EDITOR’S NOTE: This story, published in our May 2013 issue, predates Tillman’s recently conviction in this matter. On September 25, Tillman pleaded guilty to some 40 related charges, getting nine years in jail.
Who is the man accused of stealing one of the province’s best collections of historical artifacts?
Const. Kristen Bradley was exiting Highway 118 onto Perrin Drive in the summer of 2012 when he recognized a driver paused at a stop sign. It was John Mark Tillmann. Bradley glanced at the clock. 12:52 p.m. Tillmann was on conditions for writing a forged cheque to a Lower Sackville garage and was not allowed to leave his nearby home until 1 p.m. Bradley pulled him over and arrested Tillmann for breach of conditions.
He placed Tillmann in the back of the police cruiser and searched his car. He found a strange letter written in cursive and a cheque for $1,526 that appeared to have been written in somebody’s non-dominant hand to disguise the penmanship. The letter was in a plastic sleeve. A closer look revealed the date: May 19, 1758. Bradley took Tillmann to the police station and the letter back to the office.
Michael Moosberger, head archivist for Dalhousie University Archives & Special Collections, wanders the stacks. The shelves groan under hundreds of boxes holding 56,000 glass plates of century-old photographs. A massive scrapbook of newspaper articles from the First World War sit next to original sheet music and architectural plans. Rare reel-to-reel audio recordings of Rita MacNeil snuggle beside video tapes and 850,000 feet of film. Moosberger says the basement is even wilder, with furniture, sculptures and busts carefully laid out. In all, Dalhousie has seven kilometres of material comprising tens of millions of artifacts. “The collection is voluminous,” he says.
It would take a full-time worker 62 years to catalogue the collection, and another full-time employee just to keep up with incoming items. His small staff simply can’t cope with that, so they trudge on, recording one artifact at a time. “You could stick that in your notebook and hand us back the folder, and there’s no way for us to check that the item is missing,” he says, as I admire a handwritten letter from Immanuel Kant.
John Tillmann often wandered these aisles. “He’s quite charming,” Moosberger says. “Clean cut, well-spoken and seemed to know a lot about Nova Scotia history.”
Moosberger trusted Tillmann in large part because he had befriended Charles Armour, the founding archivist at Dalhousie. “The first time I met [Tillmann], they were doing research together,” Moosberger says. “Armour had access to the stacks. He could go and get his own material, because he knew where a lot of the material was. And Tillmann was with him on a number of occasions.”
There is no suggestion Armour, who died in 2010, had any idea what was happening. “That’s his modus operandi: he befriends people, he gains their trust and confidence, and then takes advantage of it,” Moosberger says. He allegedly did the same thing with private collectors. He would visit, sometimes with an accomplice, and the collection would be a little smaller when he left.
Unknown to Moosberger, a 1758 letter from James Wolfe, British military hero from the Siege of Louisbourg, had been missing for several years.
Const. Bradley began a global search to find the letter’s owner. Archives Canada said it looked legit and was worth a lot of money. Interpol got involved. “Obviously, Tillmann wasn’t helping us,” Bradley says.
Bradley was on a day off to celebrate his 37th birthday in November 2012 when he got the call; the letter had been traced to the Dalhousie University Archives. It was the Wolfe letter, and it was worth $18,000.
Tillmann, 52, has more than a dozen convictions. In addition to the forged cheque to MacKay’s CarStar to repair his BMW, he had stolen three jugs of water from the Lower Sackville Superstore. He was jailed for two years in 2009 for extorting, threatening and assaulting a woman. Prior to that, Tillmann was charged with abusing and trying to kill his elderly mother after allegedly attacking her with a pencil. Those charges were dropped. His mother died that year of natural causes.
Bradley started to wonder if the letter wasn’t an odd one-off, but part of a bigger haul. He and a team of officers prepared to search Tillmann’s Fall River house to find out.
When police called Moosberger to ask if he was missing a Wolfe letter, he found he was. Two officers visited and had a long chat about the problem they had on their hands. How do you prove antiquities were stolen when no one even knows they’re missing? Moosberger explained many items are misfiled, or patrons forget to return them. Staff retire and such knowledge is lost. You wouldn’t know something was missing until another scholar came looking for it. Years could have passed since it walked out.
A high-value object like the Wolfe letter would have attracted scrutiny from any reputable buyer, but a stamp that could easily trace it to Dalhousie had been torn off. Moosberger knows people will wonder why such valuable items weren’t locked away, but he says their real value is the knowledge researchers can extract from them. “It does no one any good if we stick it in that safe, never to see the light of day again,” he says. “We have to be open and accessible.”
So there is, and always will be, a risk, but security is tighter now. The Archives merged with Special Collections in 2006 and improved control of its resources. Items are signed out and in. Patrons don’t have access to the stacks. High-value items are locked in a safe until required. “It’s interesting: I never saw Tillmann again after the merger,” Moosberger says.
Const. Bradley was one of the first officers to enter Tillmann’s two-storey brown home in January 2013. It was like finding the Oak Island treasure. Tillmann’s home was a museum—or a pawn shop—of stolen artifacts. Highlights include a rare edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a letter from George Washington, a suit of armour and an 1819 watercolour of Province House. Police estimate the 2,000-plus piece collection is worth more than $1 million and was amassed over decades. It’s unknown how many other items passed through the house and were sold on.
“I’ve spoken to many police officers senior to me and they’re like, ‘Kristen, this file is one in a million. Guys have worked 35 years and have never seen a file like this,’” says Bradley, who became a cop in 2002.
Police experts are contacting archives across North America to ask if they’re missing the items they found in Tillmann’s house. It will take a year or more to work through the eclectic haul. It’s hard work. “I’ve had some police officers call me and say, ‘I hate you Bradley,’” he laughs.
Bradley, who was seconded to the RCMP at the time of the traffic stop, is back with Halifax police. He keeps tabs on the investigation and will likely testify against Tillmann. He remains in jail awaiting a trial date. He faces 35 charges, including theft and possession of stolen property, and will likely face more. His son, 23-year-old Kyle Tillmann, was also charged.
Bradley is surprised a journalist wants to talk to him about what he describes as routine police work. “Anything can happen from a traffic stop,” he says.
Tillmann declined, through his lawyer, to be interviewed. None of the charges have yet been tested in court.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.