Ronald H. Tills had the reputation as one of the toughest sentencing judges in Western New York during his 10 years as a State Supreme Court judge.
But it turns out that, while the judge was throwing the book at others, he was engaging in felony crimes himself.
And now Tills is looking at jail time -- possibly 21 months or more -- after taking a plea deal Thursday before U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
An embarrassed-looking Tills, 73, admitted Thursday that he recruited prostitutes for events sponsored by a nationwide fraternal men's club called the Royal Order of Jesters.
The Hamburg resident pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the federal Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people across state lines for the purposes of prostitution.
At least some of Tills' illegal activities took place during his tenure as a state judge, which ended at the conclusion of 2005, according to court papers filed by the U.S. Attorney's office.
Tills admitted the following:
*He was responsible for recruiting out-of-state prostitutes to work a Jesters meeting in Dunkirk "in or about September 2001," while serving as director of the Buffalo chapter of the Jesters.
*He recruited an illegal alien prostitute from a North Tonawanda massage parlor to service men at a Jesters event in Kentucky in October 2005.
*He arranged for transporting prostitutes from Buffalo Niagara International Airport to a national Jesters meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont., in the spring of 2006.
He recruited a woman from the same massage parlor to work as a prostitute at a Jesters gathering in Pennsylvania sometime in the fall of 2006. He also arranged for a Buffalo-area prostitute to travel to Florida for a Jesters event.
He arranged for prostitutes from three different states to service a Jesters meeting in Brantford, Ont., in October 2007.
Tills is ashamed of his actions and takes full responsibility for them, said the former judge's attorney, Terrence M. Connors.
"He admitted in court that he committed a crime, his conduct was wrong and his judgment was horrible," Connors said Thursday. "Privately, he has told me he has no one to blame but himself. He understands there will be serious consequences, and he's prepared to deal with them."
Tills, who will be sentenced Jan. 12, had no comment after his court appearance Thursday.
Will the former judge get prison time for his actions?
Connors declined to speculate, but under advisory sentencing guidelines, prison time appears likely.
>Judge has latitude
Skretny indicated that Tills faces a probable prison term of at least 21 months. Because the sentencing guidelines are advisory, Skretny could determine that Tills deserves a longer term, or possibly a shorter one, including home confinement or probation.
Skretny also said that, in part, Tills' sentence will be based on how helpful he is to federal agents as they continue their investigation into the Jesters' involvement in human trafficking and prostitution. Skretny said Tills has agreed to provide "proactive cooperation" in the ongoing probe.
Federal agents believe that Buffalo was not the only Jesters chapter involved in transporting prostitutes across state lines, according to court papers filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert C. Moscati.
"This organization maintained chapters throughout the United States, including in Western New York, and it was the custom of these chapters to host periodic meetings, usually on weekends, for their members," Moscati stated.
>Liaisons were common
"At most of these meetings, some members of the organization would be tasked to arrange the presence of women at the meeting, for the specific purpose of utilizing the women to engage in sexual intercourse and other sexual activity with the organization's members in exchange for money."
The Jesters have more than 23,000 members, including prominent businessmen, court officials and government office holders. In order to join the Jesters, a man must also be a member of the Masons and the Shriners. The Jesters' motto is "Mirth is king."
The Buffalo News first reported in March that Tills and other Buffalo Jesters were under investigation for allegedly hiring prostitutes for events and transporting them over state lines.
Tills' law clerk, Michael Stebick, and former Lockport police captain John Trowbridge previously pleaded guilty to charges from the investigation. All three agreed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.
Agents from a human trafficking task force in Buffalo are working on the case. The task force includes investigators from the FBI, U.S. Border Patrol, the Erie County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and other agencies.
Prosecutors said they learned about the Jesters' involvement while investigating prostitution and human trafficking crimes associated with massage parlors in Niagara and Erie counties.
Alex Rogers, national business manager of the Jesters, said from Indianapolis Thursday he was unaware of Tills' plea agreement and could not comment on it. But Rogers said the Jesters as an organization do not condone or authorize the hiring of prostitutes at events.
"There may be certain individuals out there doing that, but not as an organization," Rogers said.