Men charged with murder in death of Essex Street man held without bail

Natalie Williams (2) | BDN
Natalie Williams (2) | BDN
Cote Choneska, 39, of Veazie (left) and Joseph “JJ” Johnson, 30, of Old Town make their first court appearance Friday at the Penobscot Judicial Center.
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The two men charged with murder in the Nov. 1 death of a Bangor man in his Essex Street home made their first court appearances Friday at the Penobscot Judicial Center.
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The two men charged with murder in the Nov. 1 death of a Bangor man in his Essex Street home made their first court appearances Friday at the Penobscot Judicial Center.

Joseph “JJ” Johnson, 30, of Old Town, and Cote Choneska, 39, of Veazie were arrested Wednesday and taken to the Penobscot County Jail.

They allegedly killed Berton Conley, 59, before setting his home on fire.

Johnson and Choneska have not been charged with arson.

Superior Court Justice William Anderson ordered that both men be held without bail at the Penobscot County Jail. He did not ask Johnson and Choneska to enter pleas to the charge of intentional or knowing murder because they have not yet been indicted by a Penobscot County grand jury.

Police were called to 258 Essex St. at about 7:50 a.m. on Nov. 1. Firefighters located a fire in the kitchen and found Conley unconscious inside the smoke-filled house.

Conley was brought to Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center where he was later pronounced dead. The medical examiner determined the manner of death was a homicide. The cause of death has not been released.

Information about how the two men knew Conley was not released. Anderson sealed the affidavit in the case until after the men can be indicted by the Penobscot County grand jury. The grand jury next convenes on Jan. 2.

Both defendants have criminal histories, according to the Maine State Bureau of Identification.

Choneska was sentenced in 1998 to 30 years in prison with all but 18 years suspended for shooting a Clifton store owner six times the previous year. He, his brother Tolbert Choneska, then 19, and his cousin, Travis Murphy, then 18, robbed the Clifton Variety Store on March 20, 1997. Tolbert Choneska and Murphy each were sentenced to five years in prison.

The owner survived, but was left partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

All three teens pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the robbery.

Choneska was released from Mountain View Correctional Facility on Dec. 24, 2012, according to the Maine Department of Corrections. He completed probation earlier this year.

Choneska is a Passamaquoddy who grew up in Pleasant Point but spent much of his life in foster care and at the Maine Youth Center in South Portland, which is now called Long Creek Youth Development Center.

In 2007, while an inmate at the Maine State Prison, Choneska and other Native American inmates sued the Department of Corrections alleging that they had been illegally denied a sweat lodge, powwows, ceremonial foods and ceremonial music. Although the lawsuit was dismissed on legal technicalities, the following year the department accommodated the religious needs of Native American inmates.

Johnson has a longer but less violent criminal history that dates back to 2005, when he was a juvenile. His convictions include drunken driving, drug trafficking, criminal mischief and violations of bail and probation conditions. The longest sentence imposed on Johnson was 30 months in prison with all but six months suspended and two years of probation on a drug trafficking charge in 2017. He was on probation for that crime when he allegedly killed Conley. His probation, which began on May 12, 2018, was scheduled to be completed in August 2020.

If convicted of murder, Johnson and Choneska face between 25 years to life in prison.

 



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