A college student from Eden Prairie will head to Oxford next year as a Rhodes scholar to study public policy and criminal justice, subjects that hit home for the 22-year-old, whose brother died of an opioid overdose three years ago.
Riley Tillitt, a Yale University senior, is among the latest cadre of U.S. Rhodes scholars. He’s also the sibling of Max Tillitt, whose story was recounted in the media and in court at the trial of his drug dealer Beverly Burrell, who was sent to prison in 2017.
“I lost my brother to a heroin overdose a few years ago,” Riley Tillitt said in an interview Sunday. “What I really still can’t wrap my head around is that Max didn’t have to die. There are policies that exist … that are working and addressing addiction, but we just haven’t implemented them.”
Tillitt was one of 32 students chosen from 880 applicants to win the scholarship. His application addressed his interest in approaching addiction issues from multiple perspectives.
“I wrote about why I think our current systems are broken, to be frank, and have failed us as a society,” said Tillitt, who had just arrived in Minnesota to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
Tillitt said he wants to obtain two degrees at Oxford, one in public policy and the other in criminology. Both are one-year degrees, and most students study at Oxford for two to three years, so he can finish both, he said.
He spent the weekend in Chicago for the final round of Rhodes scholarship interviews. Of the 15 students from his district who were there, two — including himself — were chosen for the prestigious program. He described all of the finalists as tremendously talented.
Max Tillitt died Sept. 25, 2015, in an Eden Prairie hotel room, with his infant son, Landon, and fiancée nearby. He was 21.
He had started using drugs after a head injury in high school led to depression, his father, Stephen Tillitt, said in court. Max had told his family that he regretted using drugs but that the addiction was overwhelming.
Riley Tillitt and his father agreed that a long prison sentence wasn’t the best outcome for Burrell, the dealer who sold Max the dose of heroin that killed him. They argued for leniency.
“From my perspective, I felt like there was no good answer available … through the traditional criminal justice system,” Riley Tillitt said.
Burrell was sentenced to more than 14 years in prison for the overdose deaths of Max Tillitt and another man, Luke Ronnei. She has also been convicted of murder in the overdose death of another man.
Burrell didn’t have the opportunities he has had in life, Tillitt said. If she had, he said, she likely wouldn’t have become a drug dealer. At the same time, he said, she needs to take some personal responsibility for what she did.
Tillitt said he’s interested in studying the concept of restorative justice while at Oxford as a way to balance out those two realities.
While he’s been to England, Tillitt said he’s never been to Oxford and is excited to experience it. He wants to travel the world and learn about other people and societies but also plans to come back to Minnesota one day.
“I want to do what I can to make Minnesota and also our country a better place,” Tillitt said.
At Yale, Tillitt is majoring in history, as well as ethics, politics and economics. He served as a member of the board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, D.C., and as the president of the Yale chapter.
Two other Yale students were also named 2019 Rhodes scholars.