An Olympic Boxer’s Long, Hard Fall
Of all the heroes who emerged from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, perhaps none was more inspirational than Henry Tillman.
A big, tough hometown kid, he had plunged into serious trouble when he was rescued in a California Youth Authority lockup by a boxing coach who saw a young man of uncommon heart and untapped talent. In little more than two years, he would stand proudly atop the Olympic platform at the Sports Arena, just blocks from his boyhood home, the gold medal for heavyweight boxing dangling from his neck.
But two years after his mediocre pro boxing career ended, he was back behind bars. And now he stands accused of murder in a case that could put him away for life.
“He blew everything,” said his old boxing trainer and mentor, CYA counselor Mercer “Smitty” Smith.
While many professional athletes suffer their greatest defeats after they retire, Henry Tillman fell especially hard and far.
He had married the beautiful, successful granddaughter of Olympic track great Jesse Owens. He had become a living symbol of success in his old neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles--driving a Mercedes convertible, wearing designer clothes and hanging out in restaurants and clubs.
He also had assumed a high profile in charitable and community organizations, including the Rebuild L.A. effort after the 1992 riots. True, some who knew Tillman could see the potential for trouble--his love of gambling and money. But they didn’t think, and still don’t believe, he had the heart of a killer.
So why is the 39-year-old Tillman on trial in Superior Court in Santa Monica for the brazen shooting of two men, one fatally, outside a Westchester nightclub?
What happened that foggy January night in 1996 has never been fully explained. Tillman’s attorney, Albert DeBlanc Jr., says it’s a simple case of mistaken identity. But at least one witness insists he saw the 6-foot-4 Tillman stride up to a parked car, shove a woman aside, reach inside the window and open fire, then follow the car down the street to shoot some more.
The trial, which opened with jury selection last week, is expected to last three weeks. An air of mystery surrounds it, with lawyers on both sides reluctant to talk, and the prosecution hinting that deep intrigue lies beneath the surface. To which DeBlanc snorted, “It’s a typical murder case. It’s just that the defendant happens to be a former Olympic gold medalist.”
DeBlanc, known for his TV commentary in the O.J. Simpson murder case, insisted that Tillman would be cleared. Prosecutor Michael Duarte conceded that the case against Tillman was “very, very difficult.”
No gun was recovered, and although the shooting took place just outside the crowded club at closing time, most witnesses vanished into the night. “People are reluctant to get involved,” Duarte said. “They’re just scared.”
Tillman’s adolescence in South-Central Los Angeles was pocked with short jail terms for drug dealing, grand theft and battery. Then in 1981 at the age of 20 he was sent to the California Youth Authority facility in Chino for a robbery.
That was the turning point in his life. There, he met Smith, a CYA counselor and former featherweight boxer. Tillman had the look of a street fighter, so Smith put him in the ring with a more experienced CYA ward, who dropped him with no trouble. “But Henry came back the next day,” Smith said. “And he came into his own.”
The road to the Olympics was heady, but not easy. Tillman was raw and far from ready for greatness. He ate with his hands, so Smith taught him table manners. He was lackadaisical, so Smith slapped him to get him motivated. He was not a power puncher, so Smith taught him to use his quickness.
“Henry could have been another Ali,” Smith sighed. “He was a beautiful boxer, so smooth. . . .”
It is said that no boxer, other than George Foreman, rose so rapidly from novice to Olympic heavyweight champion. On the way, he twice beat Mike Tyson by playing matador while Tyson charged bull-like into his skillful jabs and parries.
With Smith still in his corner, he turned professional and built a 10-0 record in less than two years en route to winning the North American Boxing Federation cruiserweight championship.
In 1987, Tillman took Smith out to dinner to a Century Boulevard restaurant. “He told me he was going to leave me,” recalled Smith, who said Tillman felt he had outgrown him. “It was a sad occasion.”
The same year, Tillman became engaged to Gina Hemphill, Owens’ granddaughter. They met during the Olympics, where she had served as a volunteer and torchbearer.
She was college-educated and polished. When they married in Chicago in 1987, Hemphill’s career as a television producer was on the ascent and she was working for talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey.
Meanwhile, the end of Tillman’s boxing career edged ever closer. Amid some victories, he lost to two men he had defeated on the road to the gold--Canadian Willie DeWitt, in 1988, and Tyson, in 1990. The $350,000 purse for the Tyson fight was Tillman’s biggest before he retired with a 25-6 record in 1992. Some felt he did not have the punching power to win consistently in the heavyweight division.
After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Tillman volunteered at Rebuild L.A., the agency set up to rejuvenate the city’s most battered neighborhoods.
The local hero seemed very much at home. Rebuild L.A. was run by Peter Ueberroth, key organizer of the 1984 Olympics, and others who vividly recalled Tillman’s biggest triumph.
“He volunteered to talk to kids and gangs,” said former RLA Co-Chairman Bernard Kinsey. “And having a heavyweight champ in that capacity was a godsend.”
During several months at RLA, Tillman helped with tree plantings and community outreach. He charmed children and impressed young gangbangers.
“He was a very giving, happy-go-lucky-guy,” said Geoffrey Harper, who was the project manager. “He was well known in L.A. . . . He was a neighborhood figure who made it big.”
Before both of them left RLA in 1994, Harper ran into Tillman a couple of times at the Normandie Club in Gardena, one of the casinos where Tillman gambled.
“He was a follower,” said Smith. “He got involved with the wrong people. He missed [having] money and wanted to make money through gambling.”
The gambling got Tillman into trouble. He was arrested in January 1994 for passing a bad credit card at the Normandie. He pleaded no contest and got probation. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to using a fake credit card in an attempt to get $800 at the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood. He was sentenced to 32 months in prison--a sentence that began about a month after the then-unsolved Westchester shooting.
“I have suffered from a long history of gambling addiction, which I am very ashamed had taken over my life,” Tillman wrote in a letter to the court. In a later declaration, he said he had “found myself in a social environment that was not within the guidelines of the principals [sic] and morals that my parents have always taught me.”
Tillman’s career outside boxing never took off. There were jobs that did not materialize. He had bit parts in movies, including one as a boxer in “Rocky V” in 1990.
But he seemed to have a talent for working with youngsters. At the Community Youth, Sports and Arts Foundation on Crenshaw Boulevard, he counseled and coached at-risk children.
“He loved that foundation, man,” said founder Chilton Alphonse. “I mean, he was there before I got there” in the morning.
Tillman and his wife lived in Diamond Bar. In 1995, they moved to New York, where she works in the Olympics division of NBC.
Brent Benner, a Chicago-based psychologist who gives career counseling to retired athletes, said he spent a couple of months exploring job possibilities with Tillman.
Tillman, he said, had significant obstacles to employment, including a criminal record and no college education.
“On the positive side,” Benner said, “Henry is a very loquacious individual . . . and he’s certainly not stupid. Henry’s a guy who, if he grew up in white bread America, would probably have a college degree and a successful career.”
Eventually, Benner said, Tillman got a job in New York selling long-distance service to companies. But he never felt at home in New York. He was drawn back to Los Angeles.
Jan. 9, 1996, was comedy night at the Townhouse Nightclub and Restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport. The club was packed.
Kevin Anderson and Leon Milton were customers that night, as was a young woman named Lauri Meadows. The three left slightly before the club’s closing time of 2 a.m. After Anderson and Milton were in their car, Meadows leaned in the driver’s side window and began to flirt with them, she testified at a preliminary hearing.
Then, she said, she heard a man behind her say, “Move, bitch!”
“All of a sudden, I just got pushed out of the way,” she testified. She fell to the sidewalk. “When I looked up, I seen him with his hand in the window, and then I heard the gunshot.” The car sped off and the gunman jumped into a nearby car and gave chase into the fog. Moments later, she heard several more gunshots. She ran to Milton and Anderson’s car, a block away. Both had been shot. Anderson was covered in blood.
“Get help! Get help!” she screamed.
Meadows’ description is missing one crucial detail: the gunman’s identity. She described him as very tall, stocky and broad-shouldered. But looking at Tillman in the courtroom during the preliminary hearing, she said he was not that man.
Only one witness at the hearing, a customer named Willis Colbert, named Tillman as the killer. “Mr. Tillman came toward the car and things happened so fast. He reached into the car, and all we heard was a shot from that side.”
Then, Colbert said, he saw Tillman follow the victims in his car and pull alongside them. Three or four more shots were fired.
The surviving victim, Milton, has refused to cooperate with authorities, saying that he did not want to be a snitch. But, Det. James Ellis testified that Milton told him, “You know, I tried to find a picture of Henry Tillman so I could take care of him myself.”
The evidence made public so far leaves many questions.
Anderson, a father of three, had a criminal record that included firearms convictions. And Milton has a lengthy record of firearms and drug convictions, one a 30-year federal sentence in 1997 as part of an alleged crack cocaine ring that stretched to Nebraska.
Why were they shot? Milton said the gunman tried to take his diamond necklace and a Rolex watch, but was the shooting a simple robbery gone awry?
And what would prompt a well-known figure, a man described as gentle and caring by friends, to commit such a crime? Could the gentleness have been a facade?
Tillman spends his days now in County Jail and in court. His marriage has broken up, according to Gina Hemphill, who said they divorced about two years ago. She says she still cares about him.
“I believe 100% in his innocence,” she said, “and it breaks my heart to see him go through this. Hopefully this will be over soon so he can move on with his life. He is a good person, with a great heart and spirit.”
Friends say that Tillman remains optimistic, and his thoughts drift back to boxing and a possible comeback.
“He seemed very positive about beating his case,” said Smith. “You ask me if he did it? I say Henry Tillman would not hurt a fly unless someone hurt him first.”
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The Ups and Downs of a Boxer
August 1960 Born in Los Angeles.
June 1981 Sentenced to California Youth Authority in Chino for robbery. Begins boxing.
August 1984 Wins Olympic gold medal in heavyweight boxing.
December 1984 Knocks out Uriah Grant in pro debut.
February 1986 Stops top-ranked Bashiru Ali, wins the North American Boxing Federation cruiserweight championship.
June 1986 Is upset by Bert Cooper to lose cruiserweight championship.
Feb. 1987 Beaten by Evander Holyfield in WBA junior heavyweight title fight.
June 1990 Knocked out by Mike Tyson in first round at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Earns $350,000.
1992 Retires from boxing with a record of 25-6.
April 1994 Pleads no contest to credit card fraud against Normandie Club in Gardena. Sentenced to provide restitution, community service.
September 1994 Arrested for alleged credit card fraud against Hollywood Park Casino.
January 1996 Death of Kevin Anderson and wounding of Leon Milton outside Townhouse nightclub and restaurant in Westchester.
February 1996 Sentenced to 32 months in prison for credit card fraud against Hollywood Park.
September 1996 Charged with murder and attempted murder in the nightclub shooting.
January 2000 Jury selection begins at Santa Monica Superior Court.
Sources: Times library, court records, California Department of Corrections, California Youth Authority and interviews
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