Serial Tiller

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

The first draft contained several factual errors, including misspelling Duckett's name and naming the wrong prison where he is incarcerated. The second draft, twelve pages long, was filled with grammatical mistakes and was as much a diatribe against the evils of prison as a reasoned plea for mercy:

"Being confined in the institution, which offers nothing but subjugation, degradation and humiliation will not solve the problems that confront our Society today," Harris wrote. "It is the undersigned's firm belief that this will only serve to further the ingrain [sic] hatred within the heart of the prison inmate; for both Society and the system, which detains him."

Although Sincoff and her two friends suspected the petition had been patched together from existing documents, they had little choice but to file it. By the time the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team fixed the most serious mistakes, a parole-board deadline had arrived. Tiller refused to ship the papers unless the friends forked over another $385. That appears to be common practice, according to several victims, who say they were hit up for more money even though they'd gotten nothing for what they'd already paid.

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."

Among other things, Tiller demanded $200 for a "processing fee" on the day the petition was due, plus $14 per parole-board member so the petition could be shipped to them overnight, says Roger Lord, one of Sincoff's friends. "Of course, they were supposed to have done it a long time before so there wouldn't be an Airborne Express," Lord says, "and the processing fee was complete bullshit."

Having promised Duckett that a petition would be filed, Lord paid Tiller in cash. The parole board subsequently rejected the plea, and Sincoff sued Harris in St. Louis County, winning a default judgment when he didn't appear. The problem now is figuring out how to collect.

Court records show that Harris has been sued at least twenty-one times in St. Louis and St. Louis County for not paying debts. Tiller and his various companies, including the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, have been sued more than 100 times in the city and county over unpaid debt. Tiller's tally includes 33 lawsuits filed against him and the team since his release from prison in 1999. The largest creditor is Networkz Consulting Group, which won a $26,000 default judgment in April.

Marvin Gelber, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's landlord until this spring, says Tiller impressed him when he came shopping for office space on Old Ballas Road.

Always dressed in suits. Drove a late-model Jeep Cherokee. Polite. Well-spoken. Looked and sounded professional. And so Gelber leased him the office, requiring that Tiller personally guarantee the rent.

"I made a helluva mistake," Gelber says. "He conned me. He was a very smooth guy. I saw him maybe once a week. He'd only come in at night, I think. He is a good one, I tell you. A fast talker. Smart."

There was a steady stream of traffic, usually shabbily dressed people driving older cars, recalls Sheila Weaver, Gelber's office manager. At first, Tiller was eager to chat, typically about troubles he was having with his girlfriend or ex-wife.

"He just talked like, 'Poor me, poor little old me,'" Weaver remembers. "I started feeling sorry for him. Then they stopped paying rent."

There were other signs of trouble. Weaver says employees told her they weren't getting paid -- at least one quit and applied at an employment agency in the same building. Then there was the day a truck showed up and took away stereo equipment. Gelber says a car wash across the street rejected Tiller's credit card. Clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke wafted from the team's offices.

"We had to tell them not to smoke in there," Gelber says. "Everybody complained -- the whole building. We had to fumigate the place when they left."

The rent checks stopped coming after the first two or three months, says Gelber, who sued Tiller and won a $7,250 judgment. "I don't think we're ever going to see anything," Gelber says. "He sure suede-shoed us."

Behind the scenes, the office was in chaos, says Piper Jesse, the employee who left the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team in December.

"It was a nightmare," says Jesse, who was hired by Tiller after she answered a help-wanted ad in a newspaper. "We always received our paychecks. There were many times that they bounced."

Although she had no legal experience, Jesse held the title of senior investigative analyst. She says a large part of her job consisted of making excuses for Tiller, who cared little when clients called asking about their cases.

"This is his exact words: 'Fuck 'em,'" Jesse says. "'You tell this person or that person I'm out of town. You tell this person I'm busy. You tell this person or that person I'm working on a case. You tell this person or that person this or that.' He was dodging clients all the time. I dealt with clients from every state in the United States. It was my responsibility, as well as the other co-workers at Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, to cover his fat, funky ass."

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