Remorseful accomplice in Piazza killings gets probation

Katoya Jones , who let gunmen into building, voiced remorse.
Katoya Jones , who let gunmen into building, voiced remorse.
Posted: August 29, 2013

The promised payoff was just too sweet: $50,000 to $60,000 to let three men through a locked lobby door at her apartment building in the flashy new Piazza at Schmidts complex in Northern Liberties.

On Tuesday - four years after two people were killed by those three men - Katoya Jones' guilt and emotional anguish had plainly cost too much.

It did not help that, after spending three years in prison before pleading guilty to two counts of third-degree murder, Jones, 29, was sentenced to probation by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner.

Or that Jones' lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge praised her "redemption" by ignoring personal risk, testifying, and helping put away seven others for the June 29, 2009, killings of Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore.

"I don't feel worthy of anything, even being free," Jones told Thal's family.

On that point, Sandy Thal agreed with her.

Recalling her daughter's impact on people and mourning her loss, Thal asked Lerner to impose the maximum sentence - essentially life in prison - on Jones.

"Over 1,000 people attended her funeral. That's how much Rian touched others," Thal said.

Afterward, Thal told reporters: "I don't like the sentence, but there's nothing I can do about it. At least the real bad guys are away."

Thal said she was on antidepressants as she still tried to cope with the murder of her daughter, a Center City event planner.

Jones, who had no criminal record, began cooperating with police and prosecutors soon after she was arrested in the killings of Thal, 34, and Gilmore, 40, a long-distance trucker from Ohio.

Jones, who also lived in the Piazza's Navona building, was seen on a security video letting the three gunmen in.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Thal and Gilmore were active in the city's drug trade and that her apartment was being used to distribute a load of Mexican cocaine Gilmore had just hauled in from Texas.

After the two were shot to death in a confrontation outside Thal's sixth-floor flat, police found more than $100,000 in cash and 81/2 pounds of cocaine inside.

The killings cast a pall over the opening of the complex that rose from the remains of the celebrated brewery. It also revealed the sometimes murky divide separating Center City's affluent nightlife and the violent criminals who cater to it.

Jones became the prosecution's key witness in proceedings that ended with seven people convicted for plotting and carrying out the botched robbery and murders.

Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega told Lerner that Jones' cooperation was critical to building the case against Will "Pooh" Hook, 44, the scheme's mastermind, and his right-hand man, Ceasar Holloway, 37.

Jones testified that Hook was a friend for 10 years and that she agreed to help in the scheme because she was going to receive $50,000 to $60,000.

Defense attorney Robert Mozenter told Lerner that Jones "fell under the spell" of Hook and that he "took advantage of her."

"Forgiveness must be earned, and she confessed and helped the government . . . convict these evil people," Mozenter said.

Jones, who spent two years in the Army and worked five years for a pharmaceutical firm, told Lerner she "had no excuse" for her conduct.

Jones' mother, Charlotte, a medical assistant and former prison officer, also apologized to Sandy Thal for her loss.

"I think of how sorry and remorseful I am as a mother," she said.

Katoya Jones seemed trapped in despair.

"I cannot move forward," she told Lerner. "Inside me there is a war going on. Every day I hate to get up."

Lerner acknowledged that his sentence would not satisfy the victims' families, but he said Jones' cooperation at personal risk had to be rewarded.

Lerner encouraged Jones to use her life to help others, especially young women who might be tempted to get involved in crime.

"You owe that to the community and you owe it to yourself, and it may be a way back for you," Lerner said.

Jones would not comment after the hearing. Mozenter said she was now doing charity work involving young people with a church.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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