Legal Affairs

Prosecutors move against Tiller and Harris

It wasn't the sort of thing usually heard in St. Louis courtrooms.

"I'm not trying to use profanity or [be] grotesque or whatever, but.... " Bobby Phelps told St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Henry Autrey minutes after he was sentenced in August 2000.

"Say what's on your mind, Mr. Phelps," the judge told the defendant.

"She gave me a blowjob back there," Phelps replied.

"In the [holding] cell?" asked the startled judge. "In this division? Right back here?"

"Yes, sir," Phelps answered. "In the cell, sir."

No blue dresses were involved, but Phelps' story of an affair with Piper Jesse, a senior investigative analyst with the now-defunct Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, is bolstered by love letters retained by Jean Phelps, Bobby's mother, who says Jesse sent them to her son while he was in jail awaiting trial.

"I especially want to caress your balls with my tongue," Jesse writes in a missive more suited to Penthouse than to legal correspondence. "I know I will send you into orbit when I am looking at you with my beatiful [sic] brown eyes while I am supplying you with the ultimate oral pleasures you have only dreamed of ... We will have the ultimate connection as you look me in the eyes and see the pleasure you bring me as I am fondling my clit and caressing your chest ... As our bodies are intertwined into one, you will fill me with your love juices and I will moan like you have never heard before in your life."

Phelps' alleged courthouse tryst with Jesse didn't prevent Autrey from handing down a 46-year sentence for burglary, kidnapping, endangering the welfare of a child and victim tampering -- the judge saw no connection between illicit romance and the substance of the charges. In an interview several months ago, Jesse denied allegations of sexual contact with Phelps. Confronted with the letters last week, she had no comment, saying she'd taken a grand-jury oath that prevents her from discussing any aspect of the CRLDT.

A St. Louis grand jury last week indicted John Tiller, a CRLDT paralegal, and Allen I. Harris, Phelps' lawyer and the firm's first attorney, on 22 counts each of felony stealing. City prosecutors say Tiller and Harris specialized in ripping off clients, usually inmates, who received no legal services after paying thousands of dollars in retainers [Rushton, "Serial Tiller," July 24, 2002]. Harris, who was disbarred last year, faces a maximum of 154 years. Tiller, who federal prosecutors say has 27 felony convictions, has been stealing since the 1970s -- he was released from parole only last month. Facing 440 years in prison, Tiller surrendered Monday and was released after posting a $10,000 cash bond. An arrest warrant for Harris was pending as of Tuesday morning.

"We're going to enter a plea of not guilty, and we anticipate mounting a rather rigorous defense to this," says Charles Gray, Tiller's lawyer. Harris says he plans to turn himself in today.

In charging documents, Detective Ron Sheppard of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department says Tiller used CRLDT's bank account as his own, paying off credit cards and buying tobacco products and cars while clients throughout the nation rotted in prison. Tiller set up CRLDT in 1999 and Harris, Sheppard writes, received nearly $30,000, all by way of checks written by Tiller.

"In the end, John Tiller and Allen Harris not only defrauded people across the country out of their money, in many cases they defrauded them out of their legal recourses and their hope," Sheppard writes.

The 22 victims named in indictments lost a total of $71,574, and they represent a fraction of CRLDT's victims. Police investigated between 70 and 100 cases, says Patrick Kiernan, assistant circuit attorney, but many couldn't be prosecuted, either because the statute of limitations had expired or because crimes occurred in St. Louis County, where Tiller had an office for several months. City prosecutors have consulted with federal and county authorities, who have been content to let the city take the lead. "Nobody else pursued it," Sheppard says.

Phelps isn't among the victims named in charging papers, but Jean Phelps says poor work by the CRLDT landed her son in prison. If the CRLDT had spent as much time working on her son's case as Jesse did writing him love letters, Jean Phelps says, he might be a free man.

Phelps was accused of breaking into the home of Amanda Woolbright, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, and threatening her and a fourteen-year-old cousin with a sawed-off shotgun. Woolbright's infant son, Nicholas, was also present. Woolbright and her cousin said Phelps held them hostage for three hours, all the while holding the firearm. "He had it pretty much in his right hand," Woolbright testified. "A couple of times he would switch from right to left.... Or he would motion with it like when he told me to go into Nicholas' room, he motioned with the gun because he had it in his right hand." Woolbright also testified that Phelps once punched her in her eye with his right fist. Phelps didn't deny the punching incident, which wasn't reported to police, but testified that he used his left hand.

Phelps, a convicted thief, swore he never had a weapon and never threatened anyone. Given that police didn't find a shotgun, it was largely Phelps' word against the word of Woolbright and her cousin. The first trial ended with a hung jury. A few weeks later, while he was awaiting a second trial, Phelps was sent to a doctor after an altercation at the county jail. The jailhouse doctor concluded that Phelps could not have done what he was accused of.

In 1991, Phelps was shot in his right hand while trying to steal a car stereo. The hand never healed -- the two middle fingers are stiff, his pinkie barely moves and his index finger has only partial motion. "He has almost no grip strength, and cannot make a fist," wrote Dr. Jacques Van Ryn in a letter to Judge Autrey. "He cannot hold objects of any size, weight, or bulk; specifically, he cannot grip a weapon and place it into any kind of firing position, and with the loss of function in ... his index finger, he cannot pull a trigger, either. This individual does not have the flexibility or hand strength to pick up even a light gun such as a sawed-off shotgun, aim it, or pull the trigger."

Powerful stuff, especially coming from a doctor employed at the county jail as opposed to a rent-an-expert. But the jury never heard from the doctor or saw the letter, which was dated the day Phelps was convicted. The trial began on July 17, 2000. Van Ryn had examined Phelps three weeks earlier. Jean Phelps says she and her son several times told Tiller and Harris to get in touch with the doctor immediately after the examination, but they didn't contact him until it was too late. Just before opening statements, Harris pleaded with the judge to let the doctor testify, but the judge refused after Harris acknowledged he'd never spoken with Van Ryn.

"You don't even know what this witness is going to say, so how can you make an argument that he is going to say something that is relative and material to your client's defense?" Autrey asked Harris.

On sentencing day, Harris produced the letter from Van Ryn and asked the judge to set aside the verdict, but after prosecutor Catherine Fee noted that Harris had had ample opportunity to produce the evidence in timely fashion, the judge went with the jury's decision. An appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, failed, with appellate judges faulting the defense for not promptly producing medical evidence. An appeal is now before Circuit Judge Angela Turner Quigless, who has the power to decide whether Bobby Phelps deserves a new trial. Under court rules, Gray says, contacting Van Ryn and getting evidence before the court would have been Harris' responsibility because attorneys are responsible for the actions, or inactions, of their underlings.

Jesse, who had no legal experience before the CRLDT hired her, hasn't been charged with a crime, even though the state Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by lawyers, has said she helped convince victims to hand over their money. "She has been cooperative and has provided testimony fully and fairly and hasn't held back anything," Kiernan says. "If she continues to operate on that basis, we don't have any problems with her as far as this scheme is concerned."

Tiller in March sued Sarah Cato, a lawyer who took over for Harris after he was suspended from practice in 2001, claiming that she was responsible for taking money from clients and not performing any work. Named as co-plaintiffs are eighteen CRLDT clients who blame Cato for ripping them off.

In charging papers, Sheppard says CRLDT employees told investigators that Cato inherited a mess created by Tiller and Harris. Kiernan says Cato may be naïve, but that's not a crime. "At least at this point, we don't see anything criminal that she's done," Kiernan says. "Tiller has absolutely no credibility. He can file all the lawsuits he wants to."

Acting as his own attorney, Tiller has also sued the Riverfront Times for libel. The newspaper has denied Tiller's claims. "Truth is our absolute defense, and, in any event, Mr. Tiller had such a lousy reputation anyway that he is likely libel-proof," says Steve Suskin, legal counsel for New Times, the parent company of the RFT.

If Tiller is convicted, Kiernan says, his office will push for a sentence that could put him away for the rest of his life. "He's just a classic recidivist," Kiernan says. "The general public deserves to not be victimized by this guy anymore."

Jean Phelps says all she wants is for a jury to see Van Ryn's letter. She says Tiller called her a few months ago. "He said, 'We really need to get going on this,'" she says. "'We need to do something.' I was real hostile. I said, 'Let me guess: You want me to give you more money.'"

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