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Inside Kin

A 20-year-old murder case sheds light on Tillman family history

After the 1989 murder of Sherman Chenault, the Afro-American newspaper ran a story with a photo of the fugitive suspect, Kent Tillman.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 4/21/2010

Soon after Jamaican police kicked down his door, Kent Tillman admitted he shot Sherman Chenault to death. He confessed to the murder again, "from my heart," in a guilty plea before Howard County Circuit Court Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. Tillman said he didn't mean to shoot Chenault's girlfriend, Sharrell Hudson, who lived to tell the tale of a drug deal that turned deadly more than 20 years ago.

On April 21, 1994, Sybert sentenced Tillman to life in prison, plus 10 years. He's been trying to get out since 2004, and on May 13, he will face the judge with his latest request for a sentence modification, claiming his long-ago lawyer misled him into pleading guilty, in part by implying that his getaway driver would testify against him.

Tillman's case has garnered little attention since his capture in August 1993, and his attempts to get his sentence reduced--many of them pro-se--are typical. But one audacious theory floated in Tillman's court motions could complicate Kent Tillman's defense and his family life. He claims that Hudson, the woman he shot, was a co-conspirator in the drug buy "with Tillman and an unknown third party, which legally made Hudson a co-defendant or co-conspirator who would be criminally responsible for substantive acts committed by others."

But the "unknown third party" is not unknown; Hudson told police that she and Chenault were there to make a business transaction with Tillman's big brother, Milton Tillman Jr.

Convicted of attempting to bribe a city official in 1993 and of tax evasion in 1996, Milton Tillman Jr. was indicted again last month on charges including tax evasion and collecting pay for a no-show stevedore's job ("Milton Tillman and Son Indicted in Bail Bonds Conspiracy," The News Hole, citypaper.com, March 17). But while Milton Tillman's reputation as a violent drug lord on the city's east side was recited by the late federal prosecutor Jonathan Luna ("Grave Accusations," Mobtown Beat, April 23, 2008). evidence of direct involvement in the drug trade is sparse. Court records of Kent Tillman's murder case offer a window into the Tillman family's world from the late 1950s until the dawn of the 1990s, capped by the claim that, at least on that long ago August night, the family business involved cocaine.

On Aug. 11, 1989, Sharrell Hudson retrieved her 5-year-old daughter, Monique, from day care before her boyfriend, Sherman Chenault, arrived home. Chenault had gotten out of prison just 24 days before, but he had been visiting family in Virginia and Connecticut for most of the time since his release. On this night, Chenault was set to launch a new business venture with Kent Tillman.

Tillman, then 25, had grown up at 922 N. Belnord Ave. with his older half brothers, Ronald and Milton Jr. Kent Tillman didn't really know his father, Albert Britton, and Milton Tillman Sr. was long out of the picture, but the boys loved and respected their stepfather, Hoyt "Bubbles" Black, a city water truck driver who Kent Tillman and his mother, Patricia Black, remembered as a gentle and generous man. "If the kids needed anything they went to Bubbles," Patricia Black recalled, according to a pre-sentencing report in Tillman's court file. "He was more of a father to all of the children than anyone . . . he did what he could for them. He gave us a home."

Bubbles was shot to death in 1980, probably by mistake, the family said. Soon after that, Patricia Black opened Lucky's Tavern a liquor store on the corner of North Milton and Federal streets. Patricia's mother, Myrtle Jones, moved in to help take care of the kids.

Between the ages of 12 and 15, Kent Tillman worked for Joe's Produce Cart and asked his mother to buy him a truck so he could go into business for himself. Black said she didn't have the money, and there is no indication in the file that Tillman held a job after that. An average student at Patterson High School, Tillman dropped out in 11th grade and developed a taste for the scene at Scorpio's, a disco on Charles Street. By the fall of 1988 he had fathered four children with four different women, and was addicted to cocaine, he said. "I wanted drugs before I wanted food," he told the pre-sentence investigator from the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

Tillman had been convicted three times for drug crimes and was on parole on the night he murdered Chenault. In Tillman's recounting of that night, Chenault had approached him to arrange a drug buy, and offered to pay him in cocaine for his role. Tillman said he was high when he agreed to it and that he feared Chenault because, he told a court investigator, Chenault had beaten someone with a bat, "shot people over money," and "served time for murder."

Prosecutors contended that Tillman initiated the deal and that a member of Chenault's family would testify that "during the week that Sherman was supposedly in Connecticut with his father . . . Kent Tillman . . . came by every day inquiring when Sherman Chenault would be home." A lawyer for Michael Butler, who drove Tillman's car to the murder scene and apparently helped him flee, told the jury in his case that Tillman murdered Chenault under contract by an imprisoned drug dealer.

In conversations with police, Hudson maintained that the deal they were about to do was legitimate. She declined to talk about the incident in more detail with City Paper. Testifying at his own trial later, Michael Butler said Hudson knew it was a drug deal. He said he had asked what she was doing with Chenault and when she told him, "I told her 'he don't care nothing about you,'" Butler testified, according to a partial transcript included in Tillman's case file.

According to Hudson, on Aug. 11, 1989, Chenault spoke to Tillman by phone and left their house in Essex at about 10 p.m. to meet him. According to the version she gave to police shortly after the shootings, "Sherman Chenault further advised that Kent Tillman was going to take him to meet Kent's brother . . . supposedly to set up some sort of legitimate business."

Hudson saw Chenault put a large sum of money in a 12-by-10-inch beige steel box, put the box in a black vinyl "pocketbook," and place the pocketbook in the trunk of his mother's black 1984 Buick Riviera before he drove off. Shortly after that, Hudson said, Chenault returned and asked her to come with him, as he was afraid he would get lost on the way to the rendezvous point, a McDonalds on Security Boulevard.

Reluctantly, Hudson told detectives, she joined her boyfriend, bringing Monique along.

Once at the McDonalds, Chenault went in to get some ice cream for Monique and make a call from the pay phone. While he was inside, Kent Tillman drove up in his brand-new rust-colored Celica with Darcel Butler by his side. Hudson had known Butler since grade school. The two women chatted before Chenault returned. Then, Tillman led the way to Butler's mother's townhouse at 2541 Carnaby Drive.

Darcel Butler invited Hudson and Monique in while the men talked business. Butler's brother, a convicted armed robber named Michael, watched as Chenault took $17,000 from the steel box in the Riviera and handed it to Tillman, who put it in a yellow trash bag and put it in his car, Hudson said. At around 11:50 p.m. Kent Tillman got on the telephone, "supposedly to his brother, Milton Tillman, as everyone watched. Hudson stated that after the telephone call they prepared to leave, supposedly to meet Milton Tillman."

At about 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 11, 1989, Kent Tillman told Michael Butler to get in the Toyota and follow them, then got in the back seat of the Riviera, behind Chenault, who was at the wheel, and next to 5-year-old Monique. Hudson rode shotgun.

By Hudson's account, Tillman told Chenault to take Johnny Cake Road to Route 40, go right on Route 29 toward Columbia, then two lefts and into a residential area along Cradlerock Way, down a road called Quiet Hours. Following behind in the Celica, Butler turned down the music on the car's stereo, he later testified.

At about 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 12, 1989, as they pulled into a townhouse complex at Waning Moon Way, Tillman directed Chenault to park the Buick, according to Hudson.

"Are they here yet?" Chenault asked.

"No," Tillman replied. "Not yet."

Hudson told police "she then heard a loud explosion and felt a sharp pain in her face. Chenault fell on her. She heard her daughter start to cry. She lifted Chenault off herself and started to scream."

Chenault was shot in the back of the head and the side of the neck with a .38-caliber revolver. Death was instantaneous, a coroner later opined. A bullet from the same type of gun entered Hudson's head between her left eye and ear, shattering her jaw.

Unable to open the passenger door, Hudson kicked out the window and crawled out of the bloody vehicle, pausing to grab Monique from the back seat. She ran to the nearest door and pounded on it. Vivian Jackson answered and dialed 911.

Howard County Police Officer Mark Verderaime responded with his partner. They found the Buick parked, still running, with the right blinker on. Chenault was slumped in the seat. "I remember [his] glasses being on," Verderaime says in an interview. "I think the exit wound came through the eye. The glasses were skewed."

Police recovered a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol from the trunk, with one full clip and one empty. It was not the murder weapon.

Butler was arrested at the corner of Liberty Heights and Northern Parkway, Sept. 12, 1989. He testified that when he saw Kent Tillman shoot the couple early the next morning, "I threw the car into drive, and I proceeded to leave his ass." Despite this claim, the jury found him guilty of being an accessory to the murder.

Kent Tillman disappeared, prompting an international manhunt. In 1993, using wire taps, police tracked him to Jamaica, where Tillman later claimed he was homeless and had found Jesus. "We got the girlfriend talking to the suspect there," remembers a detective who was on the fugitive task force then. "We had a Jamaican cop on the line. You could hear it when they kicked the door in."

According to a police report, Tillman told his Jamaican captors, "If I didn't kill that man, he would have killed me," and he took responsibility for the killing up until the day he pleaded guilty. Tillman quoted Bible verses to the presentencing agent: "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: Old things are passed away; behold, all things become new."

Tillman's new lawyer, Warren Brown, says he hasn't looked at the case closely enough to offer comment. Tillman goes before a judge on May 13. Sharrell Hudson says she plans to be there.

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