After midnight, three police officers entered a vacant lot and watched the ramshackle fortress of a mobile home across the way. The Florida cops knew this Jacksonville residence and its 8-foot-tall ramparts well, having been dispatched there for years over relentless feuds between its ex-con owner and his neighbors.
They were looking for Russell Tillis, a 55-year-old felon and local menace, who allegedly violated a restraining order taken out by a nearby resident. And police smoked him out that night in May 2015 by tossing rocks at the roof.
An outdoor motion-sensor light clicked, and the longhaired suspect bolted from his neighbor’s front yard, jumping a fence and landing on the ditch line near the road. “Police!” an officer shouted as they emerged from the darkness. Tillis allegedly swung around with knives in fist before sprinting back to his property and leading the fuzz through a lawn of boards tacked with 4-inch nails.
Cops would later learn that a woman’s corpse was buried near the booby traps.
Tillis was initially charged with aggravated assault on a law-enforcement officer, battery on an officer, and criminal mischief over the bizarre encounter with police.
The career criminal, who inherited his mother’s mobile home, for years was a terror on the grassy stretch of Bowden Circle East. He unabashedly spewed profanities at neighbors, calling one “wart face” and tossing nails in her driveway. During one February 2015 police visit, he told a responding officer, “I know I shouldn’t, but they deserve it after all they put me through.” (Tillis pleaded guilty to stalking and was sentenced to seven days in jail.)
“Mr. Tillis has built large walls around his house not allowing anyone on his property,” one neighbor wrote in a 2015 petition for a protective order, which a judge granted. “He has video cameras watching my house and the other neighbors. When I walk to my mailbox, Mr. Tillis yells obscenities and calls me names for the sole purpose of harassing me or scaring me and my family.”
Another resident filed a protective order petition in 2014, claiming that when she drove past him, Tillis unzipped his pants and “removed his private[s] and began shaking [them] at me.” She said Tillis was “up all night banging and making loud noises.”
“The neighbors are afraid and so am I,” the woman wrote in the court papers. “[Tillis] has said numerous times, ‘Call police, because your ass is mine tonight.’” Tillis allegedly told her that he “owns the neighborhood and can do whatever he wants.”
They had reason to be afraid. Court records on Tillis show arrests for sexual battery and soliciting for prostitution; and convictions for child abuse, kidnapping, burglary, and grand theft, which landed him 20 years total behind bars.
And not a year after the midnight sweep, police made a grisly discovery on Tillis’s property: the remains of a 30-year-old woman, buried inside three separate holes in his backyard. Now Tillis faces a new batch of criminal charges, including second-degree murder, kidnapping, and abuse of a dead human body, leading one local TV station to dub his creepy compound Jacksonville’s “house of horrors.”
Police believe she’s not Tillis’s only victim and have asked the public to help find others. In March, they released one clue: a faded Polaroid snapshot of an unknown woman discovered inside Tillis’s lair. Cops still haven’t identified her.
Police charged Tillis with murder when he was already incarcerated.
In February 2016, a Duval County inmate told cops that Tillis spoke of slaying a woman inside his home and burying her dismembered body in his backyard. Days later, a search warrant unearthed the remains just as Tillis had allegedly described, and a bone sample was sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. An autopsy revealed the female victim died of blunt-force trauma.
Police would later learn the victim was Joni Lynn Gunter, a woman in her early thirties with a history of prostitution and drug abuse. She was never reported missing, but her family was looking for her, authorities said.
On Dec. 8, Jacksonville cops held a press conference to announce Gunter’s identity, as well as murder charges against Tillis. They estimated Gunter was about 30 when she died, and that she was killed between February 2014 and May 2015.
“Miss Gunter was transient but known to frequent the southside of Jacksonville in the area where Mr. Tillis also frequented,” Scott Dingee, assistant chief at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, told reporters.
Then the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office dropped another bombshell: They believe Gunter is not Tillis’s only victim.
“Based on statements that Tillis made, we believe it’s highly likely that other females were victimized by Tillis, including potentially other murders,” Dingee said.
“Tillis targets… the forgotten members of our society, the people that don’t get reported missing typically, the ones that don’t have contact with family members very routinely. So it’s highly likely, like her case, that these individuals wouldn’t get reported,” he added.
Gunter’s brother, Robert, told News4Jax his family lost touch with his sister but spent years searching for her. Their mother died in 1995 and they had no contact with their father. “All I know is I’ve been worried about her, trying to get in touch with her,” said Gunter, who lives in Arkansas. “I have [missed her]. To be honest, I don’t know what to say.”
In March of this year, after news broke of the backyard remains, Tillis wrote to one Jacksonville reporter offering “exclusive” TV interviews on the body, and the “dirty cops” he claimed framed him that night in May 2015.
Tillis’s name stirred a media frenzy in the Sunshine State’s largest city. Action News Jax had a former FBI agent analyze Tillis’s missives.
“I could show you letters that we get from the jail or from prisoners. They’re not like that at all,” ex-Special Agent Dale Carson told the TV station. Carson claimed that clear handwriting, tight margins, numbered pages, and a formal subject line suggest Tillis put “a lot of thought” and “a lot of preparation” into his letters.
“Here he has created himself in a controlling position where he is now the victim of all of this,” Carson told Action News Jax. “He’s innocent, he’s a victim, he needs to be interviewed to get his story out there. That’s the surface. But the truth of the matter is, he’s lost his ability to control things. And that makes them crazy.”
Tillis sat for a jailhouse interview with another TV reporter in August, after she agreed to a set of ground rules, including sending him questions in advance and interviewing his handpicked private eye about surveillance video that Tillis claims proves his innocence.
In a segment on their cooler conversation, Heather Crawford of WTLV described Tillis as “very intelligent,” “very controlling,” and “careful with everything he said.”
When Crawford asked about the then-unknown woman buried on his turf, Tillis replied, “I have no clue who it is. I’m sure that Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has done some sort of intense investigation trying to determine the identify of that person, but me personally, I don’t know.”
The ponytailed suspect said he felt “surprise, just kind of numbness,” after being told human remains were buried on his land.
Later in the talk, Tillis appeared to contradict himself. “So you don’t have any idea how human remains got [on your property]?” Crawford asked. Tillis retorted, “I didn’t say that. I said I don’t know who knows the identity of that person.”
When Crawford pressed Tillis again, he said he could not answer the question “in full elaboration like you want me to, no, because I must wait on pending charges if there will be any at all filed before any of that comes out.”
Tillis told the reporter he didn’t butcher the unknown woman. “Nor have I murdered anyone else.” Crawford asked if he had anything to do with the dead body.
“That remains to be seen in the future,” he said.
Russell Tillis inherited his childhood home in May 2012, when his mother, who was dying of cancer, deeded the property to him. She passed a month later, and that’s when, according to neighbors, “Rusty” began to terrorize them.
In interviews, the Bowden Circle East residents said they spent hundreds of dollars on security cameras and motion lights to protect themselves. They described witnessing sex workers visit Tillis’s residence. Sometimes, they said, naked prostitutes ran down the street, banging on doors and screaming for help. They claimed to see a woman chained to Tillis’s fence one night and called cops. (The Daily Beast did not find a police report on the incident.)
“Four years we lived in fear,” said Annette Campbell, 65, who runs a daycare out of her home. “He was sneaky. He’d tell you, ‘I learned everything I need to know while in prison. If I go back to prison, it’s worth it…’ In a sense, sometimes he did get away with things, because he was kind of right at the edge of the law.”
According to Campbell, Tillis blew an airhorn every hour on the hour one night. But by the time cops arrived, he was nowhere to be seen. In another episode, Tillis allegedly flashed a light in her granddaughter’s bedroom window. He also posted signs to taunt residents, including one hand-painted warning that read: “Nosy neighbors mind your own business.”
“Rusty told me to my face one day, ‘I didn’t stay in prison for 12 years and not study the law. I went to the law library every day and I know what I’m doing,’” said Campbell, who lives catty-corner from Tillis and was granted a restraining order against him.
“If somebody was telling me about this, I would think they [were reading from] a John Grisham book, but it’s true. This is all true,” she said.
David Eichenlaub, who lives next door, said he constantly phoned police over his neighbor’s late-night shenanigans. The felon would run a pressure washer and haul rolled-up carpets from his residence, he says. (According to arrest reports and interviews with Tillis’s brother, Tillis was a self-employed construction worker.)
Eichenlaub said he briefly employed Tillis at his own contracting firm but “he scared every customer I had… just his behavior, his looks, the way he handled himself.”
“This guy is a Charles Manson,” Eichenlaub told The Daily Beast. “We’d hear screams. Girls running up and down the street naked, screaming, ‘He’s going to kill me.’”
According to Eichenlaub’s wife, Jeannie, Tillis once followed her to her job at a barbecue joint. Before she left for work, Tillis appeared around the hedges and allegedly said, “You going to work, Jeannie? You think you’re going to make it home this afternoon?”
“It’s horrible we had to live like this for four years,” she told The Daily Beast. “No one would believe us.”
Court papers filed in Duval County reveal how neighbors pleaded for cops to arrest Tillis and for judges to grant restraining orders—with Tillis petitioning for his own protective orders, against one female neighbor and his own father, too.
In September 2014, a 60-year-old neighbor petitioned for protection after Tillis allegedly yelled, “There goes the drunk whore” as she carried trash to the curb. She also claims Tillis hurled tree limbs at her and exposed himself.
Her petition included a plea from her sister, who wrote, “He, Rusty Tillis, told me… he cooks meth and hides it down the road so he won’t get caught.” The relative continued: “When does it stop… Please Judge, help us, our neighbors and our sanity. We deserve to have a home and quietness (when hours permit) too.”
The woman’s injunction was approved, but not before Tillis submitted a sheriff’s incident report as evidence against it. According to the document, Tillis told police he had no contact with the neighbor and that she was an “alcoholic” who “yells drunken slurs at him from across the fence for no reason.”
Tillis himself had filed for a restraining order earlier that year, claiming that neighbor “has been wilfully, maliciously, and repeatedly harassing me by engaging in a series of acts that serve no legitimate purpose and cause me emotional distress.”
In court papers, he claimed the woman warned him, “I would beat your ass if I could but I can’t, so I’ve hired someone to do it for me, and I’m waiting for the right time to call them. I’m going to enjoy watching you get your ass beat.”
She allegedly chirped, “Smile!” and snapped a photo of him. Tillis claimed a man was behind her. “It won’t be long now and I’ll get to see the fireworks,” she allegedly warned again days later. (Tillis’s petition was denied after he failed to appear in court, records show.)
Campbell’s petition for protection, filed in February 2015, states Tillis was retaliating against her because he believed she snitched to the city over code violations. Tillis allegedly approached her while she vacuumed her car in the driveway and fumed, “Hey bitch, you think you got me, but I did not get arrested.”
“He did some things on his property that was against ordinance,” Campbell told The Daily Beast. “He got the idea that I turned him in, which I did not, but he thought I did. So he took it out on me. To this day, I’m scared to death of that man.”
Still, Rusty’s reign of terror was coming to a close. A May 2015 affidavit for an arrest warrant claimed Tillis threatened David Eichenlaub one morning while he was on his roof, talking with an insurance adjuster. “I will kill you, go ahead and call the law,” Tillis allegedly said during an obscenity-laden tirade.
Court papers suggest Tillis’s “house of horrors” was dysfunctional prior to these neighborly feuds. The ex-con had taken over the residence one month after he was granted a protective order against his father.
Tillis described a harrowing encounter in March 2012, when he tried speaking to his father about the dad allegedly “threatening to kill my brother the night before.”
“I asked [him] to call my brother over and talk to him,” Tillis wrote in the petition. “[He] became very angry, grabbing me and pushing me up against the wall, pulling a knife out and made to [sic] effort to stab me. [He] finally put the knife in his pocket. My mother witnessed this act of violence.”
Tillis claimed his father attempted to drag his mother out the back door “with the intent of causing bodily harm to her.” The form also reveals Tillis checked one box indicating his parent “has an alcohol problem” and another indicating that domestic violence had previously been reported to Jacksonville police.
He claimed to witness his old man “pull a machete out” on his brother’s son and state “that he was going to kill him.” He accused his dad of “[riding] around in his wheelchair with a gun, machete, and a knife” and constantly warning, “I will just pull my gun and shoot both you and your brother and shoot myself. I don’t have nothing to lose.”
Tillis’s older brother filed his own request for a restraining order against the patriarch at the same time, court records show. He claimed his dad “began accusing me and my brother of being the problem in his marriage.”
“[He] escalated the situation by threatening me, stating, ‘If you come over here, I am going to kill you,’” the sibling wrote in the petition, which was denied. (The judge’s decision stated “no act or credible threat of violence against the petitioner is alleged” but that the grandson might obtain a valid injunction if he wanted one.)
Tillis’s father could not be reached by The Daily Beast, and relatives did not return messages. Attorneys for Tillis declined to comment due to his pending cases. Earlier this month, the dad told Action News Jax that Tillis threw him out of the family home as he and Tillis’s mother were reconciling after a divorce.
Meanwhile, Tillis’s older brother, who asked to remain anonymous for his family’s safety, told The Daily Beast, “The only time things were calm and we didn’t worry about anything was when he was in jail.
“He scares the shit out of me,” he said.
Russell Tillis’s brother said most of his friends thought he was an only child. He never spoke about “Rusty” and didn’t want people to know he was related to a habitual offender.
“I got friends of mine who didn’t know I had a brother until this came out,” the auto-body shop owner told The Daily Beast. “What am I supposed to say?”
Making matters worse, the sibling says he and Tillis look a whole lot alike—which he claims helped “Rusty” lie about his identity as he went on purse-snatching sprees. Tillis allegedly pretended to be his brother while also driving his sibling’s work trucks.
The sibling said Tillis would pull into gas stations and wait for a woman to leave her handbag in the car before snatching it and “hauling ass.” “He did that with one of my trucks one time, had my company name on it,” the sibling said.
On another occasion, Tillis allegedly tooled around in his brother’s truck and exposed himself to a woman at a red light. “I had to give affidavits for two days to prove where I was,” the brother told The Daily Beast. “I’ve been down that road with him so many times.”
According to the sibling, Tillis began stealing as a teenager, did time in juvenile detention, and at one point was placed in a school for troubled kids. Their mother was a homemaker, while their father was a crane operator who helped build Disney World. While the brother wouldn’t elaborate on the family’s early years, neighbors have said their house was sometimes fraught with the parents’ fighting. “My father was abusive toward my mother. When my mother was dying she was trying to get out of the house,” the sibling said of petitions for orders of protection against the dad.
Despite Tillis’s criminal history, he was married for nine years and has a daughter. His ex-wife did not return calls left by The Daily Beast, but in February gave an interview to WTLV, which concealed her identity and her face.
“It was a lot of beatings and pushing and shoving. Put a gun to my head,” the former spouse said, recounting what she experienced with. “Rape, mental abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse.”
She divorced him in 1997 during one of his stints in jail and told WTLV that he changed, possibly because of drugs, a year after they wed. “My daughter would always say daddy is stinky… because of the cocaine on his breath,” the ex-wife said. (Tillis did not respond to these allegations.)
Court papers reviewed by The Daily Beast show Tillis was arrested but not convicted for sexual battery with threats of injury in July 2012. According to a police report, Tillis invited a 26-year-old prostitute into a white Chevy Blazer and drove to an industrial road. Once they got there, Tillis “became aggressive, struck the victim in the mouth and forced her to perform oral sex on him,” before driving off. (Court records show the prosecutor declined to pursue the case.)
In November 2007, Tillis was arrested for two counts of sexual battery for allegedly offering to give a girl a ride, then driving her to a secluded area and forcing her to perform oral sex on him. During the March 2006 incident, Tillis then “hit the victim in the face and told her to take her clothes off,” the arrest report indicates. He allegedly forced her to have sex with him, then transported her to another location and repeated the horrific assault.
The victim, who did not know Tillis, described him to a sketch artist before a sex kit determined his identity through DNA. The arresting officer said Tillis, who was interviewed in the presence of his attorney, “denied ever forcing any female to engage in any sexual activity.”
“He did admit that he does pick up prostitutes for the purpose of having sex,” the arrest report states. “He stated that if he had sex with the victim it would have been consensual. He stated that he did not remember the victim because he has been with many women.
Tillis claimed “he has not knowingly had any sexual activity with a minor,” the police report concluded.
Prosecutors charged Tillis with two counts of lewd or lascivious battery for engaging “in sexual activity with… a person 12 years of age or older, but less than 16 years of age,” as well as one count of child abuse.
Court records show Tillis pleaded guilty to felony child abuse and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released in February 2012.
Tillis’s brother said the convict would drop by his house after his release and brag about his latest criminal exploits, including using meth. (The Daily Beast could not find any arrests or convictions relating to the drug, though Tillis’s alleged meth use is mentioned in court papers filed by neighbors.)
“He’d come over and tell me about his latest adventure he’d been on. One day he told me, ‘The detectives across the street are watching me’ and ‘I’m still making meth every day.’ He’d tell me different things he’d done,” the brother said.
The sibling described Tillis as a “jailhouse lawyer” who studied the law during his stays in the clink. “He is very, very smart and knows how to work the system.”
Indeed, Tillis’s handwritten court papers show that he knows, at least more than most prisoners, how to navigate the legal system. He was pro se in the police-assault case before shuffling through three different taxpayer-funded attorneys.
In a motion to suppress evidence filed in December 2015, Tillis accused the sergeant who threw rocks at his house of “deliberately omit[ting] from the arrest report any facts or language revealing his unlawful acts.” (The officer told police he tossed rocks because “Tillis had booby-trapped his property with razor wire and similar items.” He was cleared in an internal affairs investigation, which found his actions were proper under the circumstances, News4Jax reported.)
In September of this year, Tillis filed court papers in an attempt to boot a state-funded attorney from his police-assault case over “ineffective assistance” for a list of alleged transgressions, including her work on a deposition that Tillis felt was “in fact assisting the prosecution in the defendant’s conviction.”
He claimed the attorney “would become physically flirtatious using her sexuality as a means to subdue the defendant’s requests.” (The attorney’s employer, the Offices of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, made an internal decision to replace her before Tillis could get a hearing on the matter.)
Tillis also obtained a taxpayer-funded private investigator, Janis Eldridge, who spoke to WLTV for his jailhouse interview segment. Court records show Tillis deeded Eldridge and her husband his Bowden Circle property this summer.
The “house of horrors” is slated for demolition in January, after the city of Jacksonville condemned the property this month.
Tillis’s brother said he’s worried he’ll somehow avoid life in prison.
“I’ve waited 57 years for this,” the sibling said. “I want to be there during sentencing, so I can know for sure.”
“You always think this happens to somebody down the street,” he added. “You never dream you’d be face to face with this in your family.”