New leads found in old murder

A dozen years after La Cañada residents Harold “Skip” Tillman and his wife, Joni, were found buried in remote graves, investigators say they have new developments regarding the murders, but are staying tight-lipped about any details.

“There are some things that we’re working on, but it’s not anything I can divulge right now,” said Det. Ryan Ford of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department Cold Case Homicide Division. “It’s definitely a case that we have open and we’re actively seeking out additional leads and information.”

Skip Tillman, an accountant, and Joni, a homemaker, were last seen dining at J.J. Steakhouse in Pasadena on Feb. 6, 2000. A witness reported seeing their vehicle later that night as it entered the driveway of their rented Bramblewood Road home. Three days later, the Tilllmans were found strangled and buried in a remote wash in Yucaipa.

The couple, who had once lived in Glendale, were embroiled in “a few contentious lawsuits” at the time of their deaths, according to an article published in the Glendale News-Press shortly after the bodies were found. These included an accusation from clothing designer David Hayes that Skip Tillman had embezzled $1.7 million and forged Hayes’ signature on at least 30 checks. Hayes’ office manager Jane Drake also sued Skip Tillman over a $100,000 promissory note. In another lawsuit, Joni Tillman’s half-brother, Craig Elliott, was battling her for a share of their late father’s estate.

The murder stumped homicide investigators until 2008, when the cold case division took over the investigation. Four years later, the case is moving forward again, according to Ford.

For Lt. Rick Ells, who was one of the four detectives who worked the case when it reopened in 2008, the murder investigation was one that started in a promising fashion but quickly ran out of steam.

“They found the bodies, which was a huge break, but it just didn’t lead anywhere,” he said.

In fact, the bodies were found only because the Tillmans’ dog, Teddy, a Maltese, was found dead of exposure by a hiker, Ells said. Further investigation of the area led to a suspicious arrangement of tumbleweeds that marked the graves.

“A lot of times with body dumps, they never do it deep enough and coyotes will get to them, but these were deep enough that barring a major flood, we wouldn’t have got to them,” Ells said. “It was incredibly fortunate to find the bodies.”

Ells said that the case was a tricky one for San Bernardino Sheriff’s detectives to handle because of the tenuous connection between where the Tillmans lived and where they were buried.

“The thing that’s difficult about that case, there’s really no nexus to our county,” he said. “The victims weren’t from here, and I don’t think the perpetrators were from here.”

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