Police dig again at property where woman found buried

Man accused of kidnapping, killing, burying woman in yard

By Jenese Harris - Reporter/anchor , Ashley Harding - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Police dug again this week at the former property of a man accused of murdering a woman and burying her dismembered remains in his yard.

The slab was pulled up Tuesday at property once owned by Russell Tillis. Investigators started searching Monday night and were seen packing up Wednesday afternoon.

Several evidence vans were at the property Tuesday, along with two excavators, as crews sifted through broken cement and dirt.

Tillis, 54, has been in jail since May 2015, when police said two officers were attacked with knives while they were serving him with arrest warrants for violating injunctions neighbors had obtained against him. 

Nine months later, police found the body of a young woman, later identified as Joni Lynn Gunter, buried on Tillis' property.

According to the medical examiner, Gunter died of blunt-force trauma sometime between February 2014 and May 2015.

Tillis' Southside home where Gunter's remains were found was demolished earlier this year. The home, which was just off Bowden Road east of I-95, was condemned as “unsafe and unfit for human habitation and subject to demolition.”

Police said a tip led them to dig at the property in February 2016. Crews used a radar device to search Tillis' yard instead of digging all of it up. They spent several days at the property, but only found one set of remains.

Despite that, police said 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.

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith believes there could be more evidence to be found.

"The way they are digging it leads me to believe they maybe looking for bodies, so somehow they have received some good information for them to bring all of this out here that there is a strong possibility that there may be more bodies here," Smith said.

Police have not said why they were excavating again at the property.

A woman who said she was Gunter's aunt told News4Jax on Tuesday that Gunter was a nice person who got caught up in the wrong lifestyle and that she has a young son who lives with a grandmother.

Neighbors not surprised

A woman who said she had a restraining order against Tillis said Tuesday that seeing police investigating at the property is still unnerving.

Former City Councilman Don Redman, who represented the neighborhood said neighbors contacted him about their concerns with Tillis when he was in office.

"It didn't surprise me at all. As a matter of fact, when they did finally arrest him for breaking his court order for staying away from the neighbors, we told police then that we wouldn't be surprised if there were some bodies buried around that property somewhere," Redman said. "I'm glad they are back and digging some more, because I would not be surprised if they found something in the front yard in this place. He spent a lot of time digging. There could be something buried out there anywhere. It wouldn’t surprise me."

Tillis pleads not guilty, wants to fire lawyer

Tillis told a judge Monday that he wanted to get rid of his lawyer, moments after the attorney entered not guilty pleas for Tillis on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, human trafficking and abusing a dead body.

When Tillis said, “Excuse me,” to Judge Mark Borello, Borello told him, “No, excuse me. Be quiet! I’ll deal with you in a second.”

Borello warned Tillis if he keeps speaking when not called upon, he’ll be removed from the courtroom. When the judge gave Tillis time to speak, Tillis said his attorney, Michael Hernandez, is providing him a “scant defense,” is “blowing me off” when it comes to requests for information and that Hernandez is preparing for depositions without any input from him.

Hernandez, who said he has defended 31 accused murderers, told Borello what he's doing to prepare for the case and said he's given Tillis the material that he requested.

Borello said he saw no cause that Hernandez was rendering ineffective assistance and told Tillis to consider whether he wanted to make a formal request to represent himself in a murder case, something Borello said is “almost always a bad decision.”

Tillis has a history of not getting along with his lawyers. In his separate aggravated assault  on law enforcement officers case, he’s on his fourth lawyer, after representing himself early on.

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