by Tim Gilmore, 8/14/2021
1. “Vulnerable Forgotten Members of our Society”
Once he said he’d dumped body parts all around Jacksonville. Another time he said he’d buried them beneath his so-called “house of horrors.” That’s where police found what was left of 31 year old Joni Lynn Gunter. He also said he didn’t kill anybody. And that, after the house was demolished, future property owners digging plumbing or a swimming pool would find the dismembered parts of other victims.
In December 2016, police said it was “highly likely” Tillis “victimized” other women. It was more than highly likely. He’d picked up prostitutes for years, brought them back to his house on Bowden Circle East, the same house where he’d grown up. Neighbors reported women running screaming from the house in the dark. There was the woman tied to the fence late one night. Police told Tillis to let her go, but didn’t charge him, and two other men stopped a car to pick her up.
Assistant Chief of Investigations Scott Dingee kept referring to “young females” in his press conference. Like most police officers, he used the word “female” as a noun, not an adjective. “I can’t stress enough,” he said, “Tillis targets vulnerable, forgotten members of our society, the people who don’t get reported missing typically, the ones who don’t have contact with family members.” Some neighbors thought that fact explained the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s slow response to their concerns.
The medical examiner declared Gunter’s cause of death “blunt force trauma,” multiple blows to her head and face. Prosecutors also charged Tillis with human trafficking, abuse of a human corpse and evidence tampering.
The sheriff’s office, TV news, and neighbors all referred to Tillis’s rattletrap accretion of buildings attached to a house trailer as a “house of horrors.” It’s the house where Russell and Claude Tillis grew up in the 1960s and early ’70s. It was a house of horrors for those little boys too.
Also a monster was Claude Senior, an alcoholic who raped his wife and his boys. Surely this vicious abuse worms through several generations back into the darkness. Attempting to separate her children from the hell inside that house trailer, Russell’s mother forced them to live in a separate building out back and forbade their coming into the house. After decades of jail time for kidnapping, sexual assault, child abuse with injury, grand theft auto and a battery of other crimes, Russell moved back into the house in his late 40s.
Bowden Circle is one of those rural neighborhoods islanded in the city’s suburbs, a reminder of what a strange amalgamation of places is Jacksonville. Just as trailer parks maunder immediately north and south of Downtown, this patch of once rural Florida remains in its own pinewood wetlands behind office blocks of financial advisors, Ascension St. Vincent’s Southside Hospital and J. Turner Butler Boulevard, one of the city’s main suburban office routes.
It’s a neighborhood where Trump flags fly and Trump campaign signs still stand in yards. One pickup truck wears a bumper sticker with a cartoon picture of Hillary Clinton’s face and the words “Trump that bitch.” Another refers to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, saying, “Not my Joe. Not my ho.”
It’s a neighborhood of ranch style houses and house trailers and old, old trees. Here a flock of chickens pecks the sandy earth. Here grow oaks as old as the bicentennial city that expanded until it encompassed them.
3. “I Have Knowledge of the Law”
It was a convoluted strategy. If that’s what the confession to the inmate Tillis set up as a jailhouse snitch really was. He’d been arrested for outstanding misdemeanor warrants, then charged with assaulting police officers with deadly weapons. He said he wanted the death penalty. Instead of being stuck in prison for the rest of his life, he’d rather go ahead and get it over with. So he fabricated a story to get the State to take his life. Strangely enough, that story included where to look for evidence that would prove the story true.
“I want the death penalty,” he later explained in court, “because I’m fixin’ to get this 30 years and I don’t wanna die a slow death in prison. I was 55 at the time. I’ve lived a pretty good life. I figured I’ll get the death penalty and I won’t die that slow death in prison.”
So Tillis told fellow inmate Sammie Evans that he’d studied the law in prior jailtime, that he was something of a jailhouse lawyer. He’d help Evans with his case if Evans would do something for him. So Evans got authorities to let him wear a wire and Tillis made his confession. Later, when Tillis decided he didn’t want the death penalty after all, his previously having wanted it as reason for setting up the false confession would be his alibi.
“Murder itself,” Tillis would later tell the court, “does not always constitute the death penalty.” He wears a spruce shirt and tie, black framed glasses and a medical mask due to the Covid-19 pandemic. His gray beard is trimmed neat, his long hair in a ponytail. He leans forward, looks side to side as he explains the law to the court.
“You have to have aggravating factors,” he continues. “And I, I have knowledge of the law. I mean I’m not, I’m not that smart, but I do have some workable knowledge of the law. I know about aggravators. I know about the law. I know how to read the law. I know what, I know what kind of murder it takes to get the death penalty. And I know what kind of murder would be rejected. You must have some serious, henious [sic] aggravating factors. And I’m knowledgeable of that sort of thing.”
4. Trailer of Horrors
The property is a world unto itself, a labyrinth fraught with constant threat, about which resound rumors of a “soundproof room,” a “torture chamber.” Buried in leaves and pine needles, half buried boards studded with four-inch nails dot the grounds. Rusty razor blades arm the trees in and around the property.
In just four years, neighbors called the police with concerns about Russell Tillis more than 80 times. When police showed up, late at night, they’d get rusty nails through their feet. Sometimes they didn’t show.
The core of the “house of horrors” is a rusted house trailer. Two wooden structures stand appended to the front. A large exhaust flue. Corrugated tin roofing cantilevers over the front door toward a rickety covered carport.
In the kitchen with its panelboard walls, a fluorescent light fixture dangles. In the front room, with its four bands of curtained windows—stacked couches, mattresses, chairs, an old case of glass Coca Cola bottles still full, a Skilsaw, jagged blades in a basket. A small room off the kitchen is stuffed with fake plants, schmaltzy angel statues, glasstop coffee tables, chairs and ashtrays.
In one bedroom, a bed covered in clothes, American flag blanket folded, the back wall is hung with a mirror and a floor-to-ceiling American flag.
Another bedroom is empty but for a metal cot low to the floor and covered with a flowered yellow blanket, windows covered by blinds covered in sheets covered in sheer curtains, except for the small window-unit air conditioner in a top corner.
The night of May 28, 2015, police arrive at 3551 Bowden Circle East. He’s been threatening the neighbors again, violating their restraining orders against him. Wary of the nails and blades with which he’s booby-trapped his yard, the police surround his property, hide in the bushes and start throwing rocks on top of the corrugated metal above his front door.
What happens next differs according to who’s telling it. In court, Tillis will say the police wore all black, “not marked as police officers,” and when he came outside to see who was throwing rocks at his house, they rushed him. When he turned and ran, not knowing who they were, they caught him and beat him up. Dark and muddied video footage, time stamped 12:14 a.m., shows police officers chasing Tillis across the night. It’s impossible to discern much more. “They found a knife in my pocket and another knife that was on me. They charged me with, uh, holding them at knifepoint in front of my house.” At a press conference, Sheriff Mike Williams says Tillis ran out of his house with knifes and “began to violently resist arrest.”
5. The Confession Becomes the Alibi
If Tillis’s goal was to spike a confession with aggravators and heinous details, he succeeded. Both prosecutors and the defense used the confession for their arguments. It became the centerpiece of the trial. “Everything in his confession is fake,” Defense Attorney Charles Fletcher told jurors. “He didn’t do it.”
It’s hard to listen to it. Tillis describes subcontracting sex. Says he has friends come over to pay for sex with prostitutes he holds captive in his soundproof room. Then one of those women recognized one of those men—his brother Claude.
“My brother, he’s like, ‘Man, you gotta kill that bitch.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to kill her,’ right? So he tells me, he says, ‘Look—’ And then I tell him, I said, ‘Look, man, I got something I got to do this afternoon,’ referring to cooking the dope for Jimmie.” Russell tells Claude, “Let’s just put it off for a couple days,” but since Claude insists she needs to die right away, Russell says, “Well, you kill her, man. You take care of it. And I’ll get rid of her.”
Only Russell didn’t want to get rid of her, because she was making him a lot of money. She made him a lot of money, because “Jimmie was in love with her, man.” Finally Russell told his brother, “I’ll kill her, but you gotta cut her up, man. I don’t have time,” said it took about four or five hours to do that.
Tillis’s confession goes into instructions he gives his brother to dismember the body with a Sawzall and a 10” blade, but after Claude decapitates her, Russell says, “He gets all squeamish.” So Russell has to finish the job.
The confession was central to the prosecution. They played it in court. But that was Tillis’s plan in the first place, supposedly, when he wanted the death penalty. That’s why he got Sammie Evans to wear the wire and delivered this over-the-top fabricated confession. But now he had gotten that suicidal episode of depression behind him and decided he no longer wanted the death penalty, so the confession, or more accurately his initial reason for giving it, became his alibi. And now that he was telling the truth about his not having told the truth, he couldn’t be convicted for it, right?
6. Girls Without Names, Lives Without Faces
The biggest problem with Tillis’s telling the truth about his false confession was when police unearthed what was left of the woman he supposedly lied about killing and dismembering. They found her buried in the back yard, right where his false confession claimed he’d buried her.
“I didn’t intend on putting her in the yard,” he says for the wire he’d arranged. Then he alludes to other killings. “I intended on taking her and putting her down there and putting her with the other two.” He’s got a spot, he says, “down the street.” But he was in a rush. His brother had flaked out and he’d already started cooking the meth. He didn’t want to leave it cooking and burn the whole place down.
So, for the wire, the jailhouse lawyer tells the jailhouse snitch just where and just how deep he’d buried the dismembered remains of the woman who recognized his brother. And that’s where they found what was left of Joni Gunter, 31 years old, who’d grown up a foster child, then turned to prostitution on Phillips Highway to support the addictions she couldn’t overcome. Her sister didn’t know where she’d gone, hates to think how people will judge her for the life she ended up living, says Joni Lynn “had a good heart.”
Russell Tillis is not so different, in many ways, than many American men, his use and disposal of women an extreme symptom of the culture’s grotesque sexism. Where he doesn’t differ in kind, he differs in degree. Tillis might balk at saying “the n-word,” but sneers the word “bitch” easily enough.
He’s aggressively defensive, responds to the injustice of how life’s treated him by tearing it down. His nihilism annihilates what it can. At his trailer of horrors and adjacent meth lab, he appropriates women, empowers himself through dominating and destroying them. In the courtroom, he makes the most of center stage, fighting the law with jailhouse legal knowledge. With his eighth grade education, he wants you to know he’s taught himself what he knows and knows a lot.
Listening to his soft smooth drawl, as he tells the court of “the logical inference of a conversation like that,” it’s not hard to imagine the Matthew McConaughey of True Detective playing Tillis in a movie. Tillis would approve. Serial Killer Superstar?
Meanwhile, there are other women. Their names we don’t know. Perhaps we never will. Of their struggles, their suffering, of what led them to addiction, to selling their bodies, and ultimately to Russell Tillis, we know nothing specific. If we get the chance to say their names, we’ll know them mostly as victims, their whole lives reduced to that fact.
Police found a faded Polaroid at Tillis’s place. A “young woman,” a “young female,” a girl. They’ve asked the public to help identify her. Nothing so far. She looks up, warily, slightly sideways at the camera, her blondish brown hair in a ponytail. She sits in a lawn chair, holding a beer can. She wears a sleeveless t-shirt bearing the image of a tiger. Beside and seemingly just below her, there’s another young girl. She wears a pink t-shirt. She’s looking in another direction. Perhaps she’s facing away. Or perhaps her face is just outside the frame. A tragic metaphor for the lives of all these girls.