Parolee accused of killing cab driver had been deemed a risk

Man served 11 years of 40-year sentence for robbing motel and grocery store

By Ryan J. Foley
Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — After serving prison time for armed robbery, Curtis Cortez Jones was released last fall by Iowa corrections officials who claimed that he probably would not pose a risk to the public.

Eight months later, police say, he fatally shot a cab driver during a robbery.

Now newly released records show that Jones was paroled even though he had been deemed a high risk to commit more violence and had recently escaped from a halfway house.

The 41-year-old left prison in November, seven years before he was due out, after the Iowa Board of Parole ruled that he was unlikely to be a “detriment to the community.”

But that conclusion contradicts how Jones behaved during a 2016 work-release assignment. He was fired for committing credit card fraud and escaped from custody for two weeks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the state open-records law.

Jones is charged with murder and robbery in the June death of 46-year-old Ricky Lillie. A complaint alleges that he shot and robbed Lillie after taking a cab ride in Iowa City. Police say that Jones also stole a car that day in Keota, a town 40 miles south where he had been living.

While many former inmates successfully re-enter communities, “unfortunately, the system isn’t perfect,” said Brenna Smith, press secretary for Gov. Kim Reynolds, who offered condolences to Lillie’s family for what she called a tragic and horrific death.

The Iowa Department of Corrections defended its decision to recommend parole for Jones, noting that he had two job offers and a place to live with an aunt in Washington, Iowa, upon release.
Within months, however, he was unemployed and had moved elsewhere, records show.

Jones had been given a 40-year sentence after robbing a motel and a grocery store while brandishing a pellet gun in the Iowa City area in 2005. During the robberies, he tied up a hotel clerk and struck another employee in the head with his gun. Automatic credit for good behavior shortened the sentence to 18 years, and Jones served 11 years before he was paroled.

He had been placed at a Coralville halfway house in March 2016 and obtained a work-release job at a hotel. After one month, he was accused of stealing a customer’s credit card information and making fraudulent purchases. The hotel fired him. Jones then absconded for two weeks, ignoring pleas to turn himself in before eventually surrendering.

Corrections spokesman Michael Savala said the department recommended parole in part because Jones “had been doing well during work release before going on the run after he lost his job.”

Savala apologized Thursday for falsely claiming initially that Jones was fired for not showing up on time and had not faced any prior disciplinary reports, saying he had bad information. Records obtained by AP later showed both of those claims were untrue.

Citing two “significant” disciplinary reports, the department terminated Jones’ work-release privileges in May 2016 and returned him to prison. A criminal escape charge was filed, but a judge dismissed it in August 2016 after the Johnson County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute.

County Attorney Janet Lyness said the case was not pursued because Jones’ sentence was unlikely to be lengthened much by a conviction.

“Maybe we will look at these differently in the future, but that was the thought then,” Lyness said.

In October 2016, Jones scored a high risk to be returned to prison for committing new violent or property offenses within three years, according to parole board assessments that reviewed factors such as criminal history and age.

A week later, the board ordered that he be released, concluding Jones was “able and willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen.” The five-member board is chaired by lawyer John Hodges, who was appointed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad.

In a statement released Thursday by Hodges, the board said its decision was unanimous but declined to explain its rationale. Echoing the governor, the statement offered “thoughts and prayers” to Lillie’s loved ones.

Police say Jones got into Lillie’s cab June 27 and took a ride to a motel. Jones allegedly shot Lillie in the head and was captured on surveillance video leaving the area. When Lillie was discovered hours later, some of his belongings were missing.

Before the slaying, authorities said, Jones stole a car that was parked outside a Keota gym and used it to flee after the killing to Burlington. He was arrested within days.

A father of twelve, Jones is jailed on a $1 million cash-only bond. He is scheduled to be arraigned Aug. 18. If convicted, he faces life in prison.