Teflon Tiller

As the circle closes around him, John Tiller scrambles

For residents of the neighborhood just north of the Edward Jones Dome, Salama's Market is the closest place to pick up a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread or a box of cereal. It's also a popular place to cash a check -- think of it as an inner-city bank for people without bank accounts.

Salama's isn't the sort of place one expects to find a white-collar guy cashing thousands of dollars in checks written on the the account of the law firm where he works. But John Gary Tiller, a paralegal and resident of Clayton, isn't your ordinary white-collar worker.

St. Louis police say Tiller cashed $51,000 worth of checks at Salama's in 2000 and 2001. More recently, Sam Salama says, Tiller showed up one day in March with three cashier's checks worth a total of $50,000.

John Tiller
John Tiller

Salama says his brother, who is out of town and unavailable for comment, accepted the checks after the issuing bank told him that they were legitimate. But the bank later refused to honor them, he says, leaving Salama's with a $50,000 hole in its accounts. "They denied to pay us the checks," says Salama, who doesn't blame Tiller so much as the bank.

Salama's is a curious choice for someone with cashier's checks, which are treated almost as if they were cash. Most banks will accept them with little or no service charge, regardless of whether the check holder has an account.

Tiller, a target of an ongoing criminal investigation, twice declined to talk to a reporter and, in an e-mail sent late Monday to the Riverfront Times, accused the reporter of trying to intimidate him by asking about his activities. Tiller's attorney, Charles W. Gray, says he doesn't know anything about the cashier's checks Tiller cashed last spring. As for checks cashed at Salama's in previous years, Gray says, Tiller had a reason for using the tiny grocery, but he declines to elaborate on the record.

St. Louis police are taking a hard look at how Tiller handled money from accounts in the name of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, a law firm he helped set up after his release from prison in 1999. Dozens of clients have accused Tiller and the firm of taking their money and doing no work. Those allegations were first outlined in a Riverfront Times story that chronicled Tiller's career as a convict-turned-paralegal [Bruce Rushton, "Serial Tiller," July 24]. Less than a month after the story appeared, St. Louis police served a search warrant at Tiller's apartment in Clayton.

Gray says most everything police are saying about his client isn't true. The cops said plenty in a fourteen-page affidavit used to obtain the search warrant, which allowed them to seize computers, paper files, telephone records, checkbooks and other documents from Tiller's apartment on August 21. But the gist can be stated in a single sentence.

"The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team is the latest in a long line of fraudulent businesses created by Mr. Tiller to steal money," wrote Detective Ronald Sheppard in the search-warrant affidavit.

The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team promised to help inmates gain their freedom. But inmates and their families received little or nothing in the way of legal services after Tiller and others convinced them to pay thousands of dollars in retainer fees. On the basis of complaints received by the Missouri attorney general and the state Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, Sheppard says, he believes there are more than 60 victims from across the nation, with total losses reaching into six figures.

In his affidavit, Sheppard says nearly $1 million moved through Civil Rights Legal Defense Team bank accounts in the space of three years. Much of the money went to Tiller, who cashed about $200,000 worth of checks payable to himself during the first six months of 2001, according to the affidavit. During that same period, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team spent $1,919 on expenses directly related to clients, including $500 that was refunded to one client, Sheppard writes.

In 2000, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team spent a little over $2,000 on client expenses. That same year, Tiller cashed checks to himself totaling more than $89,000, according to the affidavit.

Gray says his client hasn't done anything wrong: "I'm ready to admit that the accounting procedures at this firm suck. Just because you happen to see a payment going to Mr. Tiller doesn't necessarily mean that money went into his pocket. "

Bottom line, Gray claims, Civil Rights Legal Defense Team attorney Allen Harris, who was suspended from practice in September 2001 and disbarred in May, and Harris' successor, Sarah Cato, are responsible for whatever happened.

The victims all tell essentially the same story. After sending money to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, they received plenty of promises but no services. The typical client lost about $3,000. Some lost much more.

Pam Lyons of Cocoa Beach, Florida, says she sent $19,375 to St. Louis early this year after Tiller told her that the attorney for her brother Antonino Lyons was screwing up and that the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team could help. At one point, she says, Tiller called a bank directly in an attempt to get money from her brother's legal-defense fund. "He constantly kept harassing me -- 'We need more money, or the federal government's going to hang your brother. We really need money in order to fight this case,'" Lyons says. "He kept asking us for more and more and more. Each time he called, he was just getting more aggressive and more demanding."

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