Murdered woman found on property of incarcerated 'neighbor from hell'
10/20/2017 4:54 pm PDT
UPDATE April 17, 2020:
Russell Tillis's trial for the kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of Joni Gunter was set to begin in May, but it was a case that was put on indefinite hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WJXT reports. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Tillis has filed continuous motions on his own, complaining about his lawyers. The two attorneys assigned to the case are the 11th and 12th. Tillis has also tried several times without success to have Judge Mark Borello recused from the case.
The judge ordered a mental competency evaluation for Tillis on April 17.
Russell Tillis, 58, was set to stand trial this month for the murder of Joni Lynn Gunter, whose remains were found in 2016. In court Thursday, Circuit Judge Mark Borello agreed to delay the trial until May, WJXT reports.
Tillis has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, abuse of a dead body, and evidence tampering in the case. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
In a Jacksonville, Florida neighborhood, residents say they knew something was definitely wrong at one of the local houses. They say they used to hear screams coming from the house during the night. News4Jax has more on what police found inside.
Two brothers come face to face. Will Claude and Russell Tillis rat each other out and become a modern-day Cain and Abel pair of brothers?
Russell Tillis has another moniker in Jacksonville, Florida: The neighbor from hell. A resident evil whose dark presence terrorized residents on a quiet street for years. But he's much more than a public menace.
Russell Tillis is no stranger to trouble. He's got enough mug shots to fill an album, and a long rap sheet. He's served 12 years of hard time for convictions like sexual assault, kidnapping and grand theft.
After being released from prison, Russell Tillis inherited his mother's house. That's when, a family friend said, things got creepy, with Tillis transforming the single-story residence into a den of depravity.
"He built it like a fortress, it looked weird," said Tillis family friend Patricia Lashley. "Because he had a very high privacy fence, he had all kind of shacks and buildings everywhere. It looked like an armed camp."
Neighbors even dubbed Tillis's home "The House of Horrors."
"I really wouldn't be surprised if they don't find something in the front yard of this place," one neighbor told Crime Watch Daily affiliate WKMG News4Jax News.
"At night he would prowl the neighborhood," said another neighbor.
The neighbors filed injunctions for protection against him. But for cops, serving those warrants turned into a risky game of cat and mouse. Cops claim the place was booby-trapped.
Tillis was eventually arrested and pleaded guilty to charges including aggravated assault on police officers. The neighbors were thrilled.
The case went to trial, with officers testifying about the extreme measures to get Tillis out of the house.
"They got information that the place may have been booby-trapped with razor-wires, so what the sergeant decided to do was to throw rocks at the window to get him to come out," said News4Jax Crime and Safety Analyst Gil Smith.
When Tillis came out of his house, an officer said, Tillis charged him. Russell Tillis watched intently in court as the prosecution played surveillance video of that dangerous chase.
"I had a nail go through the bottom of my boot," testified one sheriff's deputy.
But the case was declared a mistrial. Tillis stayed behind bars, and that trial was child's play compared to the dark secrets that would spill out of Russell Tillis's cinderblock jail cell.
"Tillis was overheard in jail saying he had killed someone," said reporter Jenese Harris.
Court documents reveal Tillis boasted to another prisoner that the "someone" was a local prostitute. Detectives wire-tapped the jailhouse snitch to capture Tillis's admission on tape. Armed with that intel, cops revisited the spooky house where excavators bulldozed the front yard. After two days of searching, they found a skull and several bones.
Cops unearth dismembered remains wrapped in a cloth and scattered in three different locations around the property. But the identity of that person remained a mystery until the autopsy results came back. That victim was a 31-year-old woman named Joni Lynn Gunter. She died of blunt-force trauma to the head.
From the outside Russell Tillis's home looked seemingly normal, but cops made horrifying discoveries about the madman living inside.
"Police took more than 800 evidence photos out of the home," said Harris. "Inside they found power tools, blades, chains tied to the ceiling, and chemicals."
Police say Tillis targeted vulnerable women who lived on the fringes of society. But was Tillis the only killer in the house of horrors? Also captured on the jailhouse wire-tap, Russell tells the informant it was actually his brother Claude's idea to kill Joni Gunter. Police bring Claude in for questioning.
Police took DNA swabs from Claude's mouth and then put the Tillis brothers face to face to see if one of them would turn on the other. Claude lays into Russell, telling him he can't believe his own brother would try to frame him for murder.
Claude Tillis was not arrested or charged in connection to Joni Gunter's death.
Then, even more grim secrets spill from that jailhouse recording.
"Based on statements that Tillis made, we believe it's highly likely that other females were victimized by Tillis, including potentially other murders," said Jacksonville Sheriff's Assistant Chief Scott Dingee.
Detectives head back to Tillis's home to look for more victims. This time the search turns up empty.
Russell Tillis, still in jail for assaulting cops, pleaded not guilty to charges including first-degree murder, human trafficking and abuse of a dead body in connection with the murder of Joni Gunter.
Since then, the house has been demolished and Russell Tillis is awaiting trial. If he's found guilty he could face the death penalty.