John Mark Tillmann once disguised himself as a maintenance man to steal a treasured painting from Nova Scotia’s legislature. He would use female decoys – his elderly mother, who faked chest pains, and later his beautiful Russian girlfriend, Katya – to distract antique dealers while he helped himself to their artifacts.
So excited were he and Katya after sneaking into the Dalhousie University library archives and finding a valuable old letter, he says, they had sex right there and then.
“Sometimes I felt almost guilty because it was too easy,” Mr. Tillmann says.
Sentenced last fall to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to 40 charges, Mr. Tillmann, 53, is now co-operating with police, helping them identify some of the thousands of items he stole over decades. He is also giving police insight into how he pulled off the thefts.
“I first put the olive branch out when I was being sentenced. I said in open court that I am willing to co-operate,” he says this week in an interview from Nova Scotia’s Springhill Penitentiary. “So I thought this is a good time as any to try to make it good.”
In late October, RCMP Constable Darryl Morgan, the lead investigator, and other officers visited Mr. Tillmann in jail, spending days looking at photographs of stolen paintings, documents, antique tools, glassware, old books, and furniture that they recovered, but had no clue where they were from.
Now, Constable Morgan and his partner, Tracey Chambers, are undoing Mr. Tillmann’s work, spending their days travelling the Maritimes, visiting antique stores, volunteer-run country museums, universities and even the legislature to return some of the 7,000 artifacts found in Mr. Tillmann’s Halifax home.
So far about 2,000 pieces have been identified – and several hundred items returned.
“We’re definitely running the Antiques Road Show,” Constable Morgan says.
Last week he returned a 130-year-old painting of the Hamburg tall ship, to Hantsport, a community on the Minas Basin. The ship was built there; the painting had hung in the local museum, Churchill House. Local historian and author St. Clair Patterson, 88, says a “big load” was taken off with the return of the historic painting, which he says was stolen from the museum in broad daylight.
Constable Morgan says he found the painting hanging above Mr. Tillmann’s bed. So pleased is the community about the painting’s return that the local historical society held a reception for it Wednesday night.
Mr. Tillmann says he started shoplifting when he was about eight years old – with his partner, his paternal grandmother. At local fairs and flea markets in the Halifax area, he stole toy cars, stamps, and other items he could sell to his friends.
Later, he taught himself to steal using sleight of hand. “I perfected that through the years and it just got bigger and bigger. But that’s where it started, back in the days when I was with my grandma.”
He says he also convinced his mother, who died in 2009, to be his decoy. She would pretend she was ill or had chest pains and, during the excitement she caused, he would steal items from the antique shop.
“I talked my mother into that,” he says. “Eventually she relented and agreed to do it as long as she was just a distraction and didn’t have to actually steal anything.”
In her death notice, he wrote: “I will forever remember our ‘missions’ together, the challenge of adversity, the satisfaction of success and us taking on the world.”
“It was just to let her know that I was thinking of her,” he says, “and that some of those times, at that point anyway, not so much now because I am really trying to rehabilitate myself, I looked upon as fond memories with her because we were a team.”
In 1996, he says, he moved to Russia to “seek my fortune.” There, he operated kiosks, where he sold cigarettes and vodka and other goods. He met Katya in Russia and together with her brother, they stole some artifacts.
“Her brother was the techie guy. I know this sounds like a movie but he was the guy who knew how to disable alarms, how to get into systems,” he says.
The brother stayed in Russia but in Atlantic Canada, Mr. Tillmann and Katya continued to steal. (Mr. Tillmann will not reveal her surname; she is back in Russia, he says.) One time they posed as maintenance workers and took a painting from the library of Nova Scotia’s Province House. It was of the building circa 1818. Mr. Tillmann laughs now about the theft 10 years ago, because he says a former MLA even held the door for them as they exited with their stolen prize. The painting was recently returned.
The pair also stole a letter written in 1758 by General James Wolfe, the victor at the Plains of Abraham, from the Dalhousie University archives. Mr. Tillmann explains that he was able to copy a set of keys that opened a vault in the university’s library. He and Katya hid in the women’s bathroom until the night security guard left and used the keys to get into the vault, which was jammed with documents. After two hours of searching, around 3 a.m., they hit “pay dirt.”
“I said, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, if this is real’ – and it looked all real, [it] was the George Washington letter, worth probably half a million to a million dollars in itself. … And I thought, ‘Oh wow.’”
Rooting around further, they found the Wolfe letter.
“We became so exuberant over this – because it was pretty euphoric being in there and knowing at that point that you have millions of dollars worth of documents on the black market – that we ended up having sex right in the middle of all these papers and stuff strewn around,” he recalls. He still had the Washington and Wolfe letters, which he stole in 1998, when he was arrested last year.
“I lived a very good lifestyle until I forfeited it all,” says Mr. Tillmann, noting he drove only the “best cars” – a Porsche 911 and BMWs.
“I made millions and millions of dollars,” he says. He paid for his Halifax home in cash. When he was arrested, he had $350,000 in the bank, cash lying around his house and about $2-million worth of property, some of it “legitimately earned.”
But he also kept much of what he stole, displaying it and using it in his house. Also in the house, according to Constable Morgan, was a guide of antique shops across Atlantic Canada. Some of the shops were circled.
The officer simply called those stores and asked if anything was missing.
“Each and every one of them had something [missing],” recalls Constable Morgan, referring to the guide as Mr. Tillmann’s “brag book.”
As for Mr. Tillmann, he says he is now trying to go on the “straight and narrow.” In addition to his adult son, he has a two-year-old daughter who “means the world to me.” “I need to get back to be with her and that’s my No. 1 focus and motivator every day that I am here to make sure I don’t get myself in any difficulties.”
He says he feels remorse and wants to continue co-operating with the police. “They are always welcome to come here and see me and to the best of my ability [I will] tell them exactly where that thing belongs if I know where,” Mr. Tillmann says.
“Darryl [Morgan] was the lead ... I kind of like that guy. There is something about him that I like even though he’s the guy who busted me.”
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