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Disturbing jailhouse confession becomes centerpiece of 'House of Horrors' death penalty trial

The three-hour recorded confession paints a grisly portrait of sex-trafficking and murder. Defense attorney counters, 'It's all a hoax.'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Warning: Some of the descriptions in this story may be disturbing to some viewers.

“Frighteningly real.”

That’s how the lead detective in the case against accused killer Russell Tillis described the details of the alleged crime.

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Detective Dennis Sullivan, testifying Wednesday at Tillis’ death penalty trial, called the case “the most shocking” of his 20-year career.

Tillis is accused of the first-degree murder of 30-year-old Joni Gunter, whose dismembered remains were found buried in his Southside backyard. He is also charged with kidnapping, sex trafficking and abuse of a dead body for allegedly dismembering Gunter after killing her.

Police discovered Gunter’s skeletonized remains in 2016 after Tillis described their location in a recorded jailhouse confession captured by fellow inmate Sammie Evans. Tillis now claims the confession was fabricated – a deliberate gambit to get the death penalty at a point where he was feeling despondent.

However, that three-hour recorded confession is the centerpiece of the case against Tillis, and paints a grisly portrait of life and his home. 

Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi read a lengthy verbatim portion of the transcript as part of his opening statement. In the segment, Tillis discusses how he held women captive in a soundproof room and rented them out to friends for money. At one point, however, he says one of the women recognized his brother Claude.

“The [expletive] girl recognized him. … He freaks out. He says, 'Man you’re gonna kill that [expletive].' I said, 'Hold up man, hold up. She’s making me money. [...] She’s [expletive] locked up in a soundproof room and all of a sudden she recognizes my brother."

He talked me into killing her and I told him I said, ‘Look man, I’ll kill her but you cut her up. I’ll kill her but you got to cut her up man.’ I don’t have the time it takes four or five hours to cut her up and package her so I could move her.”

Tillis recounted dismembering the body.

“I gave him the Sawzall,” Tillis said in the recording. “He cuts her [expletive] head off and then he gets all squeamish. […] So I [expletive] finish.”

Claude Tillis was interviewed by police but was not charged with any crimes. 

Tillis’ attorney Charles Fletcher told jurors the confession is bogus. 

“He’s confessed to a murder he didn’t commit," Fletcher said. "And he’s made the confession so shocking that it guarantees the death penalty.”

Fletcher said Tillis knew there was a body buried in his yard, but didn't have anything to do with it. 

“Everything in that confession is fake. He didn’t do it,” Fletcher told jurors. “He knows who did. He’ll tell you that. He’s been dying to do so for years.”

In addition to hearing parts of the recording, jurors heard from a forensic anthropologist who testified Gunter’s skeleton was dismembered with a reciprocating saw – something noted in the jailhouse confession.

Jurors also heard from a former prostitute who testified Tillis chained her to a bed and raped her, before she escaped.

 “I ran to the Gate station,” the woman said. “I called somebody to pick me up. I waited and hid. […] I was petrified. I was hiding behind the ice machine.”

Two neighbors also testified that Russell Tillis terrorized their neighborhood on Bowden Circle East for years.

“He threatened to kill me all the time,” Tillis’ longtime next-door neighbor Belinda Bryant told jurors through tears. “He threatened to kill me. He would jump the fence, jump over it and peek up. He’d watch me 24, I couldn’t get in my car, [I] had my neighbors checking to make sure I was home. Didn’t take showers after dark. Had to get bolt locks on all my doors.”

Bryant testified she called police on Tillis so often they stopped responding.

Neighbor Annette Campbell testified about one particular night Bryant called her. 

“It was dark. She asked me, she said, 'There’s something going on next door, come over here!' So I went over there, and we went to her laundry room. And we could hear what sounded like a woman screaming for help."

“Did you hear the words that person was saying?” Mizrahi asked.

"It sounded like she was saying 'Help me,'" Campbell replied.

Prosecutors plan to rest their case Thursday. Tillis’ defense attorney Charles Fletcher promised jurors they will hear directly from Russell Tillis testify, so he could take the stand tomorrow.

First Coast News will livestream the proceedings beginning at 9 a.m.