Me and Dago (79855) 

The death of a tough guy leaves memories.

So Dago is dead.

Dago was the nickname of Charles Tiller, a convict from Memphis who died two weeks ago at a hospital in Nashville. He had been hit on the head with a baseball bat by some other prisoners 10 years ago and never recovered.

There was rough justice in that.

Charles Tiller was an icon of Memphis and the 1950s -- a good athlete and a good student at Christian Brothers High School who became a legendary tough guy with a mug, a stare, and a set of biceps that would scare the hell out of anyone.

When I was a reporter 20 years ago at the old Sunday magazine of The Commercial Appeal, I used to pass the idle hours browsing through the old clippings and pictures archived on the fifth floor near our office. I got interested in Tiller and his notorious cousins and decided to write a story about him.

The more I learned about him the more interested I became. There were plenty of people around who remembered him and knew him well. Remarkably, the policeman who helped arrest him, the prosecutor who sent him to prison, and the doctor who was his lifelong friend and defender had all gone to Christian Brothers at the same time, and three of them played baseball together.

Four friends, four paths. What a story. Like they say, you can't make this stuff up.

The crime that finally sent him to prison for good was a double murder of an ex-girlfriend and her beau, a tough guy from Atlanta who made the mistake of betting the house and his life against Dago Tiller. A federal prosecutor familiar with the case said the final scene was right out of the movies.

"Deuces," the Atlanta con pleaded after the initial shot, using con talk for "truce."

"It's too late for deuces," was the reply, and he shot his balls off.

The policeman, Charlie Torti, confirmed that Tiller was indeed a good ballplayer and a good guy back in the old days but had changed more than most anyone knew. "I love him like a brother," he told me, "but the boy is guilty."

When I finally contacted Tiller, he asked cynically if I was "one of those crusading reporters." I figured it was best to put my cards on the table and told him I didn't have the crusading itch and firmly believed he was guilty. He agreed to see me anyway, but it took some time. He was inmate 79855. I got letters from him -- always with that number in the return address -- from Brushy Mountain in Petros, the big house in Nashville, and Fort Pillow Prison and Farm in Henning. He was moved around a lot. Over a year or so, I visited him at all those places. The interviews were a challenge.

"Please be advised inmate Tiller is presently assigned to Involuntary Administrative Segregation at this facility and is presently classified maximum security. Due to this fact, an interview shall not be granted at this time," wrote one warden in a fairly typical exchange.

Finally, I got this: "Dear John, I'll be glad to talk to you. I'm on lock-up but I'm sure that, if you call, you can arrange to see me."

Fact-checking a story about a convict is another challenge. Once I wrote to ask him about some legends, including one that the Tillers had fought the UCLA football team.

"I was dating a woman in Los Angeles and we were at a restaurant," he wrote. "There were four UCLA football players in there at a table. She went to the restroom and one of them hit on her. She was an extremely good-looking high-class prostitute. I overheard it and said something to him. Some words were passed and I went to the car to get my baseball bat. I busted one upside the head and chased the other three outside the bar. When he woke up he apologized to her. There is no truth to the other stories."

It became clear to both of us soon enough that I was all about the past and what happened back in the '50s and '60s and he was all about getting the hell out.

"Will you send me a list of the names of the five best criminal lawyers in Memphis?" he wrote. "I'm thinking seriously of changing lawyers and, since I've been in prison for almost ten years, I'm not familiar with the lawyers in Memphis. I would appreciate this."

And three years after my story came out, he tried to get me back on the case.

"If you don't want to pursue this," he wrote, "then I will investigate other avenues. It won't be easy but it would sure make a heckuva story!"

Yes it did.

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