Serial Tiller

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

"Tiller has been manipulative and feels that everybody owes him something," probation-and-parole officer Karin Keister concluded. "Although he admits his guilt in the present offenses, there appears to be little or no remorse. Tiller's victims have suffered serious financial difficulties. Tiller promises to change, but promises ... made several times in the past have not come true to light. Tiller has had the opportunity for two prior probation periods, but it did not deter him from new criminal behavior.

"It is recommended in this case that probation be DENIED."

Four months later, Judge Calvin granted probation after Tiller served 120 days of shock time.

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."

Calvin granted probation the same day Tiller paid $10,000 in restitution, with the money split between Boatmen's Bank and Royal Bank. It wasn't enough to cover their losses. Tiller claims he repaid every victim every cent they lost. "I was making good money then," he says.

But that's not what the victims or court records say.

According to Tiller's pre-sentencing report, he had five dependents and was making between $1,000 and $2,500 per month. In arguing against probation, Nels C. Moss Jr., then an assistant circuit attorney, wrote that Tiller hadn't paid any restitution and owed more than $18,000 in child support, which resulted in criminal nonsupport charges. Turpin recalls getting about $200 before the checks stopped coming.

The year after Calvin granted probation, lawsuits against Tiller for nonpayment of debt started piling up. He was simultaneously running several private-investigation companies out of the same offices, hopscotching around as one landlord after another ordered him to pay up or move out. Between 1991 and 1995, he and his various companies were sued at least 34 times in St. Louis city and county, with plaintiffs ranging from landlords to unpaid employees to a cigar shop, which delivered to Tiller's office until he stopped paying.

Tiller was doing worse than not paying his creditors or his victims. Just as Judge Mummert had predicted, he resumed his life of crime when he hit the streets.

In 1993, a federal grand jury indicted Tiller on twenty counts of fraud.

The case began when Tiller swindled Joseph Burt, an aging farmer from Flora, Illinois, who called the National Investigation Group, one of several company names Tiller used, after seeing an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Burt wanted to know why his lawyer hadn't sued a company he believed was polluting his creek.

"Tiller came out and took the job," Burt scrawled in a victim-impact statement. "He said he got the business from a former state policeman who liked him and gave the business to him and retired."

Tiller visited Burt again, even buying one of his cattle. "He never came to pick up the beef, although he promised to several times," Burt wrote. At the time, Burt was caring for his bedridden father, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease. The elder Burt didn't trust Tiller. "He said after he met Tiller for me to watch him because he didn't like him," Joseph Burt wrote. "He was 97 years old at the time."

But Burt didn't listen to his dad.

In less than a month, Burt gave Tiller more than $119,000. Among other things, Tiller told Burt he needed $16,000 for a new pickup truck to haul around surveillance gear. He made it all sound cloak-and-dagger, telling Burt to contact him from a "clean" phone at a local Wal-Mart. Tiller was similarly low-key when it came to getting the cash.

"Tiller called and wanted money to complete the investigation," Burt wrote. "I wanted to wait until Monday, but he called the bank and got them to let me withdraw what money he needed. Left only a small amount on deposit.... Wanted me to send cash by courier so nobody in bank would know there was an investigation going on.... He knew it took a large chunk out of my life savings. It was not easy-come-easy-go for me, since I made it farming, sometimes a slow process. Lost about ten years' income practically overnight."

About the only thing Burt got for his money was a twelve-page report on the alleged polluter. Most of the report repeats information that was available for free in shareholder reports and Securities and Exchange Commission filings. "There is a lot of information that we are still working that is not included in the report," Tiller wrote in a cover letter. "Thanks for your business, and please rest assured we are working for a real good outcome."

The case mushroomed after Burt complained to postal inspectors, who visited Tiller's office on North Warson Road, where he conducted business under eight company names. Employees told the inspector that clients often called the office complaining that they'd paid for investigations but had received no services. One employee said Tiller had nearly 900 open case files and had performed no work on many of them. When clients called to ask about the status of investigations, Tiller used phony names, a practice he also employed when dealing with vendors who called asking about past-due bills.

A woman in Hillsboro told investigators she paid Tiller $400 to find her long-lost brother. One of Tiller's employees called the woman ten days later and told her that her brother had been located but that she needed to pay another $750 before she would be told his whereabouts. The employee told federal investigators that Tiller hadn't found the man but had ordered her to call the woman and collect more cash. When she balked, Tiller fired her.

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