Slain Cedar Rapids cab driver's family dealing with 'huge void'

Defendant's acquittal painful for family

The last family photo taken of Cathy Stickley, a cab driver who was killed in April 2011, with her children. From right, David, Dawn Stickley, Cathy Stickley, Tiffany and Chris Petersen, on Mother's Day 2010. (Photo provided by Chris Petersen)

Chris Petersen said his first thought when the not guilty verdict was read was, “How did this happen?”

He believes, based on the evidence, the person who killed his mother, Cathy Stickley, in 2011 was tried but now there is no justice or recourse for him, his brother, two sisters and their six children who loved this woman taken from them in such a brutal act.

“We have a strong family unit, but there is a huge void now,” Peterson, formerly of Cedar Rapids and who now lives in Wisconsin, said this week in an interview with The Gazette. “Our mother was our connection.”

Johnathan Mitchell, 35, charged with first-degree murder and first-degree robbery, was acquitted Oct. 23 in Stickley’s homicide by a Story County jury.

Stickley, 54, a Century Cab driver, was found lying on the ground outside her cab in the 1500 block alley between Second and Third avenues SE. According to testimony, she was stabbed 18 times in the neck and head.

According to testimony, Mitchell’s prints were found in Stickley’s blood in the cab, and two witnesses testified they saw Mitchell in her cab and he gave one of them bloody money for crack cocaine that night.

Mitchell testified at trial that he stole money from Stickley for crack cocaine but that she was already dead when he rifled through the cab for money.

A discussion of those events wasn’t easy for Petersen. He said it was struggle to convey his complex feelings and thoughts within an interview.

“The primary feeling is despair, as a son, after the not-guilty verdict,” Petersen said.

He asks himself how a son can let this happen, and how can the justice system not hold a person accountable for the murder of his mother.

Petersen doesn’t fault the Cedar Rapids police investigators or Assistant Linn County Attorney Nic Scott, all of whom, he believes, did their jobs. He also didn’t want to discredit the jury.

Based on the jurors’ feedback that Scott obtained, Petersen said he didn’t think they believed some of the state’s witnesses.

“As Nic Scott said (in his closing argument), my mother didn’t get to choose who witnessed her death,” Petersen said. “There were two felons who were witnesses, and I don’t think they told the whole truth until the end. There was some truth but not (everything).”

Petersen was partly referring to the testimony of Benjamin Owens, a convicted drug dealer. Owens changed his account of what happened from the time of his police interviews and depositions to the time of trial.

The defense also claimed Owens only provided testimony to help himself in a federal drug case.

The jurors contacted by The Gazette declined to make a comment or didn’t return phone messages after the trial.

Petersen said the most frustrating part is that the law seems “lopsided” toward the defendant.

“I know they have rights and should have the right to defend themselves and make the prosecution prove its case. But it seems like they should also be accountable,” Petersen said.

“It was painful to hear the defense creating its own false facts and bringing up distractions (about his mother). It was difficult for her grandkids to hear it, and we had to explain it to them.”

The defense during trial claimed Stickley was involved in some kind of “drug activity” or wrongdoing that may have given someone a motive for murder. No evidence was presented that Stickley used or sold drugs or violated any cab company policies that night or at any other time.

Stickley had no criminal history and, according to the autopsy report, her toxicology screen was negative for any drugs or alcohol.

Petersen said he was relieved to learn the jurors didn’t believe or consider the defense’s claims regarding his mother’s character.

According to testimony, police said Mitchell was the only suspect throughout the investigation.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman declined to comment about the verdict or the case when asked for this story.

Petersen said he always had concerns about his mother driving a cab and living in the neighborhood where she died because of crime in the area. He wanted her to live with him and his family in Wisconsin, but she wasn’t ready to move and she wasn’t fearful of the area.

She knew many of the people from the neighborhood who used a cab.

“I think that’s why she enjoyed driving the cab because she constantly chatted people up,” he said. “It was her way of socializing.

"She always had a smile and loved to tell jokes. She would run into people who knew her kids because we grew up there and lived on Washington Avenue.”

Petersen said his mother was a good person who liked to spend a lot of time with her grandchildren, and she enjoyed painting with watercolors. He and his siblings have some of her paintings that have special meaning to them.

The last time Petersen saw his mother may have been fate stepping in.

“We had planned to drive down on Mother’s Day, like the year before, but at the last minute decided to surprise her on Easter Sunday.”

His mother was killed five days later.

“I didn’t know that (year before) would our last Mother’s Day with her.”