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Former State Supreme Court Judge, Police Capt. resign amid F.B.I. investigation of Royal Order of Jesters prostitution and human trafficking case

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Ex-Judge Target in Interstate Sex Case: Agents Probe Trip Involving Prostitute

Sunday, 9 March 2008

By Dan Herbeck and Aaron Besecker, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Mar. 9--A retired State Supreme Court justice resigned his post as a hearing officer as federal agents investigate his alleged role in taking a local massage parlor worker across state lines for purposes of prostitution.

FBI and U.S. Border Patrol agents are investigating allegations that retired Judge Ronald H. Tills, his former law clerk and a retired police captain took the female massage parlor employee in a motor home to a gathering of members of a nationwide group called the Royal Order of Jesters.

At the Jesters event, law enforcement officials said, the woman allegedly was paid to perform sexual favors. Police said the men who took her to the event could face federal criminal charges for transporting her over state lines for the purposes of prostitution.

The probe recently led to the resignations of Tills, a retired state judge who had been working as a judicial hearing officer, and Michael Stebick, a part-time law clerk in the state courts in Buffalo.

Both men resigned Thursday, according to Andrew B. Isenberg, district executive for the 8th Judicial District of the state court system.

"We're aware of the investigation. My client was first contacted by the FBI about a month ago," said Stebick's attorney, Andrew C. LoTempio. "[Stebick] resigned from his job to save his family and the court system from embarrassment."

LoTempio declined to comment further about the allegations.

Tills' attorney, Terrence M. Connors, said he, too, is aware of the probe. He declined to say whether Tills has spoken to federal agents or whether he admits going on the trip. He also declined to comment on Tills' resignation.

"I really can't respond to rumors and unnamed sources. If the accusations become formal, then we'll respond," Connors said. "I've asked for a meeting with the government attorneys to discuss these rumors."

Authorities declined to give details about the date and location of the event where the woman was taken, except to say it was outside New York State and occurred more than a year ago.

Spinoff of other probe

The investigation is a spinoff of a case involving prostitution at local massage parlors. Court papers filed by federal prosecutors after a December crackdown on those local massage parlors referred to a "judge" and a "police captain" as being frequent customers of some of the parlors.

Six sources who are familiar with the investigation said Stebick, the owner of the motor home used on the trip, Tills and retired Lockport Police Capt. John Trowbridge went on the road trip, accompanied by the woman from the massage parlor and as many as nine other local men associated with the Jesters. The News has made repeated efforts to reach Trowbridge, 60, for comment, but has been unable to contact him.

Authorities said they became aware of the road trip because the woman had worked at one of four area massage parlors that were raided and shut down in December in connection with the prostitution and human trafficking case.

Under the federal Mann Act, it is illegal to transport a woman over state lines for the purposes of prostitution.

Since learning about the alleged road trip, agents from the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol have been investigating the local Jesters chapter, which is known as the Jesters Buffalo Court No. 22. Police also are investigating whether there were other incidents of prostitutes transported across state lines so they could attend Jesters conventions in other cities.

Tills, who retired as a state judge in 2005, was previously a member of the Assembly. Until resigning Thursday, he worked part time as a $300-a-day judicial hearing officer in the state courts.

Stebick, Tills' former law clerk, is a former criminal prosecutor with the Erie County district attorney's office. In recent years, he has worked for the state courts part time, evaluating pistol permit applications, Isenberg said.

According to the Congressional Record, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, mentioned Tills' work with the Jesters while making congratulatory remarks about the judge's retirement during a session of Congress on Dec. 5, 2005.

While attending college, Reynolds worked in Tills' Assembly office in the early 1970s. Speaking before Congress, he called Tills his "valued mentor" and spoke of his service to community organizations, including his work as director of "Buffalo Court 22 of Jesters."

The Jesters is a not-for-profit fraternal organization associated with the Masons, with 191 chapters, called subordinate courts, in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Panama, said Alex Rogers, business manager at the organization's Indianapolis headquarters.

"Mirth ... merriment"

"Mirth is king" is the fun-loving group's motto, according to its Web site.

There are about 23,500 members in all, and each must already be a member of the Shrine of North America and the Masons, Rogers said.

"Our purpose is to spread the gospel of mirth and merriment," Rogers said.

Officials in the group's headquarters said they were not aware of the investigation in Buffalo and have not been contacted about it by police.

To hear of the investigation from a reporter was "unnerving and shocking," Rogers said.

"We certainly don't stand for any of that stuff," he said.

Since each Jester is already a Shriner, the group supports the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Rogers said.

"Most of our work is charitable in nature, and that's why I just can't believe the nature of this investigation," he said.

However, allegations of prostitution activity at Jesters conventions have surfaced publicly at least once before -- during a federal court case in Milwaukee, Wis., in February 1990, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

According to the newspaper's account, a woman admitted to a federal judge that she ran an interstate prostitution business and was hired to provide prostitutes for Jesters conventions in New Orleans, Houston, Chicago and other locations, including some in other countries.

The newspaper reported that the woman, speaking at her sentencing, told the judge that "well-to-do businessmen, mayors and aldermen" were among the Jesters' members, and that uniformed police officers sometimes provided security at the events.

The Jesters try to take the "highest caliber Shriners we can get" who distinguish themselves in the community, Rogers said.

"We try to keep the cream of the crop," he said.

Rogers had no information about Tills, or whether he still holds a leadership post in the Buffalo Jesters group. Tills' attorney, Connors, declined to comment on Tills' role with the group.

The national Jesters office identified James Kirst as secretary of the Buffalo chapter, but Kirst hung up the telephone when a reporter asked him about the FBI investigation.

Four massage parlors in Niagara Falls, Wheatfield, Lockport and the Town of Tonawanda were raided Dec. 10, after a 15-month investigation into prostitution allegations. Four people were arrested, and police said they "rescued" nine women who worked in the parlors.

Buffalo FBI spokesman Paul M. Moskal said he could not comment when asked whether Tills was the judge and Trowbridge was the police captain discussed in the court documents.

"There are ongoing aspects to this investigation that are being followed up by our agents and the Border Patrol, but I can't comment on any of the specifics," Moskal said.

U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn and his chief of criminal prosecutions, James P. Kennedy, both said they had no comment when asked about the Jesters.

dherbeck@buffnews.com and abesecker@buffnews.com

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