Father: Man charged with killing buried woman 'deserves what he gets'

Russell Tillis facing murder charge after remains found at Southside home

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The father of a man now charged with murder in the death of a young woman whose body was found dismembered and buried in his front yard told News4Jax Friday that his son deserves what he gets.

Russell Tillis, 54, has been in jail since May 2015, when police said two officers were attacked with knives while serving him with arrest warrants on unrelated charges of threatening a neighbor and violating an injunction.

Police announced Thursday that Tillis is charged with murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, abuse of a body and evidence tampering in the death of Joni Lynn Gunter. He was ordered held without bond pending a Dec. 29 arraignment.

News4Jax found Tillis' father, who asked not to be named, on Philips Highway. He said his son once threw him out of the Bowden Circle East house where police said Gunter's remains were found buried in February.

Police said they searched the Southside property after receiving a tip. Months later, Gunter was identified as the victim, using DNA analysis conducted by forensic specialists at the University of North Texas, police said.

Police said Gunter, a transient, died of blunt-force trauma sometime between February 2014 and when Tillis was arrested last year.

Neighbors told News4Jax Friday that Tillis and his father always had a hard time. They recalled fights that could be heard across the neighborhood, and some neighbors said they were worried about their safety.

Tillis’ father declined to elaborate but admitted that his son threw him out of the house. At the time, Tillis' parents were reconciling after divorce. Tillis' father said he did not raise his son that way and added that he deserves what he gets.

News4Jax learned that Tillis' mother signed the Bowden Circle East property over to Tillis less than a month before she died in June 2012.

Neighbors said they hope the home, which was condemned after Tillis was arrested last year, will be torn down.

But the property was sold earlier this year in a quick-deed sale. The new owner declined to comment.

The city said Friday that code enforcement has suspended its investigation of the property for now, pending further investigation by the sheriff's office, meaning that for now, the property is still under JSO’s control.

Neighbors said that they have complained for years about what was going on at the house, and they, along with police, are worried there could be other victims.

Police believe that Tillis could have abused or killed other young women, particularly drug abusers, prostitutes or women who weren't in regular contact with family, who wouldn't be missed.

"Suspect Russell Tillis targeted vulnerable members of our society," Asst. Chief Scott Dingee said. "Based on statements Tillis made, we believe it’s highly likely that other females were victimized by Tillis, including other murders. Based on his history, Tillis sought out vulnerable young females -- white females, in particular, with a history of drug abuse and prostitution. So we ask that anyone who knew the victim or anyone who may have been victimized by Tillis, anyone who has family members that may have associated with Tillis and now their family members are missing, anyone with additional information, we ask that they contact the police."

 News4Jax found 18 prior arrests for Gunter in Duval County from 2004-2011, including for charges related to prostitution, drugs, trespassing and resisting police.

Police searched Tillis' Bowden Circle East property for days after Gunter's body was found, but said they found no other human remains.

During the investigation, police released a faded Polaroid photo of an unidentified woman, asking for the public's help to identify her. That woman was not Gunter, and police are still working to find out who she is.

Detectives asked anyone who believes they know a potential victim to call the Sheriff's Office at 904-630-0500.

About the Author:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.