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Accused killer denied bail during video appearance in court from jail

CARIBOU, Maine — James Peaslee, 37, of Easton, who is accused of killing his 79-year-old stepfather, was denied bail during his first court appearance Friday via video from the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton. 

The court hearing, presided over by Justice Harold Stewart sitting in Caribou Superior Court, was brief, lasting less than 10 minutes.

Peaslee said little during the proceeding as he was represented from the jail by attorneys Robert Ward, left, and Jeff Pickering. Stewart explained to the defendant that he was charged with murder and using a firearm to intentionally, knowingly cause the death of Paul Hilenski of Bridgewater.

Pickering indicated that his client understood the charges and wished to be represented by attorney Stephen Smith. Stewart said the court was in the process of appointing both Smith and attorney John Tebbetts to represent Peaslee. Smith was not present for Friday’s hearing, but Tebbetts was in the courtroom in Caribou.

Superior Court Justice Harold Stewart presides over the first court appearance on Jan. 19 of James Peaslee, who is charged with murder in the death of 79-year-old Paul Hilenski of Bridgewater. (Christopher Bouchard)

Also in the Caribou courtroom, Assistant Attorney General John Alsop requested that Peaslee be held without bail and the judge agreed. Stewart indicated that a more formal arraignment would be held after a grand jury reviewed the case against Peaslee. The grand jury, he said, likely would take up the case in February or March.

The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call about 6 p.m. Wednesday from Hilenski’s Boundary Line Road home in Bridgeport, according to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland.

When Aroostook deputies and state police arrived at his home, they found Hilenski dead inside, McCausland said in a press release issued Thursday. Police did not publicly release a cause of death, however, and Justice Stewart’s reference in court Friday to a firearm being used in the crime was the first indication from authorities that Hlienski was shot.

The affidavit in the case has been impounded and no other details about the case were released Friday. The state medical examiner’s office also could not be reached Friday to determine if an autopsy has been completed.

Police located and arrested Peaslee at about 1 a.m. Thursday as he was driving on the West Ridge Road in Easton.

Peaslee has a lengthy criminal record in Maine dating back to an assault in 1998 for which he was convicted and sentenced to serve his first 5 days in jail, according to the state’s Bureau of Identification. Since then over the last two decades, he has served several months in jail for a variety of offenses.

While specifics about the incidents are not included in the 35-page criminal record provided by the bureau, it shows that Peaslee has been convicted of multiple crimes in the last two decades, including criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, assault, terrorizing, unlawful trafficking in scheduled drugs, refusing to submit to arrest, violating bail conditions, and violating conditions of probation.

According to the state Department of Corrections, was last incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren from July 8, 2014, to May 1, 2015.

As news of the killing spread in Bridgewater on Thursday, some residents of the tiny community of about 600 said they were shocked by the death of their neighbor.

“Paul was my friend for 15 years ever since my wife and I moved here from Rhode Island,” said Christian Rotter, who lives just down the road from the victim’s home on Boundary Line Road.

“I was sad when I found out. This never should’ve happened,” he said as he stood by the side of the road near the victim’s home after walking up as close as police would allow while they gathered evidence Thursday.

Rotter said that Hilenski was Peaslee’s stepfather. He said Hilenski had married Peaslee’s mother, Janet, who died in a car accident in 2015.

Jim and Diana Gehring, who live about a mile away on on the Boundary Line Road, said they did not know Hilenski personally, but were familiar with Peaslee’s troubled past. Still they said they were shocked by what happened Wednesday night.

“It’s a shame that something like this had to happen,” Jim Gehring said at their home Thursday morning. “Bridgewater is normally a quiet little town.”

The Bridgewater homicide brings to four the number police have responded to so far in 2018, compared to one in January last year and two in January 2016, according to McCausland. Cases so far this month include a murder-suicide in Temple and a homicide each in Bangor and Portland.

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