JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A ramshackle compound has been demolished and its owner is now in jail. But the fear inspired by what neighbors dubbed the “house of horrors” is still palpable.
“It just felt evil,” a former prostitute and drug addict with the initials D.G. told investigators about her night with Russell Tillis. “I've been assaulted before, but there was just something about it. I felt really scared. Like it was bad.”
Tillis, 59, is charged with the first-degree murder of Joni Lynn Gunter, believed to have been about 30 years old at the time of her death. Her body was found buried behind Tillis' Southside home in 2016. Police learned of the body’s location from a recorded jail conversation between Tillis and his cellmate.
Tillis has pleaded not guilty.
Following his arrest, detectives interviewed numerous prostitutes who say they were beaten, sexually assaulted, even held captive by Tillis.
D.G.’s December 2016 police interview offers the first inside view of that experience.
Now sober and living out of state, she told police Tillis picked her up near the bus stop at Main Street and 16th where she often worked.
Tillis said little on the drive to his Bowden Road home, she told detectives, but she was instantly on edge. “I was scared from the start. But when you’re desperate, you do anything for more [drugs].”
After arriving at his house, she told detectives Tillis gave her $20 and she performed oral sex. But that wasn’t the end of the transaction. According to D.G., Tillis told her to take off her clothes. She declined, telling him she didn’t "do sex." He punched her in the face, she said.
“I will never forget that -- after he punched me in the face and the look on his face,” she told detectives. “I'll never, ever forget that.”
Pressed to explain, D.G. said, “It was just the look on his face and the look in his eyes. It was just very cold.”
Even for a woman working the streets, she says she knew something was wrong.
“I played it off, like, ‘Let me take a shower. I'm dirty, I'm just a filthy whore. Let me shower first, let me shower first.’ And he wouldn't let me take my clothes. So I went into the bathroom and I started the shower, and I locked the door and I crawled out the bathroom window naked and ran into a neighbor's house.”
“I was just hysterical,” she continued. “And I was just like, ‘Please help me, please help me, please help me!’”
Neighbors would later recall the incident, telling local reporters about the night a naked woman banged on their door claiming Tillis was going to kill her. Others said they’d heard screams coming from the house, and some recalled another woman being chained to his fence, begging for help.
In many of those cases, including D.G.’s, police were called.
“I didn’t pursue it because of my active addiction, and I was ashamed,” she told detectives. “I didn’t think anybody would do anything about the assault because it started from prostitution and I didn’t want to get humiliated any further.”
Detectives pressed. She’d told them she had a black eye, maybe officers had taken a picture?
“I don't think they cared,” D.G. said. “I think they took it for what it is. I was just another prostitute.”
Tillis’ murder trial, which has been delayed seven times, is currently set for March 2021.