Oct. 8—AUBURN — The news release was like many issued by authorities when a person goes missing …. except for one detail. The person, a young woman who had been living in Auburn, had been missing for two years.
“The Auburn Police Department is seeking assistance in locating 29 y/o Celeste Doghmi,” the June 29 Auburn Police Department news release said. “Ms. Doghmi, a German citizen, was last known to be in the Auburn area at the end of July 2021. Doghmi’s family, who lives out of the country hasn’t been able to contact her since.”
Doghmi, originally from Germany by way of Florida, could not be found May 3 when Auburn police knocked on her door at 85 Academy St. Police were trying to locate her for a parental custody matter, Auburn police Chief Deputy Tim Cougle said in a July email.
Police made significant efforts to track down family members who live overseas and those in the area who know her, Cougle said. The responding officer initiated a missing person report under a heading of “suspicious condition” at about noon on May 3 at 85 Academy St., according to police logs. The address was her last known address, according to records.
Cougle said police were able to confirm Doghmi’s whereabouts until the end of July 2021 — almost two years earlier — and that no missing person reports were made prior to his department’s report. Police conferred with state and federal agencies before issuing their release in hopes someone may recognize her, he said.
Maine Public Safety spokesperson Shannon Moss said in July that state police are assisting Auburn police in the investigation. More recently, Moss said Auburn police were still leading the case.
Initial inquiries by the Sun Journal into the woman’s disappearance led to more questions than answers, including why her boyfriend at the time didn’t report her missing, the reasons behind why she became estranged from her family and friends, and what ultimately happened to the then-27-year-old mother who lived in Auburn for two years and whose baby was taken into state custody in April 2023.
In the days following the news release issued by Auburn police, several friends and family members responded to questions from the Sun Journal about Celeste’s life and the circumstances around her disappearance. Doghmi’s mother, Stephanie Doghmi, confirmed Celeste was born in Germany, immigrated to the United States from Frankfurt with her mother in 1995 at the age of 2 and spent some of her formative years in Florida. The Doghmi family moved around the deep South for a while, settling back in Florida for some time, before Celeste moved to Maine with a man she met in Louisiana.
Melissa Bonacci met the Doghmis in 2001 when they moved to the Largo, Florida, area. They were practically neighbors and both single-parent families. Celeste grew close to the family, becoming best friends and frequent playmate to Bonacci’s daughter.
“She called my brother Uncle Shawn, and I was Auntie Mel and my mom is Nana to everyone,” Bonacci said. “We treated Celeste like family because she only had her mom.”
The Doghmis moved on in 2005, Bonacci said, and she did not see Celeste again until around 2012. She said it was apparent the family had gone through hard times. The teen was not in school and was struggling emotionally and physically, so she was invited back into the Bonacci household, where she stayed off and on, said Bonacci.
Bonacci said she lost regular contact with Celeste for several years after she decided to move to Tampa. However, on one occasion when Celeste came by, Bonacci said it was clear that the troubles Celeste had been going through in her youth were behind her and that she was on a much straighter path.
Then, Bonacci was away from Florida in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic when she got a call from her mother in Largo, who said Celeste dropped by looking for her.
“She started talking to my mom about how she was really trying to get her stuff together, but that she was in this relationship with this guy and he was super abusive to her, that she was pregnant, needed a place to stay and get out of the situation she was in.”
Celeste was in the beginning stages of pregnancy when she returned to the Tampa area, longtime friend Chris Worthey said. She was happy to be carrying the baby, but she was not healthy, he said. She was skinny, hungry and tired, so Worthey and his family did what they could to help.
Bonacci talked on the phone with Celeste and suggested she stay put until Bonacci could return, open the house and set her up to stay. Celeste agreed, but just before Bonacci was set to return to Florida, and after some time recouping at the Worthey household, Celeste told Bonacci she was returning to Maine to work things out after speaking with her boyfriend.
“I just told her, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea, I don’t think you should go back there,'” Bonacci recalled. “I told her, ‘You could come here and I’ll help you with the baby and you can go back to school here, do all the things here.'”
High school friend Gina Hudnall said Celeste stayed with her family for about three years when she enrolled in Largo High School and the two ended up growing close. Celeste’s rebound from a rough upbringing and drug addiction once she became a mother is important to recognize because she “did a complete 360,” Hudnall said. She threw herself completely into her child’s life, allowing her past traumas and struggles with addiction to fuel a passion in her to raise her child without the same problems she faced, Hudnall said.
Celeste would call or chat with Hudnall to talk motherhood and ask about every small detail like sunscreen and teething medicine.
“All the way down to what kind of perfume she would even wear, certain fragrances, dyes, Red Dye No. 40,” said Hudnall. “She was really particular with what she was putting in her body and his environment and putting on him. There was like that little maternal switch that had gone off in her.”
Communication with Celeste was sparse after she returned to Maine. Celeste’s mother, Stephanie, said she knew Celeste had at one point been working in the kitchen of a large manufacturing company in the Lewiston-Auburn area and that she was enrolling in a nursing program in the area. Stephanie said she believed Celeste bought her first semester textbooks and possibly attended an orientation before going missing. Worthey said her college courses were online.
Information about the hospital where Celeste delivered her baby and where she was planning on going to college was not available.
Stephanie said she and Celeste’s sister, Danielle Hursey, distanced themselves due to Celeste’s alleged abuse and refusal to separate from her boyfriend and did not know Celeste was not in touch with any other family or friends.
“This is where everyone in Celeste’s world dropped the ball on her,” Stephanie said. “She became alone and probably felt isolated. … I knew she was in an abusive relationship, (but) she was determined to make it work. … Bruises and black eyes. I could not sit by and watch or worst, pretend to agree with her choice of man. It was breaking my heart. She was on her way somewhere in life. She always talked about being a nurse for the babies in the ICU.”
The Sun Journal reached out to Celeste’s sister Danielle Hursey, who Stephanie said saw Celeste’s injuries during her short stay in Florida before returning to Maine. After initial emails with Hursey, Stephanie reached out asking for no further attempts to contact Hursey as she could not bring herself to speak about her sister’s disappearance, which has been traumatic for her.
Bonacci said she kept in touch when Celeste returned to Maine and had her baby. She sent Celeste the only pictures she had of her and the family and, in return, Celeste would send her pictures of her, her boyfriend and the baby.
“Celeste was a fighter. She was a tiny little thing. She had the biggest smile you’d ever want to see,” Bonacci said. “I mean, her face was angelic and would just light up when she smiled, and she did have a gleam in her eyes, and I could tell when he began to take that from her.”
Celeste’s last publicly visible social media activity, a Facebook post dated June 24, 2021, speaks of her then 6-month-old baby.
“Watching my son and my heart is literally overflowing with love and pride,” the post reads. “I made this amazing little dude and for the life of me, don’t know how I ever deserved such a gift! He amazes me more with every passing day. He’s such a happy giggly boy and I absolutely love him with every fiber of my being.”
Bonacci shared posts by Celeste from July 2021 that are not visible on Celeste’s timeline.
“This hot mama is officially enrolled in college,” Celeste said in a July 14, 2021, post that she marked “feeling proud.” “Outside of giving birth to the sweetest little boy, this will be my second greatest accomplishment. And OMG! I’m so excited.”
In a July 22, 2021, post, her last according to Bonacci, Celeste spoke of obtaining her high school completion transcripts and buying the next semester’s textbooks.
“Oh MY Freaking Gawd!!! Y’all I swear, the universe is finally looking upon ya girl with mad love and grace!!! My GED transcripts came through and I’ll be signing up for classes tomorrow! Everything is PAID and I’ve already gotten my Medical Terminology book and all the supplies I could ever hope to use this semester. I can’t wait to be raking in all this knowledge! Mama about to be SMART!!!! I’ve literally spent the last half hour jumping up and down crying my eyes out cause I thought I was gonna miss it this semester.”
And then she was gone.
Hudnall, along with the few who were close to Celeste, said she would never leave her child especially under circumstances that were beginning to echo the childhood she went through herself.
“I just don’t think someone’s going to go from ‘only use safe mineral sunscreen with no zinc in it, and pureed baby food, and don’t use OraGel’ to ‘peace out, homie, never going to see you again,'” said Hudnall.
When she lost touch with Celeste, Hudnall said she didn’t question it because she knew she was busy with school, motherhood and was, she hoped, getting lost in the throes of the family life she always desperately wanted.
After several months, Bonacci, too, said she did not question the lack of communication; however, as 2022 approached, she became concerned since Celeste had not returned calls or messages. Bonacci said Stephanie and Danielle had returned to Germany and no other family or mutual friends Bonacci spoke with had been in touch with Celeste or had any way to reach her mother or sister.
“At first, I just thought maybe (Celeste) is busy. But then it started to be kind of evident, ‘There’s a problem, there’s a problem. Nobody’s heard from Celeste,'” said Bonacci.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is a resource through the National Institute of Justice, a Department of Justice program. NamUs employs specialists with DOJ clearances who populate a database of missing people.
Sheila Jerusalem, NIJ public affairs specialist, said NamUs is not an investigating agency, but does work with law enforcement at every level to confirm information in every case.
“A NamUs case can be created by the public but is only publicly viewable once the law enforcement investigator assigned to the case gives permission to publish,” Jerusalem said in a July interview.
Doghmi’s NamUs case says the last person to see her was her ex-boyfriend, a fact that, according to NamUs policy, can only be established with the investigating agency, Auburn police in this case.
According to Bonacci’s mother, Catherine Magee, in a Facebook post begging for the public’s help, Celeste “went for a walk and never returned leaving her baby and all her belongings behind.”
Magee did not respond to questions as of press time. Deputy Chief Cougle said Thursday that the NamUs information was from initial reporting — dating back to May — which may not be accurate.
Stephanie Doghmi said Celeste was working as a landscaper in Slidell, Louisiana, when she met John Alexander Benton. The two moved to Maine in 2018, living with Benton’s family until early 2019 when they moved to 85 Academy St. in Auburn, she said. Benton’s criminal records confirmed 85 Academy St. was also Benton’s address as of August 2022.
Prior to meeting Celeste Doghmi, Benton had a criminal history in Texas and, since her disappearance, Benton has had more run-ins with the law. In November 2022, he was indicted in Cumberland County on charges stemming from an August arrest for domestic violence assault, domestic violence aggravated assault and unlawful sexual contact.
Then, he was arrested April 3, 2023, in Saco and later indicted July 6 on charges of domestic violence aggravated assault, domestic violence criminal threatening with a firearm or dangerous weapon, violating conditions of release and criminal restraint. Celeste was not the victim in either the Cumberland County or Saco cases.
Benton was convicted Aug. 28 on several charges stemming from both indictments.
On the Cumberland County charges, Benton was convicted of domestic violence assault and sentenced to 364 days in jail; two counts of violating conditions of release, sentenced to one year; two counts of domestic violence aggravated assault, sentenced to seven years with all but 18 months suspended and four years of probation; and violating conditions of release, sentenced to one year.
The York County indictments led to convictions for domestic violence aggravated assault and a sentence of three years with all but 12 months suspended and four years of probation; five counts of operating a vehicle without a license, sentenced to six months; and three counts of violating conditions of release, sentenced to 12 months.
Benton was held at Cumberland County Jail from April 7 until his sentencing and is now being held at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. His earliest release date is July 15, 2024, assuming all possible good time credits are awarded.
Worthey said Benton’s recent convictions came as no surprise. When Celeste said she wanted to “give John another chance,” Worthey said he told her, “I don’t like this guy, I just don’t trust him.”
So, Worthey made it a point to talk to Celeste nearly every day throughout the pregnancy and after the baby was born when she returned to Maine. And Celeste was happy to stay in touch so often. He said Celeste would hold her baby up to him during video chats and that she would show him around the apartment. Whether by choice or not, Worthey said it was evident she never left that apartment as she was not working and was to be attending school online.
Celeste showed him what looked like over 100 cannabis plants throughout the apartment, which she said Benton was growing to supplement income, according to Worthey. Worthey said Celeste told him she would harvest and sell the cannabis at Benton’s direction while he was at work, which was stressful for the environment and people it attracted. Besides the implications to her and the baby, Worthey told Celeste the plants and the heat and electricity it takes to grow them would stick out to anyone canvassing the area for illegal growing.
Worthey said a video chat with Celeste on July 6, 2021, left him disturbed.
“This was the last day I saw her — and I knew something had happened,” Worthey said. During that chat, Celeste showed Worthey a bald spot on the top of her head where a patch of hair was missing. “I’m like, ‘alright, Celeste, you’re coming down here with me and my mom.'”
Celeste told him she would leave, that she would get things in order, and Worthey told her he would buy the plane tickets. Worthey said she started tearing up the cannabis plants, but Benton came home during their call.
“He goes, ‘what the (expletive) are you doing, are you (expletive) stupid?'” Worthey recounted. “He’s yelling at her, and she was like, ‘You’re trying to get our baby taken. You’re stupid. We’re going to get the door kicked in.'”
Worthey said Benton grabbed at the phone, it fell, and then it was hung up. Worthey tried calling back 20 to 30 times with no answer. That was the last time he heard from her and two weeks later she made her last Facebook post.
Everyone Worthey reached out to said he was overreacting as Celeste was known for going off grid, but he said whenever Celeste would get into trouble, no matter how badly, she would reach out to him either to let him know she was alright or to ask him for help. That was why he never thought to reach out to police, he said.
“But she wasn’t on drugs anymore. She was clean. She was a healthy ‘thick,’ and she was here for (her baby). She’d do anything for (her baby) …. Weeks went past, months went past, now it’s a year and longer and I’m worried. Suddenly, her mom texts me and said ‘she’s gone! John said she went for a walk and never came back’ …. After she ripped up the plants, she knew that I was scared for her that night and she would have called back. I’m so upset because I told everyone, but nobody would listen to me.”
While police did not confirm a state agency made the May 3 call asking for Celeste’s whereabouts, Stephanie said she reached out soon after to a Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services caseworker about Celeste’s child.
“When she was giving birth to her son, she confided in the nurses and doctors that she was physically abused throughout her pregnancy by her boyfriend,” Stephanie said. “It was not until months later that (OCFS) showed up to follow up on what was reported at the hospital at the time of birth. To my knowledge this was the first time (OCFS) was involved with Celeste and her son.”
The caseworker, hoping to find Celeste through Stephanie, described the child’s environment as “living in a war zone” and was seized from the home. Stephanie said she is attempting to gain custody of her grandson, but the OFCS caseworker and Maine DHHS ombudsman have not returned her calls or emails.
The above information could not be corroborated through the Office of Child and Family Services because officials declined to talk about the case, which is routine for the agency. As such, DHHS was also unable to answer if the child, now 2 to 3 years old, is in state custody.
In a letter to the Maine DHHS ombudsman’s office which Stephanie provided, she said Benton never notified anyone of Celeste’s disappearance and “simply moved another girl in as a girlfriend.”
A person claiming to be the mother of Benton’s domestic violence victim, a partner after Celeste’s disappearance, contacted Stephanie via Facebook asking for her help to “keep Benton behind bars,” Stephanie said.
“I had this gut feeling she was hiding something or she was not completely honest about something,” Stephanie said. “I cut ties with her.”
The Sun Journal contacted the victim and the person claiming to be her mother and only the victim replied. After confirming she knew Benton and was familiar with his charges, she declined to comment on the record.
The Maine Department of Corrections declined to allow Benton to speak with the Sun Journal. No response was given when asked why the request was denied.
“It is uncommon that this length of time would go by without someone reporting her as a person missing,” Cougle said. “However, in this particular case Ms. Doghmi is from another country, she had limited contact with her family overseas for the past few years and doesn’t appear to have many connections to this area.”
Cougle said he would not speculate on the case, but an “overwhelming majority” of adult missing persons cases are either located or contact police when they are alerted someone is looking for them.
“These types of cases can be more difficult due to the fact that adults have the right to free movement and travel as they please and to not contact anyone if they wish,” Cougle said.
The investigation will remain under local jurisdiction with state police assisting, but depending on circumstances, the lead agency may move on to state police or a federal agency, Cougle said. In any case, Auburn police will continue working with law enforcement of all levels to locate Celeste Doghmi, he said.
As of Sept. 18, there were no updates on the case, according to Cougle.
Celeste Doghmi is 5 feet, 2 inches tall. She has brown skin and brown eyes, and weighed 110 pounds and had brown hair when she was last seen. She has a large tattoo on her right leg of a dreamcatcher with feathers.
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