Serial Tiller

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

A single telephone call might have made a difference. Through all of this, no one contacted Joseph Botz, Tiller's parole officer.

"Oh boy," Botz exclaims as he's told about the litany of lawsuits and investigations by the circuit attorney, the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel and U.S. postal inspectors. "Geez," he says at one point. The situation is definitely cause for concern, he adds.

"I just never knew about it," Botz says. "It sounds like you're telling me a lot more than I can tell you."

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."

Botz says he'll talk with his supervisor as soon as he gets off the phone. Within a week, the corrections department upgrades Tiller's parole status from minimum supervision to regular supervision so that he will be watched more closely. In addition, parole officers will investigate Tiller to determine whether he should be returned to prison, standard procedure whenever a parolee moves from minimum to regular supervision.

Corrections spokesman Tim Kniest says Tiller could remain free because he hasn't been arrested or convicted of a new crime, but his parole could be revoked if he hasn't been truthful about his employment or where he's living.

At the most, Tiller would remain behind bars until April 3, 2003, when his sentence expires.

Inmates aren't the only ones at risk so long as Tiller is free.

Lisa McMurtry, a friend to Tiller's son Tommy, says she gave Tiller $13,500 after he told her he'd help her and two friends set up an investigation agency. "[He said] 'I'm telling you it's a moneymaker' and this and this and that," McMurtry says. Then Tiller convinced her to give him another $5,000 to prevent Tommy's car from being repossessed but told her not to tell his son about it.

The finance company took the car, and Tiller hasn't made good on promises to return her money by July 9.

"Now that it's coming time for him to pay the money back, he's come up with so many lies and so many different stories," she says. "He basically took all three of us for the fool."

Tiller dismisses McMurtry's story.

"That was a personal loan," he says.

Since Harris' license was suspended in September, Sarah Cato has been the lawyer at the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team.

Tiller says his boss is a good lawyer but that she has her flaws.

"Miss Cato, she doesn't like going after other attorneys," Tiller says. "She has on [some] issues, but there's been several cases where other attorneys have actually blatantly screwed somebody. I've argued with her about it and she would not do something."

An odd statement, given that a good portion of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's clients claim they were convicted as a result of ineffective counsel.

Cato sees herself as a cross between a janitor and a fireman.

"I'm making an effort to try to clean up the mess for the clients," she says. "We are working diligently every day to try to address the new cases, as well as try to catch up on the work that was to be done."

Really, Cato says, the mess isn't as ugly as it may seem. It's as much a failure to communicate as anything else, she insists, regardless of the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel's conclusions.

"Good communication was not had in a lot of these files," she says. "It's not that the work was not done -- the work was done, and it was not relayed to the appropriate parties as to what was done. People don't understand, also, that because you send money to a law firm and there's not a lawsuit that is immediately filed, that is not an indicator that there was not work done."

Yes, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team sometimes demands more money before it files anything in court, Cato says, but that's because it takes so much time to review cases, Cato says. "You have to do that ... review before you can give somebody an intelligent answer," she explains. "Nobody can work for free."

Cato says clients sign retainer agreements that make it clear their money won't necessarily result in anything being filed in court, but she stops short of saying that happens in all cases. "I try to make it a practice to do that," she says.

Several people who say they were scammed say that's not what happened in their cases. And that's not what Mills has heard. "Everybody I've talked to in this situation was under the distinct impression that that by paying this money, they were in fact going to get some results, not just get an evaluation," he says.

Cato, who formerly worked in the St. Louis city counselor's office handling nuisance-property cases, is cagey about who hired her. She says she answered a newspaper advertisement.

"Actually I was hired by the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team," she says. "I was hired by the corporation." Who, exactly, conducted the job interview? "Well, I spoke with a couple of different people, and eventually I took over the stock," she says.

As the current owner of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, Cato says she's in charge, but she's not eager to take responsibility for judgments against the company. "I'm not going to encourage anybody," she says. "Whoever it is needs to talk to their attorney and figure that out."

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