Joseph Mekonis, attorney for Dustan Bentley, speaks with his client during his sentencing hearing in York County Superior Court in Alfred in October 2020. Bentley was sentenced to 40 years in prison, and that sentence was recently upheld by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

AUGUSTA — In a decision rendered July 22, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the 40-year sentence against a man who pleaded guilty to brutally killing his roommate in March 2019 in Old Orchard Beach.

In October 2020, Dustan Bentley was sentenced for the murder of 65-year-old William Popplewell, after pleading guilty to one count of intentional or knowing murder in February 2020.

The sentence for such a crime is 25 years to life in prison. Under an agreement to plead guilty, the sentence was capped at up to 40 years in prison.

At the time of sentencing, Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas described the killing as “savage, sustained and cruel,” according to a Portland Press Herald account. “The defendant attacked, terrorized, beat and strangled a 65-year-old man of diminished stature,” Douglas said.

In upholding the sentence, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled that there was nothing in the record to indicate that the judge made a mistake.

“At no point did the court depart from sentencing principles or abuse its discretion in coming to or issuing its sentence,” the court said.

Bentley’s attorney, Joseph Mekonis, asked the state’s highest court to overturn his client’s 40-year sentence because he believed the court relied too heavily on comparable cases that went to trial, instead of ending with a guilty plea, as this one did. He asked that the sentence be reduced to 28 years.

A prosecutor argued that Dustan Bentley did receive significant credit for accepting responsibility for his crime, but still deserved his sentence because of its violent nature, according to a Portland Press Herald account.

“The murder of William Popplewell was done with great violence, was done over an extended period of time,” Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam said in arguing for the 40 year sentence at the defendant’s sentencing hearing. “And Mr. Popplewell himself was an especially vulnerable victim.”

Court documents state that the autopsy showed Popplewell was stabbed 25 to 30 times. There was also evidence of blunt force trauma to the victim’s head, neck, and torso. Popplewell suffered breaks or fractures to his nose, neck bone, hyoid bone, sternum, several ribs, and fingers on both hands. In addition, according to the court, “the medical examiner found hemorrhaging in the front of the victim’s neck caused by a USB cord that Bentley used to strangle the victim. The medical examiner determined that the death was caused by the multiple blunt force traumas, the stab wounds, and strangulation.”

On March 18, 2019, at approximately 10:30 p.m., several Old Orchard Beach police officers were dispatched to the home shared by Bentley, who was 30 at the time, and Popplewell, according to court documents. Bentley’s mother had called police claiming that her son had called her about 45 minutes earlier and said that he had stabbed his roommate to death.

When officers arrived at 5 Boisvert St. where the two men had shared an apartment for several months, one officer saw a car backed up to the door of Bentley’s apartment “with its trunk door open and the trunk lined with a shower curtain,” according to court documents. “The officers found Bentley in the doorway of the apartment with one end of a ratchet strap tied around him. The other end of the strap was tied around the victim’s body.”

Bentley and Popplewell met at a Portland homeless shelter, and Bentley moved into Popplewell’s apartment in Old Orchard Beach in December 2018, according to police.

At the sentencing, Justice Douglas also shared previously unknown details about Bentley, and he said he considered this in handing down the 40-year sentence, according to the Portland Press Herald. Douglas said Bentley was “raised in a family beset by substance abuse and deprivation.” At age 11, the state removed Bentley from his home. Douglas said he moved to different foster placements at least 20 times over the next four years.

Bentley lived in North Carolina for some time as a teenager and later moved back to Maine. He has a history of convictions for theft and burglary, and he often camped outside or stayed at a shelter. Douglas said Bentley was in treatment at a methadone clinic when he befriended Popplewell, and he gave rides to the older man when they lived together.

The judge also said Bentley has a documented history of mental illness dating back to at least his adolescence and has been hospitalized multiple times. Douglas also said a forensic exam found that Bentley was capable of goal-directed behavior at the time he killed Popplewell and was competent to stand trial.

During their statements at the sentencing, the victim’s family asked the judge to impose that maximum penalty, according to the Portland Press Herald. His siblings and their spouses described “Billy” as gentle and kind. They recounted memories from their childhood, their brother’s love of the ocean and the way he cared for his wife when she lost her vision.

“Throughout his adult life he was known for helping others no matter what their need,” according to Popplewell’s obituary on Legacy.com. “He helped with repairs and errands or whatever was necessary. He was there for friends in need, both young and old, with his sweet heart, encouraging words and sense of humor to help lighten things up during tough times.”

Portland Press Herald Megan Gray contributed to this report.

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