Serial Tiller

When it comes to ripping people off, John Tiller and the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team just keep going and going

Get close enough, and you can follow your nose to John Gary Tiller.

The stench of cigars hits as soon as the elevator door opens on the sixth floor of the Locust Building and gets stronger with each step toward the offices of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team.

Inside, something stinks -- and it's not tobacco.

"I'm telling you, man, it's just been a mess," Tiller says. "We're trying to get everything cleaned up, and we're doing a helluva job. What I want you to do is to see that I've not done anything wrong."

Seriously.

Honestly.

Those are words Tiller uses a lot.

He doesn't look anything like his description in a 1990 rap sheet that lists him at five-foot-eleven and 190 pounds. Stretching an expensive-looking polo shirt, his pot belly spills over neatly pressed gray flannel trousers. Small wire-frame spectacles -- think Ben Franklin or John Lennon -- are perched on his nose. What hair he has is white; his mustache is a close-cropped version of an Irish cop's.

The picture of sincerity.

Roy Tompkins
It was during his time in Leavenworth that John Tiller says he realized inmates needed legal help: "I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything."
It was during his time in Leavenworth that John Tiller says he realized inmates needed legal help: "I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything."

Tiller walks past a lobby portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and enters a conference room. On a wall, by shelves of law books, is a framed poster of a rowing crew. "Teamwork," it says. Tiller turns on a computer and scrolls down the flat-screen display monitor that, if history is a guide, belongs to someone else who hasn't been paid.

But Tiller doesn't like to talk about history -- at least, not his own. For more than twenty years, he's been a liar and a thief, a "prior and persistent offender," in the lexicon of the Missouri Department of Corrections. As far as Tiller is concerned, his past crimes, his stints in prison, the dozens upon dozens of lawsuits filed against him for nonpayment of debt don't have anything to do with the here and now.

"You're mixing peanuts with candy," Tiller says. "The pattern is possibly similar, but not really. That's John Tiller back there. This is a law firm here that I am not an owner of. I'm an employee."

A very busy employee, according to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, the arm of the state Supreme Court charged with investigating complaints against lawyers. The office says Tiller -- who doesn't have a law license -- has been selling legal advice. A proven con artist, Tiller also has convinced people to hand over thousands of dollars for legal services that are never performed. Their losses, state investigators say, exceed $40,000. And that's a conservative figure.

Tiller's targets are inmates. When those kinds of people are conned, punishment comes slowly. The first victim came forward at least 19 months ago, but the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team remains in business and Tiller walks free.

The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel has referred the case to prosecutors. The U.S. Postal Inspector's Office, which looked into complaints about Tiller, has deferred to the St. Louis circuit attorney, even though the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team solicits business from people across the nation. The circuit attorney's office doesn't expect any results for at least two months. Although the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team once operated out of offices in St. Louis County, there's no indication that Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch is interested. He didn't return five telephone calls about the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. Complaints to Missouri Attorney General Jeremiah "Jay" Nixon, whose office was contacted by victims as long ago as January 2001, have accomplished little.

Indeed, no one has bothered calling Tiller's parole officer.

But time may be running out for John Gary Tiller -- and he knows it. Lately he's been renewing promises to angry clients of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team who haven't heard from the company in months.

On May 30, the Supreme Court disbarred Allen I. Harris, who'd been the sole lawyer for the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. When he accepted Tiller's invitation to become the firm's lawyer, Harris should have known what he was getting into. Tiller, who formed the business in 1999 after serving four years for fraud, had used Harris as his lawyer in earlier criminal cases.

Tiller has a habit of blaming others for his troubles, and in the case of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team he mainly blames Harris.

Although Tiller insists he's just an employee, others, including clients and a former employee, say he's the man in charge, the guy who hires and fires, signs the office leases, puts his name on purchase orders, gets sued by vendors and lies to relatives of inmates who rot in prison while the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team does nothing.

Employee or not, Tiller says he can explain everything.

"We have not been dishonest with anyone," Tiller says as he scrolls through computer files. "There's nothing wrong with this firm. This is very serious to me. There's two things I worry about, and that's children and people in these situations. I'm going to show you all the work. If you look at these complaints and we go through them, you'll see that half of these people are happy." He settles on a file, clicking the mouse.

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