet Hilenski. After she died suddenly without a will, Hilenski Sr. was allowed to remain on the property after the case went through probate.

Peaslee and his siblings received checks from the estate.

The defense questioned several witnesses about Peaslee’s resemblance to his brother, George Peaslee, during the trial. George Peaslee did not testify nor make an appearance in the courtroom.

Smith further addressed the security video that showed the killing. He argued that George and James Peaslee bear a “striking resemblance” to each other but that George does not have tattoos on his arm.

“This is of critical importance, because the murderer in the video also did not have tattoos on his arm,” he wrote. “These are all factors that corroborate the truthfulness of the statement.”

Smith also stressed in the motion that George Peaslee was “the only plausible alternate suspect, and was at the home of the deceased the night before, and the morning of, his murder.”

At the time of trial, Smith wrote that he had no direct confession from George Peaslee to use in his client’s defense. Prosecutors said at the trial that data showed Peaslee’s phone was off for three hours on the day of the murder, which is when they said he was killing his stepfather.

Peaslee’s fingerprints were also found on a box of .380-caliber ammunition and a tray taken from his home during a search.

Several police officers also identified James Peaslee as the man in Hilenski’s security video, and Matthew Clark, an inmate at the Aroostook County Jail at the time of the trial, also testified that Peaslee told him that he had gone to the Mars Hill One Stop in the hours before the killing to “establish an alibi,” change into different clothes, and then go to the victim’s house. Peaslee was pictured on the store’s security cameras in the hours before the killing.

In the motion denying a new trial, however, the justice wrote that George Peaslee was “unavailable as a witness to provide testimony under oath” because he is suffering from bipolar disorder with manic psychotic episodes, and was currently in the Intensive Mental Health Unit of the Maine State Prison.

Addressing his appearance, Stewart wrote that George Peaslee participated in a videotaped interview with police the day after his brother was arrested. George Peaslee had a mustache and some facial hair, and several tattoos on his arms.

“Although George’s appearance observed in the video arguably shares some similarities with James Peaslee, George’s overall appearance is distinct from his brother James,” he wrote.

The judge wrote that George Peaslee’s statement made in Vierkant’s presence is inadmissible under the law. He also wrote that when the jury viewed the video of Hilenski’s murder multiple times, they saw James Peaslee in the courtroom and also saw a photo of George Peaslee taken shortly after the murder, giving them enough evidence to reach a decision about James Peaslee’s guilt.

 



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