Man charged in death of woman whose body found in yard

Russell Tillis facing murder charge after remains found at home

By Scott Johnson - Reporter, Destiny McKeiver - Multi-media journalist, News4Jax.com Staff

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A man already awaiting trial on charges of assaulting two police officers at his Southside home is now charged with murder and other crimes in the death of a woman whose dismembered body was found buried in his yard.

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.

About nine months later, police searched the home on Bowden Circle East after receiving a tip, and found human remains in the yard. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office announced Thursday that the body found was that of Joni Lynn Gunter, about 30 years old, who they said was a transient. Police said she died of blunt-force trauma sometime between February 2014 and when Tillis was arrested last year.

In addition to murder, Tillis is charged with kidnapping, human trafficking, abuse of a body and evidence tampering. He was ordered held without bond pending a Dec. 29 arraignment.

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."

Joni Lynn Gunter

Gunter was identified using DNA analysis conducted by forensic specialists at the University of North Texas, police said. News4Jax found 18 prior arrests for Gunter in Duval County from 2004-2011, including for charges related to prostitution, drugs, trespassing and resisting police.

Tillis' house, just off Bowden Road east of I-95, has since been condemned as “unsafe and unfit for human habitation and subject to demolition.”

Assault charge case

In the 18 months since Tillis' initial arrest, he has said he would represent himself, then asked for a public defender, but that attorney withdrew in May, citing irreconcilable differences, and a lawyer from the Office of Regional Conflict Counsel was appointed. 

Tillis submitted a handwritten note to the judge, demanding a new lawyer. He cited 10 grounds, including that attorney Amanda Kuhn wouldn’t request police records that he wanted, wouldn’t contact witnesses, won’t show him surveillance video from witnesses, won’t obtain crime scene photos, and won’t address his claims the two arresting officers are lying about what happened that night.

In the letter, Tillis said Kuhn “became physically flirtatious, using her sexuality as a means to subdue defendant’s requests" and he claimed Kuhn even “stroked him in the courtroom,” as part of her effort to “use physical contact as a casual tool for her to control the defendant.”

Russell Tillis' time in state prison

  • April 1994 to March 1998
  • August 1998 to August 1999
  • January 2000 to September 2004
  • August 2008 to February 2012

During a hearing in September, a judge was told Kevin Carlisle, who was Lonna Barton's attorney in charges related to the death of her son, would take over the defense. The case was set for trial on Nov. 7, but it has been pushed back until Feb. 6.

Tillis' next court date on the assault charge was scheduled for Dec. 13.

After nine felony convictions and going behind bars four times, Tillis' past charges include incidents of exposing himself, harassing neighbors and assaulting police.

Neighbors not surprised

Neighbors told police Tillis' home was booby-trapped with razor wire and hidden pieces of wood with nails sticking up. Several of them had restraining orders against him.

Timeline

  • May 22, 2012: Tillis’ mother, Margie, signs over her house at 3551 Bowden Circle East to Russell Tillis after he’s released from prison. 
  • June 19, 2012: Margie Tillis dies.
  • May 28, 2015: Tillis is arrested for aggravated assault on two police officers who went to his home to arrest him on outstanding warrants.
  • Feb. 11, 2016: Jacksonville Sheriff's Office finds human remains at Tillis’ home after digging for two days. The search warrant was obtained after police got a tip Feb. 5 from a jail inmate.
  • March 1, 2016: JSO releases a faded photograph of a woman in connection with the investigation, hoping someone recognizes her. JSO still does not know the woman's identity.
  • July 21, 2016: Medical examiner lists the cause of death of the remains found as a homicide. There's still no identity on the victim. Tillis’ house is condemned.
  • Dec. 8, 2016: Police identify the murder victim as Joni Lynn Gunter, announce Tillis is charged with murder, kidnapping and other charges, and say there could be more victims.

Those who know Tillis said he is a very scary person and often threatened his neighbors.

Former City Councilman Don Redman said he confronted Tillis many times after neighbors called him looking for help.

“(It) doesn’t surprise me at all,” Redman said. “I saw a couple of young ladies at his house when I would go there. One time, one came out of the house. Another time there was one that stayed with him for a while, and the neighbors would tell me about him chasing women down the street -- women coming to their houses screaming in the middle of the night. So he was a tyrant.”

David Eichenlaub, who lives near Tillis, said he has been essentially celebrating since the news broke that Tillis has been charged with murder.

“We’re having a good merry Christmas since we heard the charges and everything -- that he’s going down,” Eichenlaub said. “It’s due, because it’s been going on and on. He’s harassed the neighborhood; he’s threatened the neighborhood. At night, he would prowl the neighborhoods.”

Eichenlaub described Tillis as a terror on the neighborhood, and said he wasn’t surprised that police say he murdered and dismembered Gunter before burying her on his property.

He said he won't be surprised if police find more victims.

“There’s a lot of women in there,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fights over there, a lot of yelling.”

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