Chief Walking Eagle

Robb Tiller went from rags to riches and right back after 15 years spinning deals around the Seminole

It's next to impossible to check Tiller's description of his early life. He says he was born in Baltimore and lived in orphanages as far back as he can remember. "Whenever a Cadillac or Buick would come through, I'd comb my hair and say 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, ma'am,'" he recalls. "Whenever a Chevy or a Ford come through, I'd pick my nose, scratch myself. I didn't want to go with them people. They weren't gonna buy me nothing, man."

A family by the name of Brown adopted him, he says. The father, Oliver Brown, died when Tiller was a toddler. Then Sidney London came calling (driving a Buick convertible), but "I couldn't stand him," Tiller says. London died. Finally, Reginald Tiller adopted Robb, but the boy ran away at age 13 and for a spell lived in a '47 Chevy behind a gas station in Virginia.

Tiller didn't finish high school because, he claims, he ran like hell when it was discovered he was boffing a 21-year-old teacher. He forged parental signatures in order to join the Marines and quickly took to the institution, shining his shoes, pressing his dress blues. He expected an easy time until he was sent, petrified, to serve aboard two ships that were among those that blockaded Cuba during the eponymous missile crisis in October 1961.

Busted deals, bad publicity, and alleged lies ultimately corroded James Billie and Robb Tiller's (pictured) relationship.
Busted deals, bad publicity, and alleged lies ultimately corroded James Billie and Robb Tiller's (pictured) relationship.
James Billie (right) oversees a chickee-hut building business, which has made his fall from the Seminole inner circle far softer than Tiller's.
James Billie (right) oversees a chickee-hut building business, which has made his fall from the Seminole inner circle far softer than Tiller's.

A stint working consulate security for the State Department followed in 1962, he recalls, though the department's personnel files don't go back far enough to verify this. He was revved when an instructor promised him an assignment on the world's largest beach but disappointed when it turned out to be in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where, he says, he was greeted by a camel pissing on an airport building. During that time, he developed a knack for smuggling sugar into rafters to concoct whiskey. "God damn, I can make some sadiki juice, Bubba," he says proudly. "Everybody in the embassy was drunk, and there was no liquor allowed."

Next, Tiller contends, came an assignment in Katmandu, Nepal, where he damned near froze his nuts off as he marked time, leading a scout troop and learning tennis to provide an opponent for the ambassador, Henry Stebbins.

After he received an honorable discharge from the Marines in 1965 (release papers verify this), he foundered. He returned to the states and ran a gas station in Virginia, then a North Carolina hobby shop. The beach romp flick Where the Boys Are convinced him Fort Lauderdale was where the girls would be, and starting in 1977, state records pick up Tiller's trail with the businesses he began around Fort Lauderdale: a yacht club, a rickshaw company, a firm that put fancy steering wheels in cars.

In 1982, he was schmoozing sugar-cane money in Pahokee when he took it upon himself to gather hoopla for the town's 60th anniversary celebration. Carmen Salvatore, who was the town's police chief at the time, says Tiller "wasn't in charge" of the festivities, but Tiller contends he was responsible for appearances by five military branches and a hot air balloon race. Upon learning that pahokee is a Seminole word, Tiller says, he phoned the tribe to invite them to perform a mock raid. Tiller describes the parade that followed like the product of Vegas spawning with Fort Bragg, but a videotape of the event shows hot air balloons and a M.A.S.H. -like helicopter amid a small-time mix of school marching bands and floats from which people threw heads of lettuce to the crowd.

In any case, the Seminole didn't disappoint. "They had these rough fuckin' ponies, and when they did the raiding party, they looked like a raiding party," Tiller says. "They had war paint on, the whole thing. Tell you the truth, I thought they were actually raiding. I forgot I put this thing on, and I go, 'Holy fuck, the Indians are coming. '" Leading the raiding party was the tribe's chairman of three years, James Billie. Tiller and Billie talked, joked, laughed. Billie mentioned this bingo thing he was working. Tiller thought it was a grade-school waste of time until he saw that the Hollywood parlor was issuing five-figure jackpots.

Billie today is a robust 60-year-old with a white crew cut and an ample paunch. After a 2001 ouster as the tribe's chairman, he began earning a living as a chickee-hut builder. "Robb is a sweetheart," Billie says in a Wilton Manors backyard as two of his crewmen replace a chickee's palm fronds. "Love that guy, but there are certain things he does that irk the crap out of me. Trouble with his bullshit is that it's for real, half the time. Most of the time, he's telling the damned truth."

It's the afternoon of September 29 in the Seminole Tribal headquarters, and five council members line an imposing dais, clad variously in plaid and cowboy hats and, in the case of Roger Smith and David Cypress, Texas-hold-'em black sunglasses. Behind them in auditorium-style government chambers is a massive tribal seal; before them sit hundreds of Seminole, many dressed in jeans and athletic jerseys. At issue is a resolution that would raise the amount each of the 3,500 or so tribal members receives from gambling and other profits. Today, each person receives $3,500 a month. Under the proposal, that would rise to $4,500.

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