JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville man convicted in the “House of Horrors” murder case was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences on Monday.
Russell Tillis was convicted in April of the murder and kidnapping of 30-year-old Joni Gunter.
Because the jury’s verdict was not unanimous, Tillis is facing life in prison without parole rather than the death penalty.
THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 2021: PENALTY PHASE, DAY 2
In day two of the penalty phase, the defense called Russell Tillis’ ex-girlfriend, Shannon Brinkley, to the stand. The elementary teacher in California joined via Zoom.
They started dating when Brinkley was 16 years-old and Tillis was 20. They had a child together, Nathan Russell Tillis, when Brinkley was 17.
“He didn’t expect me to work, which was really nice because we needed the money. He went to work every day,” Brinkley told the court. “At one point, he started selling drugs. I’m pretty sure it was meth. It became obvious he started using. That was the beginning of the end.”
Brinkley also described what the defense claims is Tillis’ troubled past. She said he, and his brother Claude, were sexually abused by their father.
“He did not want to talk about it. It was too bad to talk about.”
Brinkley said at one point, Tillis’ mother put him and Claude in a trailer and had them lock the door at night to keep their father from them.
The defense used this troubled past as an argument against the death penalty. For the defense, Allison Miller also said Tillis turned to alcohol and drugs as young as 13-years-old.
Their son, Nathan, also went down a path of drugs at 12-years-old. Nathan took the stand as well Thursday. He is a welder in Washington State and is now sober after going through a recovery program.
When Nathan was 18-years-old, he went to stay with Tillis’ parents in Jacksonville. He described an encounter with Tillis’ father.
“I was in the living room watching a movie and I noticed he was sneakily watching me through a window,” Nathan said.
Nathan said he has reached out to his father with a text and letter since the trial began. The relationship between Tillis and Brinkley lasted about a year.
Closing arguments began with the state making a push for the death sentence.
“The law never demands a death sentence. But the facts and common sense allow you with confidence to vote for death,” Alan Mizrahi said for the state.
The jury has to weigh Tillis’ prior violent felony, the fact that the murder happened during a kidnapping, the fact that it was committed to eliminate a witness, the fact that it was heinous and cruel, and the fact that it was calculated and premeditated.
“Do human beings rape, do human beings kidnap, do human beings kill and torture?” Mizrahi asked of the jury during closing arguments.
Allison Miller said, “They want to talk about this House of Horrors, it was a House of Horror for Joni Gunter, but it started as a House of Horrors in 1961 for Russell Tillis.”
Jury deliberations began around 2 p.m. Friday. There’s a list of more than 50 mitigating factors, which are things the defense argues lessens the severity of the crime. The jury has to be unanimous in order for Tillis to get the death sentence. If not, he will get life in prison.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14, 2021: PENALTY PHASE, DAY 1
There was disturbing testimony in the penalty phase of the Russell Tillis trial Wednesday.
Two women took the stand and told a jury about their violent encounters with Tillis dating back to the 1980′s.
The State called these witnesses to try and sway a jury to recommend a death sentence for Tillis. Tillis was convicted in the murder, kidnapping, and dismemberment of Joni Gunter.
The first woman who testified says she was raped by Tillis twice in 2006 when she was 14. The woman says she skipped the bus ride home to hang out with friends. The ended up at a Walmart off 103rd, when her friends left, she had no way of getting home and did not want to call her parents in fear of getting into trouble. The woman says at that moment Tillis pulled up, when she got into his car to thank him for offering to take her home, he became silent.
When Tillis put his truck in park the woman said, “I feel a big slap on my face.” Tillis had backhanded her. The teen says Tillis made her perform oral sex, she made up a story that she was a prostitute so he would not hurt her. The woman said Tillis raped her twice.
“”Thinking how am I going to get out of this praying in a sense, he told me to take off all my clothes or he will kill me” she said.
The woman told the jury Tillis then gave her $40 and said “We should do this again sometime.”
The State said this was not the first time a woman said Tillis was violent with them, 17 years before in 1989 a woman driving on I-75 testified her car broke down. She waited for a police officer to drive by for help, it was Tillis who eventually drove by. The woman said he looked under the hood of the car and said he could not fix it and offered to drive her to a phone. Instead the woman said Tillis drove her to a nearby construction site where he worked and strangled her.
It was then that two men who were making sure no one was on the site ran into them
“”There is nothing else there but these headlights, and he jumped up and I grabbed the door handle pulled the lock up and rolled out.” She said she then opened the door and rolled out before Tillis sped off.
The defense in openings said “Russell Tillis is a damaged, broken individual but not beyond redemption.” The defense explained through expert witnesses that Tillis had a broken childhood, raped by his father and molested by family members. He dropped out of middle school in 8th grade and began experimenting with drugs at 13 years old. Tillis ex wife and son are expected to testify sometime in the penalty phase.
The jury will then have to make a sentencing recommendation.
MORNING OF FRIDAY, APRIL 9, 2021: TILLIS FOUND GUILTY
Russell Tillis, the man accused of killing a woman named Joni Gunter and burying her dismembered body, was found guilty of first-degree murder by a jury Friday night.
#BREAKING: Jury finds Russell Tillis guilty of First-degree murder, Kidnapping, and Abuse of a human body. Found not guilty of count 3. @ActionNewsJax @WOKVNews https://t.co/0yK1ntB04y pic.twitter.com/dlMC3uRClT— Ryan Nelson (@RyanANJax) April 9, 2021
The jury returned the following verdicts for the following charges in connection to Gunter’s death:
- First-degree murder: Guilty
- Kidnapping: Guilty
- Human trafficking: Not guilty
- Abuse of a human body: Guilty
Tillis could face the death penalty and the sentencing phase will begin April 14.
Jury selection began Monday, after years of the trial being delayed. The jury was fully seated Tuesday. Witnesses began testifying Wednesday and Tillis himself took the stand Thursday | READ, WATCH DETAILS FROM HIS TESTIMONY BELOW
Closing arguments took place on Friday morning | READ DETAILS BELOW
Action News Jax’s Robert Grant will have the latest updates on the case on FOX30 and CBS47.
Follow his live updates from the courtroom on Twitter here.
MORNING OF FRIDAY, APRIL 9, 2021: CLOSING ARGUMENTS
The jury entered the courtroom Friday for closing arguments. The state and the defense had their last chance to push jurors to side with them.
Alan Mizrahi, the prosecutor for the state, started by painting a picture inside Russell Tillis’ mind. Jurors entered the courtroom after listening to Tillis’ testimony Thursday.
“His story does not make sense — and that is a rabbit hole into the defendant’s house of horrors into his mind,” Mizrahi said. “It’s a knot twisted in so many different positions that what is up is down, and what is down is up.”
The state pushed its main evidence, an audio recording in which Tillis confesses to murder to an inmate, Sammy Evans. The information from the recording leads Evans to draw out a map that leads JSO investigators to Joni Gunter’s remains on Tillis’ property.
“The map is the truth surrounding the wire. He knew the exact location,” Mizrahi said to the jury. “You can see, he nailed it. Through Sammy Evans.”
On the stand Thursday, Tillis also indicted his brother, Claude Tillis, for the murder of Joni Gunter. He said Claude showed up at his house with Gunter’s body in the trunk. However, he would not go into detail about burying her body.
“It’s a world where in one breath, you say to the police — you’ll never catch my brother. I’ll never tell,” Mizrahi said. “And then under oath, with TV cameras, say ‘my brother is the real killer.’ That is Russell Tillis’ world.”
The defense came back and tried to poke holes in the state’s evidence, saying it was compromised. Tillis said in his testimony that he knew Evans was wired and it was all a plan to commit suicide by the death penalty.
“The integrity; the truthfulness of a confession. A real confession lies in the fact that’s it’s unrehearsed. It just slips out,” Charles Fletcher, Tillis’ attorney, said. “He’s just spoon feeding these detectives. At this time in his life, he’s depressed and wants to die. He’s facing 30 years in a slow, long, agonizing death in prison.”
He adds that the human trafficking and kidnapping charge were all made up to catch the attention of detectives, which Fletcher said it did.
“He gives all these aggravators so it’s as grizzly and as bad as he can make it. It catches their attention,” Fletcher said.
After that, the state had a rebuttal and then the jury went into deliberation.
THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 2021: TILLIS TAKES THE STAND
Day two of the trial of Russell Tillis came to an end Thursday after the suspected murderer took the stand himself.
He’s accused of dismembering and burying Gunter’s body in his backyard.
The jury heard an audio recording of Tillis confessing to murder to an inmate, Sammy Evans, who was wearing a wire.
During Tillis’ testimony, he told the court it was made up in an attempt at suicide by the death penalty.
“I don’t care about the death penalty. I expect the court to convict me of murder,” he said. “I have enough knowledge about the police in Duval County to know that they rush for justice they don’t care about any other facts.”
Tillis also said his brother, Claude, arrived at his house with Gunter’s body in the trunk. He would not answer the state’s questions about how she died and he would not go into detail about dismembering or burying her body.
Tillis said, “I did it so that he would know.” “Know that you were covering for him?,” Charles Fletcher, his attorney asked. “Know that I took the death penalty for him,” he replied.
The state cross examined Tillis and he left the stand just before 6 p.m. Thursday.
The state rested its case against Tillis Thursday. The jury also heard from the associate medical examiner for Duval County. Dr. Robert Buchsbaum said Gunter died from blunt force trauma and took at least five blows to the head, likely with a hammer.
A forensic analyst, Barbara McCarty from the University of North Texas, also took the stand. She received DNA samples sent from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office from Tillis’ backyard. She said the DNA matched Gunter’s DNA.
Court is expected to resume Friday at 9 a.m.
Russell Tillis, the man accused of killing a woman and burying her dismembered body, took the stand in his murder trial on Thursday afternoon.
Judge Mark Borello began by asking Tillis if he was aware that the state would be able to bring forth 14 felony convictions.
WATCH VIDEO FROM TILLIS’ TESTIMONY BELOW
BACKGROUND OF THE CASE
Russell Tillis was arrested on March 18, 2015 at his home for two outstanding misdemeanor warrants. He violently resisted arrest according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and was in jail awaiting trial on charges of aggravated assault and simple battery on a law enforcement officer.
On Feb. 5, 2016, an inmate contacted detectives and said Tillis confessed to killing a woman in his house, dismembering her body and burying her in the yard.
Authorities obtained a warrant and served it on Feb. 10, 2016. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office found human remains at his ”booby-trapped” Southside home on Bowden Circle East after following up on the tip, the next day.
Police later identified the body as Joni Gunter, through DNA testing by the University of North Texas. The medical examiner said she died of blunt force trauma.
Gunter was a transient who was known to frequent the Southside area. It is believed that she died between February 2014 and May 2015, police said, and was about 30 years old.
In December of 2016, Tillis was charged with murder.
“HOUSE OF HORRORS” AND THE SEARCH FOR MORE POTENTIAL VICTIMS
Neighbors of Tillis dubbed his Southside residence as a “House of Horrors.”
“People were scared of him. He’d throw things at people, is what I heard. (He’s a) pure mean, evil person (who) should have been locked up a long time ago,” neighbor Brenda Smith said at the time.
When officers initially tried to serve Tillis the active warrants at his home, police said Tillis ran away from them and led them through an area where he had placed boards with 4-inch nails facing upward.
Following his arrest on the murder charge, JSO announced that he targeted vulnerable young women with a history of prostitution or drugs.
“We believe it’s highly likely that other females were victimized by Tillis, including potentially other murders,” JSO’s assistant chief said during a news conference.
Investigators searched his home again shortly after Gunter’s body was found for other bodies. None were found.
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