A Veazie man charged with arson and murder in the 2019 beating death of Bangor resident in his Essex Street home pleaded guilty Friday to hindering the apprehension of his codefendant.
Cote Choneska , 41, and Joseph “J.J.” Johnson, 32, of Old Town were indicted last year in the beating death of Berton Conley, 59, and in a fire set at his Essex Street house. Both men have pleaded not guilty to those charges, but Choneska was in court Friday at the Penobscot Judicial Center to plead guilty to hindering the apprehension of Johnson.
In exchange for his plea, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Bogue and defense attorney William Ashe of Ellsworth recommended he be sentenced to five years in prison with all but the time he has already served suspended and two years of probation.
Choneska is expected to testify at Johnson’s trial in late January and early February about what happened in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2019, when Conley was slain. The murder and arson charges will be dismissed Friday afternoon, according to Bogue.
Bogue said that the prosecution had learned recently that Choneska “was not present at the time the injuries were inflicted or when the fire was set.” Choneska was with Johnson at Conley’s residence when Johnson killed Conley but did not report that to police and was aware that Johnson had thrown the victim’s cell phone in the Penobscot River, Bogue said.
Superior Court Justice William Anderson accepted Choneska’s plea and imposed the recommended sentence despite finding in August that there was probable cause for Choneska to be charged with murder and arson.
At the hearing, Ashe argued that prosecutors had shown that Choneska may have been with Johnson when Conley died but had no evidence to tie him directly to the slaying or fire.
The two men went to Conley’s home to buy drugs on Nov. 1, 2019, according to a police affidavit. Johnson allegedly beat Conley to death with his fists before setting the fire in an attempt to cover up the crime.
Choneska was charged as an accomplice, according to Ashe.
Police were called to 258 Essex St. at about 7:50 a.m. Firefighters located a fire in the kitchen and found Conley unconscious inside the smoke-filled house.
He 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.
Johnson and Choneska have been held without bail since their arrests in December 2019. Johnson remains incarcerated at the Penobscot County Jail. Choneska was expected to be released from the Somerset County Jail in East Madison, where he has been boarded most recently.
If he’d been convicted of murder and arson, Choneska would have faced between 25 years and life in prison on the murder charge and up to 30 years in prison on the arson charge. Johnson faces those same punishments if convicted of the charges.
The maximum penalty for the Class B crime of hindering apprehension is 10 years in prison.