MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A cold-case investigation has led to a prison inmate being charged Thursday with the 1987 murder of an 81-year-old woman, according to the Ramsey County Attorney’s office.
Michael Anthony Withers, 58, was charged with two counts of second-degree murder in connection with the death of Lillian Kuller.
The criminal complaint says Kuller, who was the landlord and resident of a St. Paul duplex on the 1200 block of Goodrich Avenue, was found dead by one of her tenants on Feb. 1, 1987. Her apartment had also been ransacked.
Investigators say she was found dead atop a bed with a pillow over her face. The medical examiner said she had been strangled and beaten about the head.
An apartment window was also found to be open about 14.5 inches, but investigators initially believed someone couldn’t have climbed in because there was undisturbed dust on the window sill.
The case went cold until St. Paul police reopened it in 2010. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension tested Kuller’s fingernail clippings, clothes and all other evidence that had been filed away for about 23 years.
The testing led to two DNA matches: a woman from St. Cloud and Withers, who is currently an inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater.
Records showed that Withers had been released from Ramsey County Jail about four days before Kuller’s murder.
The attorney’s office felt the evidence against the woman and Withers was not strong enough to charge them in 2013, but they decided to reopen the case last year.
The BCA concluded this month that samples gathered from a blood stain, a hair found on a pillowcase and Kuller’s fingernails were a mixture of both Kuller’s and Withers’ DNA. Investigators were unable to gather enough evidence to connect the woman from St. Cloud to the murder.
Withers had 12 convictions between 1985 and 2014: nine burglaries, one attempted burglary and two for receiving stolen property. He admitted to gaining access to most of the homes — all of which were within about a mile and a half from Kuller’s home — through windows. He also admitted once to stabbing one of the occupants of those homes with a screwdriver.
“Every cold case represents unachieved justice for our community and uncertainty for surviving family and friends. Each case weighs heavily on the minds of police investigators and prosecutors,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. “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.”
Mark Kuller, the victim’s grandson, says he always hoped justice would be served in the killing of his grandmother.
“It is like a miracle,” Kuller said. “I am so happy.”
Kuller says one of the most difficult parts for his large, tight-knit family was not knowing who killed his grandmother for three decades.
“That was the thing that just kept bugging me,” he said.
Kuller hopes answers for his grandmother will give other families of victims hope that even a decades-old cold case can be solved.
Withers could receive up to 80 more years in prison if convicted.