Public Safety

Prosecutor: 'Trail of evidence' in cabdriver's fatal shooting leads to Curtis Jones

Curtis Jones sits in the courtroom before a hearing at Johnson County Courthouse in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2018. Jones is charged with first-degree murder in the April 22, 2017 death of Jonathan Wieseler. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Curtis Jones sits in the courtroom before a hearing at Johnson County Courthouse in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2018. Jones is charged with first-degree murder in the April 22, 2017 death of Jonathan Wieseler. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DAVENPORT — Cabdriver Ricky Lillie picked up Curtis Jones just as any other passenger June 27, 2017, but Jones would be the last fare of his life.

Assistant Johnson County Attorney Mike Ringle, in opening statements Tuesday during Jones’ first-degree murder trial, said Lillie was found several hours later in his Yellow Cab with two close-range gunshot wounds to his head from a .22 caliber handgun.

One shot was fired “point blank” at Lillie’s face and the other was made with the barrel pressed to the back of his head, Ringle said.

Jury selection began Monday in the trial for 42-year-old Jones of Mount Pleasant, and Wednesday was the first day of testimony in Scott County District Court. The trial was moved out of Johnson because of extensive pretrial news coverage.

The trial is expected to go into next week.

Ringle, in his opening statement, said that early June 28, 2017, a Yellow Cab dispatcher noticed that Lillie’s van hadn’t moved for hours, so another driver was sent to check on him sometime after 3 a.m. The dispatcher thought Lillie might have fallen asleep, which wasn’t unusual for overnight shifts. But Lillie wasn’t sleeping.

His van was found with hazard lights flashing and the driver’s side window down, Ringle said. The driver saw Lillie’s body lying on the passenger seat in a “contorted” position. His head was in the floorboard but one leg was up on the dash area. There was blood on his body and in the floorboard, and Lillie was dead, Ringle told the jury.

Ringle said police believed the suspect went through Lillie’s belongings, including his wallet, and stole his cash fares after shooting him.

Police began their investigation by trying to find Lillie’s last passenger, Ringle said. He was identified as black man with dark jeans, tennis shoes and carrying a bright green backpack who was picked up from a convenience store, according to video from surveillance cameras in the area.

They tracked the man to Keota, where he spent the night with his girlfriend, then stole a car from another woman, Ringle said. The car was recovered in Burlington and police found the suspect, later identified as Jones, at his mother’s home in Mount Pleasant.

Ringle said Jones denied stealing the car and killing Lillie, but his story kept changing. Jones then admitted to getting into Lillie’s cab but said he didn’t take it to the Alexis Park Inn in southern Iowa City, where Lillie’s body and cab were found. Jones said he got out at a Hy-Vee and another man got into the cab, Ringle said.

But evidence from the cab’s GPS system will show that Lillie’s cab was traveling 30 mph when it passed the Hy-Vee and it didn’t stop, Ringle told the jury. He said video surveillance footage from the motel also will show that only one person got out of Lillie’s cab — Jones.

Ringle told jurors they would also hear testimony about where the gun was found and that Jones told a jail inmate about hating “white” men and his desire to kill one before leaving Iowa. Lillie is white, Ringle noted.

“Jones left a trail of evidence that leads back to him,” Ringle said.

Nekeidra Tucker, one of Jones’ lawyer, in her opening statement, said this case is about “seeking the truth and finding facts.” Jones decided he wanted to get away from Keota and Burlington that night and went to Iowa City to see friends, she said.

While waiting for a friend, Jones took a cab to Hy-Vee, Tucker said. He then saw a friend, so he quickly paid the cabdriver and jumped out, Tucker said. Jones said when he jumped out, another man jumped in.

“That’s really all (we) can tell you,” Tucker said. “This is all we know. He took a cab and got out.”

Tucker said evidence won’t show that a “murder weapon” was found, adding that there are no fingerprints on a gun or in the cab from Jones. The prosecution can’t prove its case, she said.

After opening statements, Yellow Cab dispatcher Danielle Fountain and the driver who found Lillie, Patrick Madden, testified that the cabs have GPS systems that track the drivers’ locations and trips.

Fountain said she can track cabs’ real-time routes on her dispatcher computer screen. She saw Lillie’s cab pick up a fare that night at the intersection of Burlington and Gilbert streets and go to Alexis Park Inn.

Madden testified that he found Lillie “slumped over” with his body in an odd position and that he was unresponsive, even when Madden honked the horn of Lillie’s cab.

Several Iowa City police officers also testified about finding Lillie’s body in those early morning hours and preserving the crime scene from an impending rainstorm. Officers had to cover Lillie’s opened windows initially with trash bags and later got a tarp to cover the entire vehicle.

The trial resumes 9 a.m. Thursday, and The Gazette will continue its live coverage from the courtroom.

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