DNA Evidence Helps Police Crack 30-Year-Old Cold Case In The Twin Cities

On Feb. 1, 1987, Lillian Kuller, 81, was slain in her home at 1290 Goodrich Ave. in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she lived for decades. The former Ziegfeld Follies chorus dancer died as a result of “unexpected strangulation,” which “baffled” detectives, according to Pioneer Press reports.

Lillian Helped Her Family In The Depression

Lillian Helped Her Family In The Depression

Kuller was born Lillian Garmisa in Chicago, Illinois, in the early 1900s. Her father was rather well off financially, but during the Depression times got very hard for the family, which included 13 children. Lillian decided she would become a professional dancer in order to help feed the large family. As a young woman, she was a chorus dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies, a series of lavish theatrical productions on Broadway in New York City (famous actress Barbara Stanwyck was one of the famous Ziegfeld girls). During her stint as a dancer, Kuller mingled with celebrities and met her future husband, Nate Kuller.

An Elegant & Eclectic Lillian

An Elegant & Eclectic Lillian

Lillian danced with Buddy Ebsen and Eddie Cantor in the 1920s and connected with her husband-to-be backstage during one of the troupe’s performances in the Twin Cities in the 1930s. The couple moved to St. Paul where Nate owned the textile business Minnesota Knitting Mills, which created military uniforms during World War II. The company later expanded into other types of clothing. “I just remember going to her house, and her telling stories, and she was very, very elegant, very eclectic,” Mark Kuller told the Star Tribune. “And she’d be like, ‘Hello, daaahling.’ You know? Very dramatic. It almost felt like, like … Bette Davis. It was just amazing growing up with her.”

Sadly, her life would come to an end at age 81.

Ransacked Home

Ransacked Home

On Feb. 1, 1987, Lillian Kuller was murdered in her home. During their investigation, authorities discovered that one of the windows in Kuller’s home was open, but they didn’t believe her place had been broken into because dust on the window sill hadn’t been disturbed. Kuller’s lifeless body was discovered on her bed by one of her renters. She was fully clothed with a pillow over her head, and her home had been completely ransacked. Read on to find out why it took police 30 years to find her killer…

Door Ajar

Door Ajar

Although she was a widow, Kuller was not completely alone at her home at 1290 Goodrich Avenue. Kuller, whose husband died in 1981, rented the second floor of her duplex in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood to a couple who later told authorities that they noticed that her door was ajar the day she was found dead. One of the tenants knocked on her door on Feb. 1, 1987, but she didn’t answer. He placed his rent check on a side table inside the door before leaving that morning to play basketball. Neither of the tenants noticed anything suspicious that day.

No Signs Of Forced Entry

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Police had told 5 Eyewitness News at the time that while there was evidence that someone had been in Kuller’s house overnight, there were “no signs of forced entry.” Did that mean Kuller knew the perpetrator and let him willingly come into her home? When neighbors were interviewed about the homicide, they said they didn’t hear anything unusual in the neighborhood. So while her murder was gruesome, perhaps it happened quickly. According to ABC 6 News, Kuller, who lived by herself, was described as an “extremely independent” individual. But at 81 she was elderly and was in poor health.

Cause Of Death

Cause Of Death

When Kuller’s body was brought to the Ramsey County medical examiner’s office, it was determined that she suffered multiple abrasions on her head as well as hemorrhages between the skull and the scalp, and in her neck. She was killed due to “asphyxia associated with assault.” Her grandson, Mark Kuller, said his grandmother had emphysema and that the family had suffered for years due to the unresolved crime. “She probably weighed 90 pounds. Why would somebody do something like that? She’s not going to struggle. Just take what you’re going to take. Material items are not worth somebody’s life,” he told the Star Tribune.

Neighborhood Break-Ins

Neighborhood Break-Ins

Around the time of Kuller’s murder, there had been three break-ins and assaults reported in the same neighborhood. In each case, the victims were elderly, and they lived alone. Even though it seemed like the same person was responsible, St. Paul police Lt. Russ Bovee was interviewed by the Pioneer Press in 1987 and declined to speculate whether Kuller’s case was connected to the break-ins. Detectives spent 900 hours and five months investigating Kuller’s homicide. They were unable to determine who was responsible for killing Kuller, so they decided to shelve the case after five months. But hope was not lost.

A Suspect

A Suspect

One year later, police believed that they had a break in the case. Sgt. William Gillespie, a homicide detective at the time, said: “We have two suspects in that matter. At this point, we have not made a resolution in the case, but someday we may solve that one.” There was one suspect for the slaying whose name did come up back in the 1980s, but he was never arrested for the homicide. Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Andrew Johnson said during a news conference in 2017, “His name came up back in 1987, but they didn’t really have anything to link him to the crime… Every case I know of where he was a significant suspect are the ones where he’s been convicted.”

So Close To The Truth

So Close To The Truth

On Jan. 26, 1987, five days before one of Kuller’s renters found her dead in bed, Michael A. Withers pleaded guilty to three burglaries that occurred less than a mile from Kuller’s home, noted the Ramsey County attorney’s office at the time. In fact, the most recent break-in had taken place at 1072 Goodrich Ave. earlier that month — just a few homes away from Kuller’s property. Withers pleaded guilty to the burglaries and was released from jail on Jan. 27. While it seemed there was a connection between Withers and Kuller’s murder, he was never arrested or prosecuted for the crime — yet.

Matching Footprints

Matching Footprints

Several days before Kuller was killed, St. Paul police investigated a home burglary by following footprints in the snow. The footprints led from the burglary scene to a house on the 1000 block of Laurel Ave., reports the Star Tribune. Police discovered Withers, then 29, living with his mother and sisters. Authorities were able to match the footprints from that burglary to a second case to shoes that Withers happened to be wearing. A few days later, Kuller’s renters found her dead body. Two months later, Withers broke into another person’s home and stabbed the homeowner with a screwdriver.

Career Criminal

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Over the years, Withers has pleaded guilty to numerous burglaries in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood. Three occurred as recently as 2013. He pleaded guilty to one each in 2006, 2003, 2000, 1995 and 1992. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to a burglary that occurred just nine days after Kuller was found dead in her home just one mile away! In that case, Withers pleaded guilty on April 14, 1987. Records do not indicate when he was released from custody for that conviction. Even though Withers had confessed to burglarizing homes in Kuller’s neighborhood there was still no evidence linking him to the homicide.

Cold Case Reopened

Cold Case Reopened

In 2010, detectives revisited the murder while reviewing cold cases. Recent advances in DNA technology often enable officials to take a new look at cases that were previously unsolvable. Investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) decided to run some forensic tests using new technology on evidence that was taken from the scene.

Investigators found two DNA matches from Kuller’s home. One was male and one was female. Detectives found and interviewed the female match, but she denied being involved. The male match was a career criminal- none other than Michael Anthony Withers. As we know, he wasn’t charged with the crime because prosecutors did not have sufficient evidence to make the case.

Busted

Busted

In March 2017, Withers was charged in Ramsey County District Court with two counts of second-degree murder. Just days after pleading guilty to a string of burglaries in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood in 1987, and being released from jail one day later, Withers broke into Kuller’s home and killed her. Police Chief Todd Axtell said at a news conference: “In St. Paul, we don’t forget the victims of violent crimes, and we never will.” Withers, 58, is currently in prison for burglarizing a pair of homes in 2013. These homes are located about a mile from where Kuller lived.

A DNA Match

A DNA Match

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was instrumental in having the Kuller homicide reviewed as part of a drive to review cold cases for potential prosecution. Assistant County Attorney Andrew Johnson decided to take the case. Johnson had led a successful prosecution in the 2015 conviction of Norman Bachman, who murdered his wife. Johnson was able to prove that an updated Y-Chromosome test on existing evidence matched Withers’ DNA. “Really the most significant development is one that came just Monday of this week when we got the BCA lab results back on the Y chromosome test,” Johnson told Kare11.com. “The Y chromosome found underneath Lillian’s fingernails, matches his Y Chromosome.”

12 Convictions

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Between 1985 and 2014, Withers was convicted 12 times for various crimes. He was convicted of nine burglaries, one attempted burglary, and twice for receiving stolen property. Withers admitted to authorities that the way he entered most of the homes he burglarized, all of which were about a mile or so from Kuller’s property, was by going through their windows. (Remember, investigators initially dismissed that Kuller’s home had been broken into via her window, even though it was open, because the dust on the sill had been undisturbed.) If convicted of killing Kuller, Withers could receive up to 80 more years in prison.

Mentally Ill

Mentally Ill

Withers is currently serving time in prison at Stillwater for two burglaries in 2013. He entered a guilty plea on March 14, 2014, telling the court that he was homeless, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had been taking medication for awhile. In December 2013 police were called to a burglary in process at an apartment building on the 880 block of Grand Avenue. Withers fled from officers when they arrived on the scene. Police found and arrested him, later linking him to another burglary on the 90 block of South Victoria Street. He had a garbage bag in his hand with coins, watches, and jewelry, according to ABC 6 News.

Kuller’s Family Gets Closure

Lillian Kuller press conference

Kuller’s family had never given up hope in finding the person responsible for Kuller’s death. One of her grandsons, Mark Kuller, attended a news conference in the offices of Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, and thanked investigators for finally bringing the killer to justice. He said the charges against Withers were “a great relief,” adding, “I didn’t give up. … I knew they had not let go of it.” It took investigators 30 years to file charges against Withers, which they were finally able to do on March 16, 2017. The case was solved after performing additional DNA testing on Kuller’s fingernails.

Why Would Someone Do Something Like That?

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Mark Kuller’s grandmother Lillian was always on his mind. He never gave up hope that one day her killer would be found. He also didn’t give up on police efforts to find the perpetrator. He told Kare11.com: “I’ve been in touch with the cold case team. Every few years I give them a call. Anything new? What’s going on?” While he was relieved that his grandmother’s murderer was finally found, it was still difficult news. “Why would somebody do something like that?” he said. “She’s not going to struggle. Take whatever you want to take. Material items are not worth a person’s life.”

Cold Cases Can Be Solved

Cold Cases Can Be Solved

Solving a cold case is a huge accomplishment for the law enforcement community as well as a big relief for friends and family who often have no closure when their loved ones are killed in a crime. “Every cold case represents unachieved justice for our community and uncertainty for surviving family and friends,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a written statement. “Each case weighs heavily on the minds of police investigators and prosecutors. We have proven, through intentional efforts, dedication and hard work, that these cases can be solved – especially with the evolution of forensic testing and investigator training.”

A Positive Outlook

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Lillian and Nate Kuller lived in their house on Goodrich Avenue for decades. They raised a son and a daughter in the St. Paul home. When her husband Nate died in 1981, Kuller rented out part of the duplex. Her grandson Mark Kuller said his grandmother was full of personality and people loved to be around her: “She was always the center of attention, like Ginger Rogers — straight back, phenomenal elocution and posture. Always a great smile, nothing ever negative. If you cut off her arm, she’d say, ‘No big deal, it’ll get better.’ ” Kuller had seven grandchilden and three great-grandchildren.