ELLSWORTH, Maine — There is no direct evidence that a Portland man ran over and killed his girlfriend in Acadia National Park last year, his defense attorney told a jury Wednesday morning.
But prosecutors in the murder trial of Raymond Lester say that his behavior in the hours before Nicole Mokeme was found dead at the park’s Schoodic Institute, and the fact that he fled and evaded police for a month before being arrested in Mexico, point to Lester as Mokeme’s killer.
Lester, 37, is charged with murder in the death of Mokeme, whose mangled body was found next to a walking path on the institute’s campus on the morning of June 19, 2022. Police say Lester had been feuding with Mokeme the night before her body was found. Mokeme, who was 35 years old, was a South Portland resident.
During opening arguments Wednesday in Lester’s trial, his defense attorney, Caitlyn Smith, told the jury of 16 people, including 4 alternates, that no one saw Mokeme get run over.
The evidence prosecutors have is about Lester’s behavior the night before, when he was listening to loud music and driving aggressively around the Schoodic Institute campus, Smith said. Prosecutors will tell the jury that Lester fled and avoided police for a month before he was arrested in Mexico, but they do not have direct evidence that Lester killed Mokeme.
“You will not hear from one witness who saw Nicole get hit by a car,” Smith said. “You will not hear from one witness who saw anything happen to Nicole.”
Mokeme, the founder and creative director for Rise and Shine Youth Retreat, was leading a retreat for Black Mainers at the former Navy base campus. Many of the attendees are Black, and will testify that they later avoided talking to police because of concerns about racial tensions between police and people of color, Smith said.
Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin told the jury the retreat was meant to be a peaceful event where attendees could spend time and enjoy nature. But Lester “shattered” the mood at a campfire gathering the night of June 18, 2022, by driving aggressively around the campus and drinking vodka straight from a bottle, Robbin said.
He also was loudly playing a song with violent lyrics and, when other retreat attendees tried to talk to him and get him to settle down, he responded by pointing his finger at other people as if he were firing a gun.
“It should have been a joyful occasion,” Robbin told the jury. “Instead, there was a cloud over the retreat and that cloud was this man, Raymond Lester.”
Robbin also told the jury that after Lester fled, he drove south to Portland and then to Rhode Island, where he traded in his cellphone at a Walmart in Warwick. He then kept driving, to Georgia and then to Texas, and then went to Mexico. She said police never found Lester’s car, a black BMW X3 sport utility vehicle.
Robbin said Mokeme’s intestines had been forced out of her body from the impact of being run over.
Police found pieces of plastic that appeared to have come from a car near Mokeme’s body. The pieces are consistent with a black BMW XS, police have said.
The jury took a bus to the Schoodic Institute late Wednesday morning with Justice Robert Murray, the judge presiding over the trial, and with prosecutors and defense attorneys to view the scene where Mokeme’s body was found and where Lester is believed to have driven through trees and onto the walking path. The visit lasted about 15 minutes before they boarded the bus and traveled back to Ellsworth.
Nicole Mokeme’s death
Witnesses who testified Wednesday include two people from Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who were with another group staying at the Schoodic Institute the night Mokeme died and who were the first to come across her body and report it to the police.
Ryan Henry, a student at the school, testified that he found Mokeme’s crumpled body next to a walking path on the morning of June 19, 2022. Kevin Hefferan, a professor at the school, said that Mokeme appeared to have died from some sort of “violent attack,” but that he first thought it may have been by a wild animal.
Officers with Maine State Police also testified Wednesday, detailing how they were contacted about Mokeme’s death and what sort of evidence they found and collected or documented. Much of the police testimony was about where they found tire tracks that led from a roadway onto the walking path where Mokeme’s body was found, about black pieces of plastic that appeared to have broken off a car on the walking path, and about injuries Mokeme appeared to have suffered when she died.
Several gruesome photographs of Mokeme’s injuries were shown to the jury on a large electronic display screen while police testified.
The trial got underway Wednesday morning in Ellsworth and has been scheduled to run through Nov. 9.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information about what defense attorney Caitlyn Smith told the jury during her opening arguments.