JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The long-delayed trial of Russell Tillis on charges that he killed and dismembered Joni Gunter in 2016 and then buried her in the yard of his Southside Jacksonville home began Wednesday with grim details of her death and the day ended with the playing of a jailhouse confession that Tillis now claims he made up.
Prosecutors laid out the gruesome details of case, saying Tillis chained Gunter in his home and sold her in a sex trafficking operation. In addition to first-degree murder, Tillis is charged with kidnapping, sex trafficking and abuse of a body.
Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if Tillis is convicted.
As the proceedings began, Tillis began reading a prepared statement but he was cut off by Judge Mark Borello, who asked that the statement be submitted in writing and for Tillis to be quiet as the jury was waiting to be brought in. Tillis replied, “The jury can wait.”
UNCUT: Trial opens with disruption, opening statements
In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said Gunter was killed by multiple blows to the head, consistent with wounds made by a hammer. He said that police found multiple rooms of Tillis’ home with blocked-out windows and there were thick iron chains hanging in the garage.
Mizrahi told the jury that Tillis will claim his jailhouse confession was a “made-up drama” to get the death penalty because he was depressed and facing years in prison on a different charge, but that, “This man chillingly and amusingly describes how it’s pretty easy to dispose of a body after killing a person.”
In his opening statement, Defense Attorney Chuck Fletcher said Tillis knew about a body on his property but that he had nothing to do with her murder. Fletcher also said Tillis would testify during the trial.
Prosecutors portrayed Tillis as a man who would take advantage of vulnerable women, rape and even imprison them.
“He admitted in shocking detail how he trafficked her flesh by selling her to friends so they could have sex with her for money that he profited from,” Mizrahi said.
“I did some heroin and I fell asleep and I woke up and I was chained to the bed,” one former victim testified.
The woman eventually escaped his imprisonment but didn’t report it to police because she was terrified and thought they wouldn’t believe her.
Another of the first prosecution witnesses was the owner of the property who said Tillis had threatened to kill her “several times.”
A crime scene technician testified while evidence photos were shown of the various saws, blades, tools and acids that were found in the house. There were also pages of information about women police believe Tillis tried to make contact with.
Late in the day, a recording was played of Tillis talking to a fellow Duval County inmate who had agreed to wear a wire to record the conversation.
“I’m killing her, but you have to cut her up,” Tillis is heard saying. “I don’t have time, man. It takes about four or five hours to do that.”
The trial began after years of postponements and delays, many the result of Tillis’ courtroom outbursts and objections to a string of defense lawyers, even trying to disqualify the judge.
Gunter’s remains were found buried in several different spots in the yard of Tillis’ Southside Jacksonville home in 2016, according to police evidence. Officers and neighbors called it a “House of Horrors.”
At the time of the discovery of Gunter’s remains, Tillis was already in jail on unrelated charges.