By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
"They said, 'What do you want?'" Tiller says. "I said, 'Cigars, pussy, and rum.' They said, 'Welcome to Havana. '"
Tiller declines to say exactly how long he stayed in Cuba but acknowledges it was a matter of months -- enough time to fall in love with and marry a pretty brunet less than half his age, Isbet, who lives with him still. Upon returning stateside, he went to the Keys to visit Billie, who, to Tiller's deep chagrin, was hanging out with George Straub. "James couldn't even look me in the face," Tiller says.
The court battle continued and was as acidic as it was glib. A typical exchange from a 1996 deposition:
Tiller: Straub has a brother; the brother has a secretary. The secretary has been talking to a friend of mine telling me the discussions regarding Straub's businesses. One of those discussions was how he was going to screw Tiller.
Attorney Joseph Coates:OK. When were these discussions?
Tiller: Prior to him screwing Tiller.
Billie's deposition in the case makes clear that he didn't appreciate questions about his personal life and Seminole business. Further poisoning Tiller's relations with tribal members was a protracted and ultimately misguided St. Petersburg Times investigation into Billie and the Seminole tribe's businesses. A September 1997 Seminole Tribune series fingers Tiller as "the 'main source' for all the damaging information -- both from the flamboyant lawsuit he had filed and from interviews with reporters [Jeff] Testerman and [Brad] Goldstein."
Pete Gallagher, a freelance writer living in Tampa, wrote the Tribune stories and says today that it wasn't an act of treason when Tiller talked to Testerman. "He is an exhibitionist," Gallagher says. "He wants attention. He was making all kinds of money bringing people to Jim Billie. And the people he was bringing to Jim Billie could have just walked up and knocked on his door. There was no scheme that was too big. If Tiller heard Disneyland was for sale, he'd be trying to bring the Seminoles in to get part of it."
Tiller, who blames Straub for sparking the investigation, earned a few paragraphs' mention in the subsequent Times series, for selling the tribe $2,500 non-road-legal but functional Chinese Jeeps that wound up as tour vehicles at Billie Swamp Safari in Clewiston. He also took flak for purchasing 60 bulletproof jackets, allegedly on the Tribe's behalf, that he wound up donating to police departments. (The Palm Beach force, for one, confirms receipt.) Billie's printed quote on Tiller: "We have a saying. He's the kind of guy who could fall in a barrel full of tits and come out sucking his thumb."
"What really hurt the worst," Tiller says, "is when James said I was nothing, I just kind of hung around, like beggin' for scrap food. And here all that time, I thought I was his best friend. I brought them investors. And then he turned on me and started all those rumors and all that bad stuff -- for what? I'm nobody."
The action had evaporated. Tax records illustrate how hard up he was: the feds hit him with a $15,705 lien in February of 1998. Four months later, Scherer dropped Tiller's case. Chief Walking Eagle was broke and relied on friends for places to stay. But he remained confident about winning the lawsuit. Then in 2001, Tiller was helping a friend move aviation equipment atop a tractor-trailer in Fort Myers when a tarp he was pulling ripped and he fell to the ground. "I couldn't walk for quite a long time there," he says. "My poor wife went through hell. We bummed from everybody on the planet Earth for therapy, for medicine, for help." He finally got some physical therapy and massive amounts of ibuprofen at the Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Medical Center, north of Tampa. His legal situation, meanwhile, did not improve. In 2002, a judge dismissed his suit; another judge upheld Straub's claim that Tiller was in breach of contract; Tiller's appeal was denied.
Dennis Wells, who represented Tiller on contingency for the last two years of his suits, acknowledges he took on an uphill project. "We were claiming he was supposed to get a percentage of casino revenues," the Orlando attorney says. "It could have been lots of money."
Tiller was plumb busted. Today, his files, photographs, and documents are packed into beat-up trucks and trailers outside his RV. The past for him is a recurring fever dream that he never expected to lead to this future. "I'm just a simple, plain, poor white boy who was trying to borrow money to get a piece of the action," he says of his days near the tribe. "And plus, I really liked the Indian people a lot, I really started liking them, because I felt they liked me. But I guess like [Billie] says, I was nothing but a camp robin hanging on.
"People remember, and then they go, 'God, what happened to you? You was a real guy. You were the brains of this operation. Robb, you've got to be a billionaire.' Shit. We couldn't even get financing on a car, man. On a car. On a car."