Serial Tiller

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

"Here's what we did," he says. "We really worked hard on this case -- seriously."

The file concerns Albert Cullom Jr., who's doing 25 years for rape, assault and sodomy. Look at all this writing, Tiller says. These notations in italics emphasize points that should be brought up on appeal, he says. "We did a tremendous amount of work for this guy, an exorbitant amount of work," Tiller says.

Not according to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Roy Tompkins
Roy Tompkins

The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team filed no motions in court, and so Cullom's appeal was dismissed on November 30, 2000. Tiller lied to Judy Cullom, Albert Cullom's mother, telling her the appeal was pending even after it was dismissed, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel found. When he finally admitted that the appeal was dead, Tiller lied about the reason: He told Judy Cullom that the appeals court simply rubber-stamped the lower court's ruling, never mentioning that the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team hadn't filed the appeal to begin with. Judy Cullom had paid $5,000 for the work.

Only after Judy Cullom contacted the court herself did she learn that no appeal had been filed. After the circumstances were explained, the court reinstated her son's appeal and appointed him a public defender. No matter what Tiller may say, Judy Cullom isn't happy. She is suing for malpractice in St. Louis County, home to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team until this spring, when it left its offices on Old Ballas Road owing rent.

"I needed a lawyer really bad," Cullom says. "The first lawyer that we had cost $35,000. We saw this advertisement in the Thrifty Nickel for this law firm, so I called him. It was cheaper than any of the others that we'd called around here. We ended up losing all our farm ground, all of our farm implements, everything. Because of lawyers, we don't have hardly anything left."

Tiller scrolls through the cases on his computer, looking for other examples of good legal work done by the firm. Most of the victims named by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel are now satisfied, he insists -- he could get 300 people in here right now to say what a wonderful job he's done. He pounds the conference table, emphasizing complete innocence.

Finally sitting back, he looks tired, perhaps a bit desperate.

"When are you planning on writing this?" he asks. "It's your call, but what I'm trying to do is to work out something so the firm and I don't get blackballed all the way.

"Is there anything else we can do to try to take care of this and try to handle these clients so this does not get published?"

Now 49, Tiller had his first brush with the law in 1974, when he was arrested in Poplar Bluff for stealing and passing a bad check three years after graduating from O'Fallon Technical High School with below-average grades. His father once told a state probation officer that until his teenage years, Tiller was a model child with a heart of gold. He liked to help people.

That certainly changed.

By the late 1970s, Tiller was running a South County stereo shop, according to lawsuits filed by electronics suppliers who sued him for unpaid debts. He has also worked as a private investigator and automobile repossessor, always self-employed.

In 1979, Tiller was convicted in St. Louis County of taking $6,000 in a real-estate scam. He got probation. While still on probation, he was convicted of five counts of passing bad checks in St. Louis. Once again, he got probation. In 1984, while on probation, he was convicted of impersonating a police officer and filing a false police report in the city. Again, he got probation, plus 60 days of shock time.

The system finally got tough on Tiller in 1986. This time, he was charged with five counts of passing bad checks in St. Louis County and five counts of stealing and attempted stealing in St. Louis. He'd been kiting checks in the city, taking about $10,000 from Boatmen's Bank, $3,135 from Mercantile Bank and more than $4,000 from Royal Bank. In addition, Michael Turpin, a service-station owner, told police that Tiller took him for about $7,500 in bad checks, all in the space of a weekend. There were also bad-check cases out of Cape Girardeau that Tiller handled by hiring attorney Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., now a Missouri Supreme Court justice. Court files show Tiller continued writing bad checks even after he'd been arrested and charged with kiting checks.

At the time, Tiller was running an investigation agency that specialized in tracking down bad debt for banks and savings-and-loan associations.

Tiller fought the charges by claiming mental problems. His psychiatrist, Dr. Edwin D. Wolfgram -- who later refused to release records to a probation officer because Tiller hadn't paid him -- told the judge that Tiller suffered from a mental disorder that made it impossible to realize "the nature, quality or wrongfulness of his conduct."

"He has a mental disease that renders him incapable of conforming his conduct to requirements of the law," Wolfgram wrote in a letter to St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas C. Mummert. "I see no basis for confinement of this gentleman, despite his mental illness.... With treatment, he is capable of becoming a responsible and productive citizen."

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