The two men charged in the slaying of a Bangor man in his Essex Street home on Nov. 1 pleaded not guilty Monday at the Penobscot Judicial Center to one count each of intentional or knowing murder and arson.
Joseph “JJ” Johnson, 30, of Old Town, and Cote Choneska, 40, of Veazie were arrested Dec. 4 for allegedly slaying Berton Conley, 59, then setting his home on fire.
Superior Court Justice William Anderson ordered that the two continue to be held without bail at the Penobscot County Jail.
A trial date has not been set.
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 in the living room of 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 and was not included in police affidavits, which were unsealed after the men entered their pleas.
During an autopsy at the Maine State Medical Examiner’s Office on Nov. 2, Bangor police Detective Jeremy Brock observed “extensive injuries to Berton’s face and the top of his head,” the affidavit said.
His body was found in the living room where a large pool of blood also was observed, according to the affidavit. A damaged revolver with a broken trigger guard was found in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. A brown handgun holster and a container of lighter fluid were found near Conley’s body.
Both men allegedly told police that they had been to Conley’s home in the early morning hours of Nov. 1 to buy drugs but said they left and returned home at about 2 a.m. Johnson’s sister said that the two men came to her Old Town apartment on the night of Oct. 31. She last saw them at about midnight, the affidavits said. They allegedly returned to her apartment and woke her up at about 8 a.m.
Johnson and Choneska were arrested more than a month after Conley’s death. Neither man confessed to police that either had killed Conley. But during one interview, a detective saw that the knuckles on Johnson’s right hand were noticeably swollen, the affidavit said.
In a Nov. 8 interview with police, Johnson allegedly revised his story to say that he left Conley’s house a week earlier between 2 and 2:30 a.m. The affidavit said that Johnson’s cell phone records showed that he was in Bangor and near the crime scene at about 5:30 a.m.
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 manslaughter in the shooting of a Clifton store owner six times the previous year. The owner survived, but was left partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
Choneska was released from Mountain View Correctional Facility on Dec. 24, 2012, according to the Maine Department of Corrections. He completed probation last year.
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. They face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of arson.