Serial Tiller

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

A second psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph S. Shuman, found that Tiller might have an antisocial-personality disorder but also noted that Tiller knew the difference between right and wrong and could assist in his defense.

"He described this problem of having difficulty realizing the actual true value of money," Shuman wrote. "At one point when I was reading his record, I remarked to Mr. Tiller that he seemed to be quite a con artist, which made him very angry."

Mummert went with Shuman's opinion.

Allen I. Harris, who'd been the sole lawyer for the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, was disbarred by the Supreme Court May 30.
Jennifer Silverberg
Allen I. Harris, who'd been the sole lawyer for the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, was disbarred by the Supreme Court May 30.
Marvin Gelber was Tiller's landlord until this spring:  "I made a helluva mistake."
Jennifer Silverberg
Marvin Gelber was Tiller's landlord until this spring: "I made a helluva mistake."

Facing a seventeen-year sentence, Tiller pleaded guilty in a plea bargain that was supposed to put him away for a decade. Then he filed a motion to withdraw his plea. When sentencing day arrived, Tiller made it to the courthouse but disappeared before his case was called. He came back the next day and was promptly jailed. Four hours later, he faced an angry judge.

"I don't want to hear excuses and I really don't care, because I wouldn't believe it even if you came in here with pictures," Mummert said. "Maybe ten years is a lot of time for passing bad checks, but it will keep you off the streets.... You and I know that you will get back out and continue your life of crime."

"No, sir, I'm not," Tiller told the judge.

"I think that's easy to say that here now," Mummert replied. "I can see that you want to say something. What happened?"

"I was outside when my wife frantically paged me and told me over the page that my daughter had fallen down two flights of stairs," Tiller said. "I panicked and I didn't know what to do. I'm being honest with you -- serious."

"Don't insult me with that stuff," Mummert retorted before handing down a ten-year sentence. "We had people chasing you all over this building."

After he was sent to prison, Tiller peppered Mummert with requests for leniency, begging the judge to cut the sentence to four months of shock time. Tiller promised to repay the stolen money, claiming he'd already paid $12,000 to two victims, including one who hadn't lost anything because he stopped payment on checks before they cleared the bank.

"Would you please give me the last chance of my life," he begged in one of his many letters to the judge. "I have changed and will continue to change for the much better." He even convinced two nuns, both prison volunteers, to write a letter to Mummert. "We feel John has a sincere desire to take full charge of his life as well as the responsibility for it," the sisters wrote.

Mummert wouldn't bite, but Tiller didn't give up.

Tiller had a rough time behind bars.

Prison records show he was beaten by other inmates who thought he was a snitch. Tiller says he has no idea why he was a target.

"Because of my profession, probably," he says. "Some people get 'investigator' and 'police' mixed up."

Though he hadn't repaid his victims, Tiller did retain Donald Wolff, one of the state's top defense lawyers, and got his ten-year sentence set aside on the grounds that he should not have been allowed to plead guilty because a motion for another psychiatric review was pending when he entered his plea in St. Louis. By then, he'd served nearly three years. In 1989, he was paroled on the bad-check charges from the county and Cape Girardeau while St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael B. Calvin pondered what to do with him.

Once again, Tiller pleaded guilty to the pending check-kiting charges, leaving Calvin to decide an appropriate punishment. Prosecutors asked for fifteen years. Tiller's prospects didn't look good.

Since his parole thirteen months earlier, Tiller had fibbed to parole officers and broken parole conditions, including opening a checking account, according to a 1990 pre-sentencing report. He was a self-employed automobile repossessor, an occupation his parole officer frowned on. He kept an office in Springfield but asked that his supervision be transferred to St. Louis because he was closing down his Springfield operation. But that office remained open, and Tiller opened another one in Kansas City, where he kept an apartment and spent most of his time. More than once, Tiller missed appointments with his parole officer. When a parole officer twice visited his Kansas City office, Tiller wasn't there.

The three banks that together lost more than $17,000 hadn't gotten a dime in restitution. Neither had Turpin, who says that Tiller, a regular customer, bamboozled him by flashing lots of cash until one Friday evening when he asked to cash a check because the banks were closed. Tiller returned several times over the weekend to cash more checks, nearly putting Turpin out of business. Turpin urged parole officers to put Tiller in prison.

Parole officers were also getting calls from law enforcement. The Greene County Sheriff's Department said Tiller had contacted deputies, claiming he was a private investigator who needed a records check to help locate a person. The St. Charles County prosecuting attorney's office said they had reports that Tiller was hiring men to steal cars. A business owner complained that Tiller owed money for radios.

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