JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Russell Tillis took the stand in his own defense on the second day of his trial in the murder of Joni Gunter, whose dismembered remains were found on his Southside property in 2016.
Tillis, 59, told the jury on Thursday that the first time he saw Gunter was when she was already dead.
He said his brother Claude drove to his house and showed him Gunter’s body in the trunk of his car. Tillis did not say his brother killed Gunter. But he said that if his brother were arrested for it, he would not testify against him. Tillis’ brother is not charged in this case and the lead detective in the case testified they never had any evidence that pointed to Tillis’ brother.
Tillis also testified he fabricated an elaborate confession that he killed Gunter and buried her on his property. He said that he didn’t kill her and never knew how she died. Tillis said he created the fake story with a fellow Duval County inmate, who had agreed to wear a wire to record the conversation.
“(Sammie) Evans and I cook up a story. First I tell him why I can’t go to the police and give the confession. So once I convince him that, OK, I’m telling him the truth and this is how I know where the body’s buried and this is what’s going on and this the reason why I can’t go to police, and once he understood all that, then he started looking at me a little differently, OK, let me hear your story,” Tillis said. “So I tell him my story.”
“He and I over a course of maybe three or four days, we start fabricating this murder. We were both convinced would provoke the state attorney to seek the death penalty so I didn’t end up confessing to a murder where the state didn’t end up seeking the death penalty and then I’m right back to doing 30 years in prison, I got nothing,” he said.
Tillis testified the inmate was a little skeptical, so he provided a map.
“I knew exactly where the body was buried, and I knew the condition of the body,” Tillis said. “I drew the map. I told him to study it and then throw the original in the toilet, make his own hand copy and told him to allege that I just told him.”
Tillis finished his hourslong testimony by denying he killed Gunter.
During cross-examination, Tillis refused to answer questions pertaining to Gunter’s death.
Prosecutor: “What’s it like to use a saw to cut a woman’s head off?”
Tillis: “I have no answer for that question either.”
Prosecutor: “Did the saw blade wear out when you were cutting her shoulders? Did you have to use multiple blades?”
Tillis: “I believe I just told you I would not answer any questions regarding that subject.”
It was a stark contrast to the jailhouse conversation, which is the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case against Tillis, who is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, sex trafficking and abuse of a body.
“I’m killing her, but you have to cut her up,” Tillis is heard saying on audio played Wednesday in court.
The first day of the trial ended Wednesday with the playing of the jailhouse confession that Tillis now claims he made up and the second day began with a continuation of the recording. Prosecutors played the audio recorded with a hidden microphone inside the Duval County jail where Tillis confesses to killing Gunter. At one point, when Tillis learns his property is being bulldozed, he is heard saying: “They’re fixing to unearth one of them bodies over there and then that one is probably gonna lead to the other two.”
Tillis’ property is also discussed, specifically that it was built up like a fortress with booby traps like razor blades in bushes. The defense said those were not used to keep out police but burglars.
Before Tillis took the stand Thursday afternoon, the defense continued to argue Tillis made it all up and never killed Gunter. Defense lawyers also challenged Detective Dennis Sullivan, the homicide detective assigned to the case, on the issue of whether there were chains in Tillis’ home. That questioning followed testimony Wednesday from a woman who said Tillis, at one point, chained her to his bed.
Defense: “Is there anything to indicate this chain -- old and heavy -- that it scratched the bed frame?”
Sullivan: “I did not notice that. No sir.”
On Thursday, Sullivan also revealed new information about Gunter, saying she had children and the last documented report of her being alive was in April 2015, when she was served papers about child support for her children.
“Joni to me, in this case, was somebody who I deemed basically a forgotten victim in this,” Sullivan said on the stand.
A forensic anthropologist testified about identifying Gunter’s remains and the medical examiner testified about determining how she died. He said she was killed by blunt impact trauma to the head.
The medical examiner also testified that Gunter’s injuries showed she tried to defend herself against her attacker.
Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if Tillis is convicted.
Prosecutors laid out the gruesome details of the case on Wednesday, saying Tillis chained Gunter in his home and sold her in a sex trafficking operation.
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.”
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 would claim his jailhouse confession was a “made-up drama” to get the death penalty because he was depressed and facing years in prison on another 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.
Gunter’s remains were found buried in several different spots in the yard of Tillis’ 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.