He doesn't look anything like his description in a 1990 rap sheet that lists him at five-foot-eleven and 190 pounds. Stretching an expensive-looking polo shirt, his pot belly spills over neatly pressed gray flannel trousers. Small wire-frame spectacles -- think Ben Franklin or John Lennon -- are perched on his nose. What hair he has is white; his mustache is a close-cropped version of an Irish cop's.
The picture of sincerity.
Tiller walks past a lobby portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and enters a conference room. On a wall, by shelves of law books, is a framed poster of a rowing crew. "Teamwork," it says. Tiller turns on a computer and scrolls down the flat-screen display monitor that, if history is a guide, belongs to someone else who hasn't been paid.
But Tiller doesn't like to talk about history -- at least, not his own. For more than twenty years, he's been a liar and a thief, a "prior and persistent offender," in the lexicon of the Missouri Department of Corrections. As far as Tiller is concerned, his past crimes, his stints in prison, the dozens upon dozens of lawsuits filed against him for nonpayment of debt don't have anything to do with the here and now.
"You're mixing peanuts with candy," Tiller says. "The pattern is possibly similar, but not really. That's John Tiller back there. This is a law firm here that I am not an owner of. I'm an employee."
A very busy employee, according to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, the arm of the state Supreme Court charged with investigating complaints against lawyers. The office says Tiller -- who doesn't have a law license -- has been selling legal advice. A proven con artist, Tiller also has convinced people to hand over thousands of dollars for legal services that are never performed. Their losses, state investigators say, exceed $40,000. And that's a conservative figure.
Tiller's targets are inmates. When those kinds of people are conned, punishment comes slowly. The first victim came forward at least 19 months ago, but the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team remains in business and Tiller walks free.
The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel has referred the case to prosecutors. The U.S. Postal Inspector's Office, which looked into complaints about Tiller, has deferred to the St. Louis circuit attorney, even though the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team solicits business from people across the nation. The circuit attorney's office doesn't expect any results for at least two months. Although the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team once operated out of offices in St. Louis County, there's no indication that Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch is interested. He didn't return five telephone calls about the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. Complaints to Missouri Attorney General Jeremiah "Jay" Nixon, whose office was contacted by victims as long ago as January 2001, have accomplished little.
Indeed, no one has bothered calling Tiller's parole officer.
But time may be running out for John Gary Tiller -- and he knows it. Lately he's been renewing promises to angry clients of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team who haven't heard from the company in months.
On May 30, the Supreme Court disbarred Allen I. Harris, who'd been the sole lawyer for the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. When he accepted Tiller's invitation to become the firm's lawyer, Harris should have known what he was getting into. Tiller, who formed the business in 1999 after serving four years for fraud, had used Harris as his lawyer in earlier criminal cases.
Tiller has a habit of blaming others for his troubles, and in the case of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team he mainly blames Harris.
Although Tiller insists he's just an employee, others, including clients and a former employee, say he's the man in charge, the guy who hires and fires, signs the office leases, puts his name on purchase orders, gets sued by vendors and lies to relatives of inmates who rot in prison while the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team does nothing.
Employee or not, Tiller says he can explain everything.
"We have not been dishonest with anyone," Tiller says as he scrolls through computer files. "There's nothing wrong with this firm. This is very serious to me. There's two things I worry about, and that's children and people in these situations. I'm going to show you all the work. If you look at these complaints and we go through them, you'll see that half of these people are happy." He settles on a file, clicking the mouse.
"Here's what we did," he says. "We really worked hard on this case -- seriously."
The file concerns Albert Cullom Jr., who's doing 25 years for rape, assault and sodomy. Look at all this writing, Tiller says. These notations in italics emphasize points that should be brought up on appeal, he says. "We did a tremendous amount of work for this guy, an exorbitant amount of work," Tiller says.
Not according to the Missouri Supreme Court.
The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team filed no motions in court, and so Cullom's appeal was dismissed on November 30, 2000. Tiller lied to Judy Cullom, Albert Cullom's mother, telling her the appeal was pending even after it was dismissed, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel found. When he finally admitted that the appeal was dead, Tiller lied about the reason: He told Judy Cullom that the appeals court simply rubber-stamped the lower court's ruling, never mentioning that the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team hadn't filed the appeal to begin with. Judy Cullom had paid $5,000 for the work.
Only after Judy Cullom contacted the court herself did she learn that no appeal had been filed. After the circumstances were explained, the court reinstated her son's appeal and appointed him a public defender. No matter what Tiller may say, Judy Cullom isn't happy. She is suing for malpractice in St. Louis County, home to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team until this spring, when it left its offices on Old Ballas Road owing rent.
"I needed a lawyer really bad," Cullom says. "The first lawyer that we had cost $35,000. We saw this advertisement in the Thrifty Nickel for this law firm, so I called him. It was cheaper than any of the others that we'd called around here. We ended up losing all our farm ground, all of our farm implements, everything. Because of lawyers, we don't have hardly anything left."
Tiller scrolls through the cases on his computer, looking for other examples of good legal work done by the firm. Most of the victims named by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel are now satisfied, he insists -- he could get 300 people in here right now to say what a wonderful job he's done. He pounds the conference table, emphasizing complete innocence.
Finally sitting back, he looks tired, perhaps a bit desperate.
"When are you planning on writing this?" he asks. "It's your call, but what I'm trying to do is to work out something so the firm and I don't get blackballed all the way.
"Is there anything else we can do to try to take care of this and try to handle these clients so this does not get published?"
Now 49, Tiller had his first brush with the law in 1974, when he was arrested in Poplar Bluff for stealing and passing a bad check three years after graduating from O'Fallon Technical High School with below-average grades. His father once told a state probation officer that until his teenage years, Tiller was a model child with a heart of gold. He liked to help people.
That certainly changed.
By the late 1970s, Tiller was running a South County stereo shop, according to lawsuits filed by electronics suppliers who sued him for unpaid debts. He has also worked as a private investigator and automobile repossessor, always self-employed.
In 1979, Tiller was convicted in St. Louis County of taking $6,000 in a real-estate scam. He got probation. While still on probation, he was convicted of five counts of passing bad checks in St. Louis. Once again, he got probation. In 1984, while on probation, he was convicted of impersonating a police officer and filing a false police report in the city. Again, he got probation, plus 60 days of shock time.
The system finally got tough on Tiller in 1986. This time, he was charged with five counts of passing bad checks in St. Louis County and five counts of stealing and attempted stealing in St. Louis. He'd been kiting checks in the city, taking about $10,000 from Boatmen's Bank, $3,135 from Mercantile Bank and more than $4,000 from Royal Bank. In addition, Michael Turpin, a service-station owner, told police that Tiller took him for about $7,500 in bad checks, all in the space of a weekend. There were also bad-check cases out of Cape Girardeau that Tiller handled by hiring attorney Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., now a Missouri Supreme Court justice. Court files show Tiller continued writing bad checks even after he'd been arrested and charged with kiting checks.
At the time, Tiller was running an investigation agency that specialized in tracking down bad debt for banks and savings-and-loan associations.
Tiller fought the charges by claiming mental problems. His psychiatrist, Dr. Edwin D. Wolfgram -- who later refused to release records to a probation officer because Tiller hadn't paid him -- told the judge that Tiller suffered from a mental disorder that made it impossible to realize "the nature, quality or wrongfulness of his conduct."
"He has a mental disease that renders him incapable of conforming his conduct to requirements of the law," Wolfgram wrote in a letter to St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas C. Mummert. "I see no basis for confinement of this gentleman, despite his mental illness.... With treatment, he is capable of becoming a responsible and productive citizen."
A second psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph S. Shuman, found that Tiller might have an antisocial-personality disorder but also noted that Tiller knew the difference between right and wrong and could assist in his defense.
"He described this problem of having difficulty realizing the actual true value of money," Shuman wrote. "At one point when I was reading his record, I remarked to Mr. Tiller that he seemed to be quite a con artist, which made him very angry."
Mummert went with Shuman's opinion.
Facing a seventeen-year sentence, Tiller pleaded guilty in a plea bargain that was supposed to put him away for a decade. Then he filed a motion to withdraw his plea. When sentencing day arrived, Tiller made it to the courthouse but disappeared before his case was called. He came back the next day and was promptly jailed. Four hours later, he faced an angry judge.
"I don't want to hear excuses and I really don't care, because I wouldn't believe it even if you came in here with pictures," Mummert said. "Maybe ten years is a lot of time for passing bad checks, but it will keep you off the streets.... You and I know that you will get back out and continue your life of crime."
"No, sir, I'm not," Tiller told the judge.
"I think that's easy to say that here now," Mummert replied. "I can see that you want to say something. What happened?"
"I was outside when my wife frantically paged me and told me over the page that my daughter had fallen down two flights of stairs," Tiller said. "I panicked and I didn't know what to do. I'm being honest with you -- serious."
"Don't insult me with that stuff," Mummert retorted before handing down a ten-year sentence. "We had people chasing you all over this building."
After he was sent to prison, Tiller peppered Mummert with requests for leniency, begging the judge to cut the sentence to four months of shock time. Tiller promised to repay the stolen money, claiming he'd already paid $12,000 to two victims, including one who hadn't lost anything because he stopped payment on checks before they cleared the bank.
"Would you please give me the last chance of my life," he begged in one of his many letters to the judge. "I have changed and will continue to change for the much better." He even convinced two nuns, both prison volunteers, to write a letter to Mummert. "We feel John has a sincere desire to take full charge of his life as well as the responsibility for it," the sisters wrote.
Mummert wouldn't bite, but Tiller didn't give up.
Tiller had a rough time behind bars.
Prison records show he was beaten by other inmates who thought he was a snitch. Tiller says he has no idea why he was a target.
"Because of my profession, probably," he says. "Some people get 'investigator' and 'police' mixed up."
Though he hadn't repaid his victims, Tiller did retain Donald Wolff, one of the state's top defense lawyers, and got his ten-year sentence set aside on the grounds that he should not have been allowed to plead guilty because a motion for another psychiatric review was pending when he entered his plea in St. Louis. By then, he'd served nearly three years. In 1989, he was paroled on the bad-check charges from the county and Cape Girardeau while St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael B. Calvin pondered what to do with him.
Once again, Tiller pleaded guilty to the pending check-kiting charges, leaving Calvin to decide an appropriate punishment. Prosecutors asked for fifteen years. Tiller's prospects didn't look good.
Since his parole thirteen months earlier, Tiller had fibbed to parole officers and broken parole conditions, including opening a checking account, according to a 1990 pre-sentencing report. He was a self-employed automobile repossessor, an occupation his parole officer frowned on. He kept an office in Springfield but asked that his supervision be transferred to St. Louis because he was closing down his Springfield operation. But that office remained open, and Tiller opened another one in Kansas City, where he kept an apartment and spent most of his time. More than once, Tiller missed appointments with his parole officer. When a parole officer twice visited his Kansas City office, Tiller wasn't there.
The three banks that together lost more than $17,000 hadn't gotten a dime in restitution. Neither had Turpin, who says that Tiller, a regular customer, bamboozled him by flashing lots of cash until one Friday evening when he asked to cash a check because the banks were closed. Tiller returned several times over the weekend to cash more checks, nearly putting Turpin out of business. Turpin urged parole officers to put Tiller in prison.
Parole officers were also getting calls from law enforcement. The Greene County Sheriff's Department said Tiller had contacted deputies, claiming he was a private investigator who needed a records check to help locate a person. The St. Charles County prosecuting attorney's office said they had reports that Tiller was hiring men to steal cars. A business owner complained that Tiller owed money for radios.
"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.
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.
Once the federal investigation began, Judge Calvin revoked Tiller's probation and sent him to prison. Once again, Tiller begged for a break. "I will agree to anything you order, but please give me the chance to get out and try ... a good job, a genuine job that will not bring me problems like being in business for myself," he wrote in one of many letters to the judge. "Please give me this last chance to prove to my family and to you and to myself I can change. Please."
Listing $71,000 in debts, Tiller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the name of National Locate Service Corporation, one of his business entities. But Tiller was no more successful at declaring bankruptcy than he was at convincing Calvin to release him. The court tossed the case because Tiller used himself as attorney, which isn't allowed in corporate bankruptcies. Tiller filed a motion demanding a refund of his $600 filing fee on the grounds that someone in the courthouse should have told him he couldn't play lawyer, but, as with virtually all of Tiller's legal pleadings, a judge dismissed the motion.
Postal inspectors subpoenaed Tiller's business files but ended up serving a search warrant after an employee told them that Tiller, when served with the subpoena at his probation-revocation hearing, had instructed him to destroy records and send computers to his father's house.
Besides taking money from clients without providing services, Tiller had been ordering goods and services, with no intention of paying, according to the federal indictment. Furthermore, when vendors who'd been stiffed refused to deal with him again, Tiller placed additional orders using different names, again refusing to pay. The grand jury also accused him of selling goods he hadn't paid for.
As always, Tiller had an explanation.
In a 1993 letter to the media, Tiller wrote from his prison cell that the feds served the search warrant because he had investigated dirty cops, prosecutors, judges and a bail bondsman turned drug dealer. He accused prosecutors of engaging in homosexual acts with juvenile delinquents and claimed to have photographs. The conspiracy against him, he insisted, rose all the way to the U.S. attorney's office. "[T]he real reason they wanted the search warrants was to obtain and destroy the files on their close friends to prevent me from disclosing them to the media and for the crooks they really are," he wrote.
Hogwash, said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen, who challenged Tiller to put up or shut up. In a court brief, Rosen said he was ready to prosecute any crooked public officials and demanded that Tiller immediately identify the police officers and other government officials he was investigating, as well as the cases in which they were being investigated.
No proof was forthcoming.
Tiller delayed the inevitable as long as possible, switching attorneys at least three times on the grounds that his lawyers were ineffective or had conflicts of interest. He said he would plead guilty, then balked during the plea hearing, prompting the judge to reject his guilty plea and order a mental evaluation. (By that time, prosecutors were already convinced they might have an unbalanced man on their hands, but a judge had rejected their request for a psychiatric exam six months earlier.) The state paroled Tiller after 14 months in prison, releasing him to the custody of the federal government. His parents bailed him out of jail, getting the $5,000 from a credit-card cash advance, and he was ordered to a halfway house.
In a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Carol E. Jackson, Tiller's parents included a copy of their credit-card statement and wrote that the bulk of the $14,800 in cash advances on their bill had gone to their son. "Most cash advances were used for John's business, at least we thought," James Tiller wrote. "John always promised he would pay us back when the business got going. But this did not happen. We questioned John on many occasions, were's [sic] the money. Excuses were always forthcoming."
If nothing else, Tiller was shameless.
Once free on bond, Tiller said he would work out of his apartment as a self-employed skip tracer on behalf of clients who were aware of his legal situation. He promised that he wouldn't enter into contracts with vendors. After the court approved the request, Tiller asked the judge to allow him to work for his father's skip-tracing business, which was incorporated one week before he filed his motion to work there. Noting that James Tiller had no experience in the skip-tracing field, U.S. Magistrate Judge Catherine Perry rejected that idea and removed a bail condition requiring Tiller to work or seek employment. Allowing Tiller to go back to the same kind of business that had led to his indictment would pose a danger to the community, she ruled.
Tiller finally pleaded guilty to four of the twenty counts in exchange for the other charges' being dropped. Federal investigators who combed through Tiller's records had trouble figuring out exactly how much money he had stolen -- the final tally in a pre-sentencing report was $115,628 from Burt, who had received a modicum of service, and $10,390 from other victims. Jackson blamed Tiller's greed for any uncertainty.
"Mr. Tiller, let me say this: I think that part of the reason that your recordkeeping may have been so sloppy is that you were just so busy defrauding people that you just got a little bit ahead of yourself," the judge said before sending him to prison for more than four years. "I hope that you find another line of work because, at some point -- you know, I think you got kind of a break today -- but at some point, this is going to catch up with you again."
Burt sued Tiller but dropped the suit on the eve of trial, saying he couldn't afford any more legal bills.
"It would cost me a lot of time and money to pursue the case, even pro se, and what would a judgment against that crook be worth?" Burt wrote in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge George F. Gunn. "I think the Court owes me a notice of prison release in advance, so we may engage in a real out-of-court settlement in which the court or anyone else would not be involved."
Burt never got the chance.
He died of a heart attack the same day he received a letter notifying him that Tiller had been released, according to Burt's niece and nephew. He was 79.
"That's a lie," Tiller says, his eyes narrowed. "Of course they'd say that. That's really making me mad now. The feds don't send a letter to people when you're being released -- only the state does that. Why don't you check that one?"
Since 1984, the federal Bureau of Prisons has been notifying victims when criminals are released. A bureau spokesman in Washington, D.C., says he's not permitted to discuss specific cases but under board policy, any victim who requests notification is supposed to get a letter.
A hint of Tiller's legal smarts came during his imprisonment in Leavenworth, Kansas, when he sued the federal government, claiming that prosecutors had miscalculated his sentence.
Tiller packed a file folder with motions, but he didn't get far -- not with a record as long as his. In court documents, Rosen, the assistant U.S. attorney, says Tiller had 27 felony convictions. "I know that was a point that I was shocked on: How does a white-collar defendant have so many convictions?" recalls Rosen, who defended the government against Tiller's civil case. "It was a surprise to me, and that's why I put it into the record."
After mailing scores of fruitless pleas to the court, Tiller abruptly dropped the case in December 1996, apologizing to Rosen and the judge for wasting their time. By then, he'd found a new profession.
"When I was in prison, I saw -- you know I was in the state and federal -- I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything," Tiller says. "And I earned my paralegal certificate while I was in there. I did nothing but study every day.
"It was college, being in the federal system."
Tiller no doubt noticed that inmates are desperate for legal help. Perhaps he also noticed that the system usually doesn't listen to them when they complain. After he was released in 1999, Tiller set up the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. That's when he turned to Allen Harris. It was a curious choice.
Six years earlier, Tiller had pegged Harris as a lousy lawyer. When his probation was revoked, Tiller sought Harris' dismissal as his counsel on the grounds that he was involved in criminal activity and had conflicts of interest -- as with his conspiracy claims, Tiller didn't include any details. Harris had also initially represented him in his botched bankruptcy filing, and Tiller in court documents blames Harris for screwing up the case by filing faulty motions. He said the differences between him and Harris were "irreconcilable."
Harris isn't necessarily an awful lawyer. Last year, he won an acquittal for a client accused of assaulting guards at the St. Louis County jail ["Hard Luck, Hard Time," Riverfront Times, March 28, 2001]. But Harris' disciplinary record shows that he was less than top-notch. In 1994, he was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court for not fully informing a client of a settlement offer in a lawsuit and for failing to respond to charges against him, which resulted in his temporary disbarment.
Harris got his law license back after he answered the charges, explaining that he was suffering from depression and other emotional problems that required psychiatric help. The Supreme Court ordered him to submit to monitoring of his practice by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for two years and to provide the office with evidence that his mental problems had been solved.
But Harris ignored orders from the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel to provide proof that he had taken required courses in law-practice management. Nor did he submit quarterly reports from his psychiatrist. He finally submitted required records in September 1998, nearly two years late and only after more than a year of making excuses. The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel formally admonished him for noncompliance. "Only through constant prodding by this office did you complete the conditions," wrote John E. Howe, chief disciplinary counsel, in the letter of admonishment.
Like Tiller, Harris was slow to pay creditors, according to court files in St. Louis city and county, which show he has been sued at least a half-dozen times for not paying debts ranging from rent to bills for law books.
Unlike Tiller, Harris makes no excuses.
Harris says the same psychiatric problems that led to his 1994 reprimand also led to his disbarment two months ago. The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team was launched with good intentions, he says, but he admits that he failed to supervise the operation.
"I was in charge of them and I was, quite honestly, in my own little world at that time," he says. "I was just not doing what I should have been doing in keeping a good supervision."
But cold comfort to clients of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team.
Those who know him say Tiller can be very persuasive. He certainly was in the early days of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, which couldn't do legal work without a lawyer's name on the shingle.
"I mean, he would call me on an almost daily basis," Harris says. "I kept saying, 'No, no, no.' And finally I said, 'OK, let's give it a shot.' That was bad judgment on my part, extremely bad judgment. I honestly thought he was trying to make a change for the better."
Under Missouri law, lawyers are responsible for their paralegals. Harris says he went into business with Tiller trusting that he'd be able to handle most of the work. Indeed, Harris did not even maintain an office at the business. "He could run it, and I could rely on his doing it; I could supervise him in what he was doing," Harris says.
"The idea behind the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team is actually a pretty good idea," Harris continues. "The thing is, it just didn't work. His [Tiller's] idea was basically to have laymen who could do legal work a lot cheaper and use the paralegals. He happened to be a friend of mine. Basically I was doing a favor for a friend when I told him I'll do what has to be done to get us legal, [but] you've got to promise me certain things that didn't happen the way I envisioned them happening."
What kinds of things did he make Tiller promise?
"That he'd run this cleanly," Harris answers.
With Harris on board, Tiller bought newspaper advertisements -- on credit, of course -- and set up at least three Web sites touting the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. He also got a blurb on findlaw.com, which still lists Harris as a lawyer, even though he's been disbarred. From the beginning, Tiller targeted inmates and their families, promising top-quality legal work at bargain prices. Among the firm's specialties were habeas corpus writs, the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass for an inmate who's exhausted other legal appeals.
It all sounded good to folks like J. Downing ("No first name, just J.," she says) of Richland, Missouri, whose son Denzel is serving time for sodomy and child molestation. She insists that Denze is innocent, and she hired the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team to prove it in court. Downing also wanted Tiller's outfit to sue the Missouri Department of Corrections on the grounds that doctors were denying psychotropic medication to her son.
After spotting a listing on findlaw.com, she e-mailed the firm in July 2000 and received a quote of $3,500. That was too much. "Then John Tiller called me," Downing says. "He lowered the price to where I could handle it." So Downing sent $2,500 to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. "They kept telling me they were going to do this, they were going to do that," she recalls.
Downing says she called the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team to confirm she had sent them a document and was told that her money only covered a habeas corpus writ, not a medical-malpractice suit. "I contacted John Tiller about it, and he agreed that I had the right idea, that it was to cover both," says Downing, who has receipts marked "balance paid in full" and noting the case as "criminal/medical." "He said he'd get back to me. He didn't. And from then on, I couldn't get an answer on the telephone. They just quit."
Downing wasn't alone.
According to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, eighteen other clients hired the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team and received nothing for their money. In six other cases, clients represented by Harris, who had a practice outside the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, received no services. All told, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's victims lost at least $44,300, the state found.
The losses are likely greater. Five people not named by the state tell the Riverfront Times they paid between $2,000 and $6,000 to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team and received little or nothing for their money. Several live outside Missouri, which may hurt their chances of recouping losses.
The state bar association has a compensation fund for people who've been scammed by lawyers, but it can take up to a year to collect. Any loss over $1,000 is repaid at the rate of 80 percent, and if there's not enough money in the fund, compensation is reduced. Furthermore, the fund is reserved for victims who had legal work performed within state boundaries.
"It's not automatic," says Chris Janku, director of programs at the bar association. "I don't want people to get false hopes."
Alan Mills, an attorney with the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago, says the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team is "a blatant rip-off."
"We have gotten numerous complaints from prisoners throughout the state of Illinois whose families have paid the firm up to $5,000 and gotten nothing in return," says Mills, whose nonprofit organization specializes in helping inmates. He's says he's talked to several victims not named by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel. One is Theresa Worthen.
Worthen says she drove to St. Louis from Indiana, a six-hour trip, to confirm that the Civil Rights Legal Team was legit. It was a Sunday, and Piper Jesse, an employee, met her at the team's offices on Old Ballas Road. Before she paid, Worthen also called the Missouri Bar Association, which confirmed that Harris was a lawyer in good standing.
That was more than one year and $5,000 ago. To date, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team -- which was supposed to prepare a habeas corpus petition for Worthen's boyfriend, William Hart -- hasn't filed anything in a court of law. Even with no legal help, Worthen's boyfriend is due for release from an Indiana prison in less than four months. The chances that a judge would rule on a habeas petition before Hart's prison term expires are zero, Mills says.
"If you're lucky, it would take six months," he says. "It could take a couple years."
"They took our life savings," Worthen says. "In November, I started bugging them again to see where it was at. They gave me a target date of December 3. That date came and went. Nothing ever happened. About April, John Tiller called me and said he was really fired up about the case. They wanted to file it within a week, but, of course, they needed $2,500 more to go anywhere."
Wary, Worthen says she told Tiller she could only come up with half the money. Tiller told Worthen that he needed the additional cash for travel expenses to visit Worthen's boyfriend in prison. "So I gave them $1,500," she says. "Before I sent them the rest of the money, I wanted to see the petition they were working on. They faxed it to me on April 16. I paid them the rest of the money -- it was a good petition, as far as my un-law eye thought. All they needed to do at that point was get it to the prison to get a signature."
It took the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team until late June to get the papers in the mail. Worthen says she called Tiller almost daily, begging him to get the petition to her boyfriend. She got nothing but lies, excuses and promises.
"I've been fighting with these people for two months to get it to the prison to get a signature," Worthen says. "They tell me they've mailed it, but it got lost in the mail. They overnighted it. I asked for a proof of delivery -- 'Oh, my secretary forgot to mail it.' They've just been giving me the total runaround. They told me they sent it out probably six times."
Linda Wilson, who lives in Virginia, says she sent the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team $6,000 in the fall of 2000. It took her seven months to raise the money. She had never heard the words "habeas corpus" before speaking with Tiller and Jesse, but they assured her that a habeas writ was her son's ticket out of jail. At no point, she says, did she or her son speak with Harris or any other lawyer affiliated with the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team.
By the spring of 2001, Wilson realized she'd been had. She complained to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel. It's not clear why the state office didn't name her son as one of the firm's victims in the public record, but after Wilson complained, she was contacted by the state attorney general's office, even though she hadn't called them.
A year ago, Wilson demanded a refund. No way, said Tiller. "We have no intentions of refunding anything," he wrote in an e-mail sent four hours after receiving Wilson's demand. "We will do what we said we would do if you want it filed, we were close to completion at the time of your complaint."
Tiller has changed his tune.
In a letter to Wilson sent two weeks ago, Tiller apologized and begged for another shot. "It is never too late to help and please, give us this chance," he wrote.
In fact, it is too late.
Wilson's son is now on work release and will be put on probation next month. "What you didn't do was enough to last me a lifetime," Wilson shot back in a letter to Tiller. "Sorry, Mr. Tiller, but I wouldn't trust you or the CRLDT to feed my dog."
Even when the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team did file paperwork, it was hardly the work of Perry Mason.
Jacqueline Sincoff of St. Louis says she and two friends gave the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team $1,000 to file a parole request for Dwayne Duckett, a Missouri inmate serving 80 years for burglary, attempted rape, robbery and armed criminal action.
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.
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."
Jesse denies doing anything wrong, opting for the good-German defense.
"I'm an innocent victim in this," she insists. "I was an employee. I applied for a job and got hired. I did my job. I did what I was supposed to do."
When Tiller stole from banks, he was arrested and put in prison. When he stole from a farmer and business owners, he was sent back to the penitentiary.
But nothing has happened to Tiller since the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel concluded that he lied to inmates and their loved ones, convincing them to hand over thousands of dollars for legal services they never received.
The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's Web site is still up, still luring clients to the strains of "What a Wonderful World," an electronic version that plays over and over and over again while the bait jumps from the screen. "Missouri Probation and Parole Has Been Accused of Tainting Urine Samples." "Alert! Alert! Mississippi Has Major Problems With Prisons And Parole Considerations, Call 1-877-PAROLE1 Immediately For Assistance!!!" "Kansas Probation Officer Accused of Tainting Urine Samples." "If you think your urine sample has been tainted, call our office immediately." "Click Here for an Immediate Response." Anyone interested will have to use e-mail, because all the telephone numbers have been disconnected and the office address has changed.
Tiller claims he spoke with Harris about cases by cell phone at least twenty times a day, but that's not what the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel found. The bulk of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's work was done by Jesse and Tiller, "a non-lawyer who provided legal advice and services for a fee," according to charging papers from the state office. Tiller and Jesse, the state says, evaluated cases, established fees and described their analysis and strategies to clients; Harris had "essentially no contact with clients ... and performed virtually no services on their behalf."
All lies, says Tiller, especially the part about his providing legal advice.
"I have not given legal advice," Tiller insists. "Definitely not. I'm going to address this, and they're going to amend this or I'm going to sue -- and I mean that."
Law enforcement has played hot potato with Tiller since the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel launched its investigation in the spring of last year.
Carl Schaeperkoetter, staff counsel for the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, says he can't discuss anything that's not in the public record. "We have some authority to seek injunctive relief against people who are practicing law without a license," he says. "However, we have no authority to seek monetary damages, restitution or criminal penalties against somebody. If the situation presents itself, we usually will defer to any of the entities investigating somebody who does have that authority."
Schaeperkoetter won't say whether his office has called in prosecutors, but Pat Kiernan, head of the St. Louis circuit attorney's fraud unit, confirms that he recently started building a case for the grand jury after receiving a call from the state office. It will be at least two months before any results, Kiernan says.
Jesse says she was questioned in April by Doug Bowland, an agent with the postal inspector's office. Bowland, she says, wasn't planning to charge her. "If anything, he was going to use me as a witness against John Tiller," she says. A call to Bowland was returned by spokesman Jerry Post, who says the case has been turned over to the circuit attorney. Post can't explain why but says that Bowland has not ruled out reopening his investigation. Post can't answer any questions about Tiller. "To be honest, I don't even know who John Tiller is," he says.
Downing says she started filing complaints against the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team in January 2001. She ticks down the list: postal inspectors, findlaw.com, the Laclede County Sheriff's Department, the state attorney general's office, the Better Business Bureau, even the FBI. No one helped. "I got told by the sheriff, when I complained about this, that it wasn't enough money to be bothered with," Downing says. "As far as I'm concerned, government law enforcement is a joke."
Downing's complaint to the attorney general went to the consumer-protection division. In a response to Downing, dated February 14, 2001, complaint investigator Margie E. LaMarre wrote that her division didn't have primary jurisdiction. That prompted Downing to write an angry letter to Jay Nixon, who is supposed to protect Missouri residents from rip-off artists.
"If the attorney general's office does not have jurisdiction over fraud, can you tell me who does?" Downing wrote. "After all, fraud is fraud, no matter the perpetrator." On August 30 of last year, Downing received another letter from LaMarre, who said the investigation into her complaint had been reopened. And that's about all the attorney general will say.
Investigators in the consumer-protection division referred questions about the case to Nixon's spokeswoman Mary Still. "It's under investigation," Still says. She refuses to elaborate and declines to say how long this probe, now nearly a year old, might take. Still suggests that anyone in the market for a Missouri lawyer check out prospective attorneys with the bar association. Told that at least one victim had called the bar association before hiring the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, Still says she has no further advice.
A single telephone call might have made a difference. Through all of this, no one contacted Joseph Botz, Tiller's parole officer.
"Oh boy," Botz exclaims as he's told about the litany of lawsuits and investigations by the circuit attorney, the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel and U.S. postal inspectors. "Geez," he says at one point. The situation is definitely cause for concern, he adds.
"I just never knew about it," Botz says. "It sounds like you're telling me a lot more than I can tell you."
Botz says he'll talk with his supervisor as soon as he gets off the phone. Within a week, the corrections department upgrades Tiller's parole status from minimum supervision to regular supervision so that he will be watched more closely. In addition, parole officers will investigate Tiller to determine whether he should be returned to prison, standard procedure whenever a parolee moves from minimum to regular supervision.
Corrections spokesman Tim Kniest says Tiller could remain free because he hasn't been arrested or convicted of a new crime, but his parole could be revoked if he hasn't been truthful about his employment or where he's living.
At the most, Tiller would remain behind bars until April 3, 2003, when his sentence expires.
Inmates aren't the only ones at risk so long as Tiller is free.
Lisa McMurtry, a friend to Tiller's son Tommy, says she gave Tiller $13,500 after he told her he'd help her and two friends set up an investigation agency. "[He said] 'I'm telling you it's a moneymaker' and this and this and that," McMurtry says. Then Tiller convinced her to give him another $5,000 to prevent Tommy's car from being repossessed but told her not to tell his son about it.
The finance company took the car, and Tiller hasn't made good on promises to return her money by July 9.
"Now that it's coming time for him to pay the money back, he's come up with so many lies and so many different stories," she says. "He basically took all three of us for the fool."
Tiller dismisses McMurtry's story.
"That was a personal loan," he says.
Since Harris' license was suspended in September, Sarah Cato has been the lawyer at the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team.
Tiller says his boss is a good lawyer but that she has her flaws.
"Miss Cato, she doesn't like going after other attorneys," Tiller says. "She has on [some] issues, but there's been several cases where other attorneys have actually blatantly screwed somebody. I've argued with her about it and she would not do something."
An odd statement, given that a good portion of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's clients claim they were convicted as a result of ineffective counsel.
Cato sees herself as a cross between a janitor and a fireman.
"I'm making an effort to try to clean up the mess for the clients," she says. "We are working diligently every day to try to address the new cases, as well as try to catch up on the work that was to be done."
Really, Cato says, the mess isn't as ugly as it may seem. It's as much a failure to communicate as anything else, she insists, regardless of the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel's conclusions.
"Good communication was not had in a lot of these files," she says. "It's not that the work was not done -- the work was done, and it was not relayed to the appropriate parties as to what was done. People don't understand, also, that because you send money to a law firm and there's not a lawsuit that is immediately filed, that is not an indicator that there was not work done."
Yes, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team sometimes demands more money before it files anything in court, Cato says, but that's because it takes so much time to review cases, Cato says. "You have to do that ... review before you can give somebody an intelligent answer," she explains. "Nobody can work for free."
Cato says clients sign retainer agreements that make it clear their money won't necessarily result in anything being filed in court, but she stops short of saying that happens in all cases. "I try to make it a practice to do that," she says.
Several people who say they were scammed say that's not what happened in their cases. And that's not what Mills has heard. "Everybody I've talked to in this situation was under the distinct impression that that by paying this money, they were in fact going to get some results, not just get an evaluation," he says.
Cato, who formerly worked in the St. Louis city counselor's office handling nuisance-property cases, is cagey about who hired her. She says she answered a newspaper advertisement.
"Actually I was hired by the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team," she says. "I was hired by the corporation." Who, exactly, conducted the job interview? "Well, I spoke with a couple of different people, and eventually I took over the stock," she says.
As the current owner of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, Cato says she's in charge, but she's not eager to take responsibility for judgments against the company. "I'm not going to encourage anybody," she says. "Whoever it is needs to talk to their attorney and figure that out."
Tiller continues to play a leading role in the firm.
Don Murphy, a recent law-school graduate with a title of senior legal assistant, says Tiller sat in on his job interview when he was hired by Cato in October. "He sat there and asked me a couple of questions," Murphy says. "What input he had on the decision, I don't know."
Murphy, who is studying for the state bar exam, says the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team is making progress under Cato.
"There are a lot of things that are still wrong with that place, but ... it's important to know what she has done to clean that place up," Murphy says. "For the first time since I've been there, the clients that are coming in now are getting immediate legal help. The work being put out is better than it's ever been."
Murphy also says he's feeling more secure about his paychecks. "There have been some issues, especially in the past, where I was told to either hold off on cashing a paycheck or cash it immediately," he says. "It's not something I worry about anymore."
Except for Tiller, the four-member staff has changed since Cato arrived. Cato says Tiller is still on board "because he does his job."
"If he wasn't, he wouldn't be here," she says.
Cato says she knew Tiller had a criminal history but admits she didn't know its extent. "I'm going to assume that you'll tell me," she says. Told the number of convictions, she asks whether they all stemmed from the same case. She won't say whether she knew Tiller is on parole.
"I don't want to go into that whole line of things, but let me say this: Part of our practice is working to try to get parole for people," she says. "I think that people who are on parole shouldn't necessarily be stigmatized because they're on parole."
Does she trust Tiller?
"Well, that's a helluva question, isn't it?" she says.
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