After an eight-year lull, San Bernardino County sheriff’s detectives are once again actively investigating the murder of a La Cañada Flintridge couple.
It was on Feb. 9, 2000, that the bodies of La Cañada residents Harold “Skip” Tillman, 55, and his wife Joni, 51, were found in two isolated desert graves in Yucaipa, about 75 miles east of La Cañada. The couple had last been seen on Feb. 6, 2000, after having dinner at J.J.’s Steakhouse in Pasadena.
The investigation into their deaths had yielded little to no information and had stalled. The department’s newly formed cold case division has recently taken up the case and is asking for the public’s help.
According to Det. Casey Jiles, when murders occur the department works them as best as they can, but sometimes the case is put aside and becomes a cold case. The team has a list of 600 cases that have fallen into this category, some dating back to the 1930s, Jiles said.
In the Tillman case, there is little evidence to follow. The couple, who lived in the 5000 block of Bramblewood Road, had last been seen on Feb. 6 after having dinner with friends in Pasadena. Detectives learned the Tillmans had dropped their dining companions off at about 9 p.m. That was the last time anyone heard from them.
According to an article in the Valley Sun that ran a week after the bodies were found, neighbor Michael Miller said he had heard the Tillmans’ vehicle pull into their garage about 10 p.m. the night of Feb. 6.
“My dogs barked,” he said. “They pulled into their garage and I saw the car come in [to the garage]. I never saw them again.”
Jiles said on Feb. 7, 2000, a man out walking his dog in the Yucaipa area saw the Tillmans’ dog, a Maltese named Teddy, lying on the ground.
“The dog had died of exposure or something along those lines,” Jiles said.
He added that the well-groomed Maltese was not the average desert dog. The man contacted the sheriff’s department, who in turn called the phone number that was listed on Teddy’s tags and left a message.
Meanwhile, in La Cañada friends of the couple were wondering why they hadn’t heard from the Tillmans. The friends entered the Bramblewood house, listened to the message from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and returned the call.
“[Deputies] began working the scene [in the area the pet dog’s body was found] and found blood in the roadway, then located the graves on Feb. 9,” Jiles said. “The cause of death was strangulation.”
The graves were found near Oak Glen Road and 5th Street in Yucaipa.
The cold case detectives have little evidence to go on, but Jiles believes the murders were premeditated.
“Somebody had pre-dug [the graves the couple were found in]. They were three- to four- feet deep,” Jiles said. “Someone knew the area.
“Nothing was disturbed in the home. Whoever got them lured them out of the house. They wouldn’t have gone off on their own. They were taken out by someone they knew.”
The Tillmans’ attorney, Walter Kaye, said in phone interview late last week he is glad the case is being re-examined.
“The only thing I know is that they turned up in a couple of graves [in the desert],” Kaye said.
He added that he has thought of the couple often and wondered who would have murdered them.
According to reports, the Tillmans were involved in three civil disputes at the time of their murders. One case, a breach of promissory note, was close to being settled before their deaths. A second case alleged that the Tillmans embezzled more than $370,000 from a clothing designer and the third was a dispute between Joni Tillman and a relative.
Kaye said he was familiar with the embezzlement dispute and did not feel that would have had anything to do with their deaths.
“They had some land disputes,” he said. “But there was something else they were doing.”
He did not elaborate, and said that he was not privy to any information on other “deals” they were involved in.
“I think they just got themselves with the wrong people,” he said, adding that he feels the murders were professional.
“It does have tones of a professional killing,” Detective Jiles said.
Jiles said investigators are hoping that since so much time has passed, more people will be willing to talk.
“Relationships change; some who were afraid to talk [before] may not be now,” he said.
There have also been situations when people remember things that they didn’t think were important at the time, but have been bothered by them over the years. There may be someone who saw something related to the Tillman murders that they now think it is significant and worthy of reporting, he said.
Jiles is asking that anyone with information on the Tillmans contact the department. Any information is useful, he said.
“This is a tough case,” he added.