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.

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."

Tiller, in an e-mail, says, "I did nothing wrong with that client." He says his investigative work "led that client to a new trial."

Greg Eisenmenger, lawyer for Antonino Lyons, says he's never heard of Tiller -- and that the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team did "zero" to help his client. Pam Lyons agrees. Her brother's been demanding a refund since April. In July, he filed a complaint with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel.

Sheppard says Cato has cooperated with police and isn't a suspect, although he can't rule out the possibility of her becoming one.

Cato says she won't discuss the Lyons case or any others, citing attorney-client privilege. Clients say she doesn't return phone calls. Nathan Lumbard of Howe, Indiana, says he spent two days in St. Louis earlier this month trying to track Cato down but the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team office in the Locust Building was always locked and dark. He says he gave $11,500 to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team in December to file a police-brutality suit but that no papers were filed. He adds that an attorney in Indiana recently told him that the deadline for filing a lawsuit has passed.

In his affidavit, Sheppard says Cato told him she suspects Tiller was stealing money by writing payroll checks to girlfriends. Cato tells the RFT she fired Tiller in July. She also says the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team no longer has any employees. "We are in bad financial straits and getting ready to try to do something to resolve it," she says.

The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's phone number has been changed, and Cato won't provide a working one. Callers who dial the old number get an electronic message directing them to a different number. When they call that number, Tiller answers. He's launched a company called the Paralegal Group, say Cato and Gray. The firm provides paralegal services and also acts as an attorney-referral service, according to the company's Web site.

Tiller, who refers questions to Gray, has sued the RFT for libel, acting as his own lawyer. In an e-mail sent to the paper, Tiller says, "I am going to do everything legally I can do to show him [Bruce Rushton] and the public that John Tiller was out to help people, not hurt them."

Steve Suskin, legal counsel for New Times, owner of the RFT, says, "The Riverfront Times expects this lawsuit to be dismissed."

Among other things, Tiller, who has 27 felony convictions, mostly for fraud, is angry that the paper contacted his parole officer. As a result, the Missouri Department of Corrections has stepped up his supervision, occasionally sending a parole officer to his home and requiring that he visit his parole officer at least once a week.

Rocky Gitlin, an administrator for the Missouri Department of Corrections, says parole officers haven't pursued parole revocation because prosecutors haven't filed charges. The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel started getting complaints about Tiller and the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team more than two years ago. "Sometimes it makes no sense to me how slow the justice system is or what they're waiting for," Gitlin says.

Sheppard says he needs to bolster what victims are saying with canceled checks, e-mails and other documents, and that takes time. He inherited the case from the attorney general's office and U.S. postal inspectors, who interviewed former Civil Rights Legal Defense Team employees and obtained the firm's bank records, then called the circuit attorney's office.

"I'm going to try to think about this in terms of trying to be as diplomatic as I can be, in terms of passing the buck," Sheppard says. He estimates he's spent two weeks looking into the matter. "There's one particular attorney there [in the circuit attorney's office] and myself that are pretty much saddled with this caper," Sheppard says. "The Missouri attorney general's office wrote some 39 different individuals referring these people to me. Frankly, I haven't had the opportunity to respond to all these folks. There's a ton of them."

And Tiller feels for them, says his lawyer.

"He feels bad that these clients have been screwed," Gray says. "These people are still getting screwed, and Mr. Tiller's not there."

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