Serial Tiller

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

Jesse denies doing anything wrong, opting for the good-German defense.

"I'm an innocent victim in this," she insists. "I was an employee. I applied for a job and got hired. I did my job. I did what I was supposed to do."

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."

When Tiller stole from banks, he was arrested and put in prison. When he stole from a farmer and business owners, he was sent back to the penitentiary.

But nothing has happened to Tiller since the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel concluded that he lied to inmates and their loved ones, convincing them to hand over thousands of dollars for legal services they never received.

The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's Web site is still up, still luring clients to the strains of "What a Wonderful World," an electronic version that plays over and over and over again while the bait jumps from the screen. "Missouri Probation and Parole Has Been Accused of Tainting Urine Samples." "Alert! Alert! Mississippi Has Major Problems With Prisons And Parole Considerations, Call 1-877-PAROLE1 Immediately For Assistance!!!" "Kansas Probation Officer Accused of Tainting Urine Samples." "If you think your urine sample has been tainted, call our office immediately." "Click Here for an Immediate Response." Anyone interested will have to use e-mail, because all the telephone numbers have been disconnected and the office address has changed.

Tiller claims he spoke with Harris about cases by cell phone at least twenty times a day, but that's not what the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel found. The bulk of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's work was done by Jesse and Tiller, "a non-lawyer who provided legal advice and services for a fee," according to charging papers from the state office. Tiller and Jesse, the state says, evaluated cases, established fees and described their analysis and strategies to clients; Harris had "essentially no contact with clients ... and performed virtually no services on their behalf."

All lies, says Tiller, especially the part about his providing legal advice.

"I have not given legal advice," Tiller insists. "Definitely not. I'm going to address this, and they're going to amend this or I'm going to sue -- and I mean that."

Law enforcement has played hot potato with Tiller since the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel launched its investigation in the spring of last year.

Carl Schaeperkoetter, staff counsel for the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, says he can't discuss anything that's not in the public record. "We have some authority to seek injunctive relief against people who are practicing law without a license," he says. "However, we have no authority to seek monetary damages, restitution or criminal penalties against somebody. If the situation presents itself, we usually will defer to any of the entities investigating somebody who does have that authority."

Schaeperkoetter won't say whether his office has called in prosecutors, but Pat Kiernan, head of the St. Louis circuit attorney's fraud unit, confirms that he recently started building a case for the grand jury after receiving a call from the state office. It will be at least two months before any results, Kiernan says.

Jesse says she was questioned in April by Doug Bowland, an agent with the postal inspector's office. Bowland, she says, wasn't planning to charge her. "If anything, he was going to use me as a witness against John Tiller," she says. A call to Bowland was returned by spokesman Jerry Post, who says the case has been turned over to the circuit attorney. Post can't explain why but says that Bowland has not ruled out reopening his investigation. Post can't answer any questions about Tiller. "To be honest, I don't even know who John Tiller is," he says.

Downing says she started filing complaints against the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team in January 2001. She ticks down the list: postal inspectors,, the Laclede County Sheriff's Department, the state attorney general's office, the Better Business Bureau, even the FBI. No one helped. "I got told by the sheriff, when I complained about this, that it wasn't enough money to be bothered with," Downing says. "As far as I'm concerned, government law enforcement is a joke."

Downing's complaint to the attorney general went to the consumer-protection division. In a response to Downing, dated February 14, 2001, complaint investigator Margie E. LaMarre wrote that her division didn't have primary jurisdiction. That prompted Downing to write an angry letter to Jay Nixon, who is supposed to protect Missouri residents from rip-off artists.

"If the attorney general's office does not have jurisdiction over fraud, can you tell me who does?" Downing wrote. "After all, fraud is fraud, no matter the perpetrator." On August 30 of last year, Downing received another letter from LaMarre, who said the investigation into her complaint had been reopened. And that's about all the attorney general will say.

Investigators in the consumer-protection division referred questions about the case to Nixon's spokeswoman Mary Still. "It's under investigation," Still says. She refuses to elaborate and declines to say how long this probe, now nearly a year old, might take. Still suggests that anyone in the market for a Missouri lawyer check out prospective attorneys with the bar association. Told that at least one victim had called the bar association before hiring the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, Still says she has no further advice.

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