JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jury selection in the murder trial of Russell Tillis is scheduled to begin Jan. 13, but there is one key piece of evidence Tillis does not want jurors to hear -- a jailhouse confession.
Tillis is charged with kidnapping, killing and burying Joni Gunter, 30, in the yard of his Southside home. Her dismembered remains were found in 2016, while Tillis was in jail on unrelated charges.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Tillis, who has filed a motion to suppress a recording of a confession that he called fake.
Tillis’ motion put the confession in the public record, making it possible for News4Jax to obtain a copy of it.
The confession was recorded in February 2016 by another inmate, Sammie Evans, but Tillis said Evans gave him directions to provide a rehearsed confession, using a notepad to communicate while they were being recorded. Tillis said Evans misled detectives into believing the conversation was recorded without Tillis knowing.
In a 71-page letter, Tillis claims he was “intimidated and coerced" into the confession, which he called “fictitious.”
He said he told Evans that he knew where a body was buried and he was going to make up a story of murder so heinous that “the state would most certainly seek the death penalty,” repeatedly saying that he did not want to “die a slow death in prison” and was suicidal.
He attached a transcript of the recording to his hand-written request to suppress it at trial.
In it, Tillis tells Evans he has been “dirty for a long time.” He says he had a history of picking girls up and locking them in a room where he would sexually assault them and order other men to do the same.
“I picked up a little blonde and put her in a room there and kept her for about a week… and I let her go,” he said.
Referring to another woman, Tillis said, “she wasn’t very submissive" and said he “finally had to get rid of her.”
In his confession, Tillis hints about multiple murders, saying “I intended on taking her and putting her down there and putting her with the other two.”
Detectives believe Tillis is speaking about Gunter.
In the transcript, Tillis also detailed the process of dismembering a woman’s body. Many of the details are too gruesome to share in the media.
The woman’s identity is not revealed in the transcript, but prosecutors say what Tillis is describing is what he’s accused of doing to Gunter.
But Tillis claims it was all made up and that he was pressured to say it.
In the letter, Tillis also argues that the judge presiding over the case is biased against him, that all 11 lawyers he’s had are incompetent -- he is now on his 12th attorney -- and that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office should have sent in an undercover officer for the confession and not just Evans, who Tillis claims has lied about the confession for the past 3½ years.
Evans is still in jail, awaiting trial on a number of felony charges unrelated to the Tillis case.
A judge will rule ahead of jury selection on Tillis’ request to suppress the confession.