Last One Standing

"Has-been" brawler George Tiller faces old age and 10 years in Parchman.



There is no statute of limitations on notoriety.

In March, George Tiller was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole for selling 20 prescription pain pills for $100 to a police informant on three occasions at the Olympic Gym in Southaven. The drug, hydrocodone (Lortab), is used by millions of people and abused by a few of them, including Rush Limbaugh.

The sentencing range for illegally selling a controlled substance in Mississippi is unusually broad: a $5,000 fine and no prison time on the low end to a $1 million fine and 30 years in prison on the high end. Tiller pleaded guilty to what is called an "open plea with a cap," meaning he put his fate in the hands of the judge.

George Tiller has an extensive criminal record. An amateur boxing champion and all-state football player at Germantown High School in 1958, he signed with the University of Tennessee, lasted less than a year, got kicked out of the Marines, and lived on the edge as a street fighter, jailhouse enforcer or "rock bull," and "mule" for Mexican drug dealers. His brothers Mike and Albert and their cousin, Charles "Dago" Tiller, were also notorious Memphis tough guys who did prison time. Mike is believed to have been murdered in DeSoto County years ago, but his body was never found. Charles Tiller, beaten nearly to death with a baseball bat in prison, died in 2004 while serving 200 years for a double murder. Albert died two years ago.

I watched an outdoor boxing match on Beale Street with George last fall. The eyes that glared in police mug shots were no longer fierce, but he was still a hard-looking man, 6'-3" tall and flat-bellied from daily workouts. His hair was silver, and his face was smooth and dark. The beer was free where we were standing, but he sipped a Coke instead. He recalled his own ring record of 11 wins in 12 fights and joked that maybe he could take on another geriatric ex-Golden Gloves boxer, Mayor Willie Herenton, who was about to "fight" Joe Frazier.

At his sentencing before DeSoto County Circuit Court judge Robert Chamberlin, Tiller talked about his notoriety.

"My name, wow, Tiller, I guess it must still ring a little feather in the hat or maybe a jewel on the ground. I mean, God, it's been 40 years. I mean, my cousin is dead. My two brothers are dead. But I guess I'm like the last one standing."

He called himself "a 68-year-old has-been who's got one foot on a banana peel and one in the grave" and is fighting prostate cancer and cardiac arrhythmia instead of barroom brawlers. Two character witnesses — a former Olive Branch police officer and a Hernando minister — described him as a guy "who makes us laugh," "an asset to the community," and a churchgoer whose hobby is pitching horseshoes.

That pitch didn't sway Chamberlin or District Attorney Susan Brewer. They balanced Tiller's age and physical condition with his criminal history, including convictions in 2000 and 2002 for selling controlled drugs. They also noted that he said "I ought to kill you" to the informant and then showed him a copy of a book he was carrying. The title was Dead Man Walking.

"I just said it out of madness and frustration," Tiller told the judge.

"I think 10 years is being more than fair and more than lenient," Chamberlin finally said. "I sympathize with Mr. Tiller's health condition, but certainly, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has the ability to take care of that."

Brewer told me last week that even first offenders get prison time for distributing drugs in DeSoto County. Tiller's sentence was "sort of a lifetime achievement award."

He was sent to Parchman, the legendary Delta prison two hours from Memphis. If he lives to be 70, he will be in an exclusive club. Only 82 inmates — less than half of 1 percent of the 24,000 state prisoners in Mississippi — are 70 or over.

"Can you believe it's been a year since we had lunch?" he wrote me in a recent letter. "Time fly's out there, stops in here."

He can cut his time 15 percent if he behaves. That leaves just over 3,000 days.

There is a sad joke about an old prisoner who protests in court that he won't live long enough to complete his harsh sentence.

"That's all right," says the judge. "Just do what you can."

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