Man shocked to learn sister dead, found buried

Brother says family had been searching for Joni Lynn Gunter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The brother of a Jacksonville woman whose body was found in February dismembered and buried in the yard of a Southside home said his family had lost touch with his sister and he only learned last week that she had been killed.

Robert Gunter, who now lives in Arkansas, told News4Jax that detectives contacted his younger sister to let her know a woman found dead in Jacksonville in February had been identified through DNA analysis as her sister, Joni Lynn Gunter. Joni was found buried in the yard of a home belonging to Russell Tillis, police said.

Robert said his younger sister broke the news to him Dec. 1.

“It shocks the hell out of me getting the news about my older sister,” Robert said.

Joni would have been around 30 years old when she was killed.

Robert said since learning the news, he has been in touch with Jacksonville detectives himself.

Police said Thursday that Joni died of blunt-force trauma sometime between February 2014 and May 2015, when Tillis was arrested on unrelated charges. He has now been charged with murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, abuse of a body and evidence tampering in Joni's death.

Robert said his family had been trying to find Joni for years and never knew what happened to her. He said their mother died in 1995, and their father is not in their lives.

“All I know is I’ve been worried about her, trying to get in touch with her,” he said. “I have (missed her). To be honest, I don't know what to say.”

Police described Joni as a transient. She had a long list of arrests from 2004-2011 in Duval County, including on charges related to prostitution and drugs.

Robert said he couldn't pinpoint the last time he had contact with his older sister, but that he lived in Jacksonville for most of his life and had never heard of Tillis.

More victims out there?

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

Despite that, police said Thursday they 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."

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.

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said the public's help is critical in this case.

“Right now, they're really looking out to the public to provide them with information, especially if anyone was working as a prostitute or using drugs in this area, even if you didn't know them very well but just all of a sudden didn't see them,” Smith said.

He said those tips might help police track down other possible victims.

Neighbors along Bowden Circle said they saw women coming and going from Tillis' home before he was arrested last year.

One neighbor recalled women coming to her front door screaming that Tillis was going to kill them.

“There would be constant women in and out over there. Some of them would run over to my property and bang on my door, crying for help,” said Annette Campbell, who told News4Jax she and other neighbors had restraining orders against Tillis. “We lived in constant fear with him there.”

Campbell said she believes police will find other victims.

“Because I have seen lots of women over there,” Campbell said. “And then all of a sudden, you wouldn't see them.”

Human trafficking attorney BeJae Shelton, who serves as co-chair of the Jacksonville Bar's Human Rights Committee, explained that the city's location along the Interstate 95 corridor allows anyone looking for an easy target to be able to access them within a short drive.

"Runaways, homeless people, especially transients -- they are often targeted for human trafficking," Shelton said. "Often, people who are homeless, they are offered a place to stay. These people appear to them nice and inviting, 'I'll give you a place to stay,' and they get into a world that they can't escape."

Though police said they are not sure if there are more victims, Shelton said it's important for human trafficking victims to reach out for help.

"We try to take survivors of people who have been victims of either sex or labor trafficking, and if they have outstanding legal needs, then we try to meet those legal needs. So we match that survivor with an attorney," Shelton said.

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

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Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.