It was 10 years ago this month that a man in Yucaipa walking his dog early one evening discovered the bodies of two La Cañadans, in an infamous case that remains unsolved.
Harold and Joni Tillman were abducted from their home on Bramblewood Road on Feb. 6, 2000, and murdered. Their bodies were found near Oak Glen Drive and 5th street in Yucaipa the next evening.
“It was a frustrating case,” said Assistant Police Chief Rick Ells of the Highland Police Dept.; Ells was one of the four detectives with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department who worked the case when it was reopened in 2008. “It was unusual and I always felt like we were lucky to just have found their bodies.”
What made this case particularly jarring, Ells said, was that the Tillmans seemed like a normal couple. Harold was an accountant and Joni was a homemaker.
“[In San Bernardino County,] you tend to work a lot of drug and gang cases and people who have disputes in the world the Tillmans lived in. Gangs take care of business like this. But in the world of accounting, you don’t see people resolve issues [by murder]. People litigate.”
According to the initial report in The Valley Sun, the case began to unfold when the body of the Tillmans’ dog, Teddy, a Maltese, was discovered by the hiker at 5:30 p.m. The dog’s tags were from a La Cañada home. A person from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Dept. called and left a message about the dog’s discovery on the Tillmans’ home answering machine.
Concerned after not being able to reach the Tillmans, friends went to their house to check on them and listened to the answering machine. They returned the call to the sheriff’s department and reported the Tillmans missing.
On investigation, law enforcement personnel found the Tillmans’ bodies near where their pet had been found.
It was determined the Tillmans, residents of La Cañada for the previous three months, were last seen with friends at J.J. Steakhouse in Pasadena the night of their disappearance.
“You couldn’t have called the Spiegel catalog and ordered better neighbors,” said Bramblewood Road neighbor Michael Miller in the Feb. 24, 2000 issue of The Valley Sun.
Miller said he had seen the Tillmans’ Dodge Durango pulling into their driveway on Feb. 6 at 10 p.m. They were not reported seen after that. Their car was discovered in Van Nuys five days later.
The couple was involved in three civil disputes at the time of their disappearance, one involving the pair allegedly embezzling $370,000 from a clothing designer and a few involving land disputes. But nothing led to a suspect.
The Tillmans’ attorney, Walter Kaye, said he was familiar with the embezzlement dispute and didn’t feel that had anything to do with their deaths.
“They had some land disputes,” he said. “But there was something else they were doing.”
Kaye didn’t elaborate and said that he was not privy to any information on other “deals” they were involved in.
The graves in which they were found were only three or four feet deep, but likely dug before the crime.
Detectives from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Dept. said their murder was not amateurish and could have even been a contract killing, but the case went cold as no suspects stood out.
In 2008, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department’s new cold case division reopened the Tillman case after a witness came forward and informed investigators that he saw a man in the area of the graves about five days before the Tillmans’ bodies were found. Investigators released a composite drawing of the man to the public, but no one has come forward with further information.
“We believed it was the [murderer’s] intent that the bodies would never be discovered and to make it look like the Tillmans just fled the country,” Ells said. “We looked at it from that angle and tried to analyze who would benefit from this. And still no suspect really stood out.”
Everything was attempted, down to having psychics visit the scene in Yucaipa, and yet there have been no arrests.
But investigators continue to look for new informants or witnesses to come forward.
“It’s still an active case,” Ells said. “We’ve had cases that were as hard to solve as this where someone years later came forward and told their story. We have a cold case team that regularly solves 20-to-30-year-old cases.”
Ells asked anyone with any information to call the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Dept. at (909) 387-3545.