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When Gary Scott's partner in their marijuana-growing business partner strangled a Guerneville neighbor to death in 2009, prosecutors said he tried to cover up the killing for his friend by hiding the dead man's car.

Scott helped convicted killer Andrew Sharkey, 38, drive 67-year-old Michael Tillman's pickup to a Santa Rosa supermarket parking lot in the hope of throwing police off Sharkey's trail.

It didn't work. Both men were caught and Scott, a 58-year-old former transient, was charged with being an accessory to murder.

On Friday, Scott walked out of court a free man after a judge sentenced him to three years' probation in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors.

But Sharkey, who faces more than 32 years in prison at his Jan. 20 sentencing, said Scott is getting away with murder.

In a jailhouse interview this week, Sharkey alleged Scott was the one who slipped the steel wire around Tillman's throat when the two were stealing $45,000 in cash from his bedroom drawer.

Sharkey said he admitted a first-degree murder charge because he didn't want to risk life without parole if convicted at trial. Under his agreement, he'll be behind bars until he's 70.

"I feel enraged," Sharkey said through a plate glass window in the jail's high-security wing. "The guy's walking free who committed murder and I agreed to a deal of 32 years and six months in prison."

But Chief Deputy District Attorney Diana Gomez said she's confident Sharkey is the killer. She said physical evidence proves he's the only person who entered Tillman's converted garage apartment the afternoon of the slaying.

Scott learned of the killing later, she said.

As part of the plea deal, Sharkey admitted using a garrote, Gomez said.

"We stand by what we believe," Gomez said. "And we believe Mr. Sharkey is the killer. We don't believe his version of the facts. His story does not comport to the physical evidence."

Scott declined to comment after his hearing Friday, but his lawyer, Evan Zelig, said earlier this week he wasn't surprised at Sharkey's claim.

"If I was in his position, I would be saying the same thing," Zelig said. "The reality is, my client had absolutely nothing to do with the homicide."

Zelig told Judge Arthur Wick Friday that Scott has "turned his life around" since the slaying. He no longer is in the marijuana business and is working full-time for a Sonoma County sign company. Wick agreed to reduce his felony charge to a misdemeanor.

Sharkey, who has been in and out of jail since he immigrated to America from England 20 years ago, said he and Scott were operating a lucrative pot- growing operation in the building next to Tillman's apartment.

He said they sold their product to a man in Los Angeles for tens of thousands of dollars a month.

At one point, he said, landlord Ernie Rogers told them that Tillman stockpiled cash in his home because he didn't believe in banks. Scott persuaded Sharkey to help him steal it, he said.

On June 23, 2009, Scott entered the apartment at about 3:30 p.m. and distracted Tillman while Sharkey rifled through bedroom drawers and found the money in a green plastic box, he said.

Sharkey said he went to the kitchen to signal to Scott he was ready to leave. He saw Scott standing behind Tillman's chair with his hands near the man's neck, he said.

He didn't think anything of it until the two were headed down the road and Sharkey worried they might get caught.

"He said, 'Don't worry about, Michael. He won't know anything's missing.' He took care of that," Sharkey said.

Sharkey said that he was concerned something had happened, so he returned to the scene the next day and found Tillman dead in the chair. He said Scott suggested he tell police the landlord did it, so he did.

But when he went to the Sheriff's Office a few days later, he was arrested. Scott, who had gone to his native Arizona, phoned in a tip that Sharkey was the killer.

Investigators agreed. A judge determined the charges were warranted at a preliminary hearing. On the eve of trial, prosecutors offered to drop special circumstances in exchange for his no-contest plea.

Under the terms of the agreement, Sharkey can't appeal and must serve 100 percent of his prison sentence.

Sharkey said he understands that he is legally guilty of murder because he was committing robbery when someone was killed. But he said he is factually innocent and that prosecutors were too quick to believe Scott.

"I didn't kill Michael Tillman," Sharkey said. "I felt strong-armed into committing the robbery against my better judgment. I believe Gary Scott is the perpetrator."

Sharkey's lawyer, Erick Bruce, said it's clear two people were involved and one killed Tillman. Questions about missing pot and cash cast further doubt over the official version, he said.

"Only two people in this world really know the truth," Bruce said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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