A jury trial for Raymond Ellis of Skowhegan began Wednesday in Somerset County Superior Courthouse in Skowhegan. He is accused of robbing the Big Apple convenience store in Madison in 2023. Jake Freudberg/Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN — The jury trial for a 35-year-old Skowhegan man accused of robbing the Big Apple convenience store in Madison got underway Wednesday as his defense attorney focused questioning on the two other suspects who admitted to the crime.

Raymond Ellis Somerset County Sheriff’s Office photo

In April, Raymond Ellis was indicted on charges of robbery, criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and theft by unauthorized taking in connection with the robbery on Aug. 5, 2023, according to court records. The Somerset County Sheriff’s Office in January announced charges against Ellis, who was already jail on charges related to a police chase in downtown Skowhegan.

Authorities believe that Ellis, along with a boy who was 17 years old at the time, entered the store on Old Point Avenue around 3 a.m. on Aug. 5, pointed guns at the store clerk, and demanded money, said First Assistant District Attorney Tim Snyder of the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office. They allegedly took money, cigarettes, beverages and the clerk’s wallet.

Seth Johnson, 19, of Skowhegan, acted as the getaway driver for the trio, according to prosecutors and his own testimony.

Snyder, who in his opening remarks characterized the robbery as motivated by “greed,” said that prosecutors planned to rely on witness testimony from the co-defendants and others, as well as video footage and a shotgun and mask that police seized from Ellis in November.

Jennifer Cohen, defense attorney for Ellis, said in her opening statement that prosecutors had no firm evidence to support the theory that Ellis was the third participant in the robbery.

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The store clerk, who could only see part of the masked faces of the three robbers, said that the third suspect was a white man with no facial tattoos, Cohen said. Ellis is not white and has facial tattoos. It was unclear if the clerk would testify during the trial, as the court file containing the witness list was not available.

But Cohen focused much of her questioning on the other two suspects who admitted to the robbery.

The two got “very sweet deals” for testifying in Ellis’ case as part of plea agreements made with prosecutors, Cohen said.

“(They) should not be trusted,” she said. “They both have a vested interest in this. They both gained benefit from this. And they both have a proven track record of lying to authority, dishonesty, and legal problems.”

As part of Johnson’s plea agreement for a robbery charge, he agreed to testify in Ellis’ case in exchange for a reduced sentence of five years, with all but 90 days suspended, followed by four years of probation. The sentence begins Aug. 2.

The teenage co-defendant, who is now 18, agreed to testify in exchange for the dismissal of a charge of robbery in juvenile court.

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Both testified that they participated in the robbery with Ellis, who they said was a neighbor of Johnson and friend of the teenager’s father. The three drove to Madison in Johnson’s vehicle, parked and then walked through side roads and yards to reach the convenience store, they said.

There were inconsistencies in their answers to some of Cohen’s questions about what occurred.

Johnson first testified, while being questioned by prosecutors, that he participated in the robbery because he was scared and the other two forced him to help.

“I didn’t really agree,” he said of the decision to rob the store. “I just didn’t feel like I had an option … I was scared.”

During cross-examination by Cohen, Johnson said that he told Detective David Cole of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office that Ellis held a gun to his head on a footbridge in Madison after the trio parked before the robbery. His girlfriend, 17, also testified that when Johnson returned home the night of the robbery, he was nervous and scared and said Ellis had threatened him at some point.

The teenager, however, testified that nothing notable happened while walking across the footbridge.

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Another discrepancy in their testimony was what happened with the money taken from the Big Apple’s register. The teenager said in court that about $400 from the register went to Ellis, and it was then divided. The three did not split it evenly, but at least some of it went to Johnson, he testified.

Johnson, meanwhile, testified that he did not receive any money, just packs of cigarettes that he gave to his girlfriend’s mother.

Both agreed with Cohen’s description of Cole, the sheriff’s detective who led the investigation of the case, as “friendly” and interested in helping them.

On Wednesday, the jury did not hear testimony from Cole but did from two other sheriff’s office detectives who investigated the case, Ronnie Blodgett and Michael Lyman. The two faced questioning from prosecutors and Ellis’ defense attorney about their initial response to the robbery Aug. 5, interviews with witnesses and people of interest and video footage obtained from the Big Apple and the nearby Circle K and Fonzo’s pizza shop.

Of the initial people interviewed — including another store clerk who worked the day shift and a Madison man known to police who was stopped that morning for speeding — investigators did not identify any as suspects, the detectives said.

The prosecution began to ask Blodgett about his investigation into a letter received by Cohen, the defense attorney, from another person admitting to the robbery. Cohen objected, and the jury was asked to leave the courtroom while the matter was discussed.

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The inclusion of the letter into evidence would result in Cohen being both a witness and an attorney, which could result in a mistrial, she said. Prosecutors said they wanted to include Blodgett’s testimony about the letter because it showed police did in fact investigate leads. Cohen responded that she was not arguing police did not investigate other leads, but rather had questions about the leads they did investigate.

The man believed to have sent the letter also said on the record in court in an unrelated case that he did not write it, Cohen said.

Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen ultimately ruled that the jury could not hear testimony about the letter.

The trial is scheduled to continue in the Skowhegan courtroom Thursday and Friday.

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