Authorities were on Michael A. Withers’ tracks for decades, following his footsteps in the snow from a burglary scene to his home, or catching him on surveillance video sticking a gun in a Subway shop employee’s face while an accomplice locked another in the freezer.
Yet, the serial burglar with a nearly predictable modus operandi and who had confessed to several burglaries kept them stumped for 30 years in the cold case of Lillian Kuller, an 81-year-old former Ziegfeld Follies dancer found dead in her St. Paul home.
They finally caught up with Withers, 58, Thursday thanks to DNA testing, and charged him in Ramsey County District Court with one count each of second-degree murder with intent and second-degree murder without intent for killing Kuller.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Kuller’s grandson, Mark Kuller, said at an afternoon news conference announcing the charges. “This is a sad day for me, but … it’s so great, too.”
Withers is currently in prison in Stillwater for two unrelated burglary cases in Ramsey County, and is scheduled to be released in October.
Sometime between the late night hours of Jan. 31 and the early morning hours of Feb. 1, 1987, authorities believe Withers broke into Kuller’s duplex in the 1200 block of Goodrich Avenue, where the widow lived alone, killed her and ransacked her home.
Officers at the scene found Kuller lying on a bed with a pillow over her head and upper body, the criminal complaint said. The Ramsey County medical examiner’s office found that she suffered multiple abrasions on the head and hemorrhages between the skull and the scalp and in her neck. She died of “asphyxia associated with assault.”
“She had emphysema,” Mark Kuller said as he recalled how her family struggled for years with the unsolved 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.”
She didn’t own anything particularly valuable, he said.
Withers continued terrorizing the neighborhood as investigators ran into hurdles investigating Kuller’s case.
Two months after Kuller’s body was found by renters who lived upstairs, Withers broke into someone’s home and stabbed the resident with a screwdriver. He continued breaking into several homes as recently as December 2013 — all of them within a mile or two of Kuller’s duplex.
His criminal behavior also predated the murder. Several days before Kuller was killed, St. Paul police investigating a home burglary followed footprints in the snow from the scene to a house on the 1000 block of Laurel Avenue, where they found Withers, then 29, living with his mother and sisters. The prints from that burglary and a second case matched shoes Withers was wearing that day.
Withers’ home on Laurel, the criminal complaint filed Thursday noted, was 1.1 miles from Kuller’s home.
“[Withers’] name came up in ‘87, but they didn’t really have anything to link him to the crime,” Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Andrew R.K. Johnson said of Kuller’s case.
In 2010, clippings of Kuller’s fingernails were tested for DNA, and found to contain a mixture of DNA from two or more people. Withers, whose DNA was in the state’s database due to other criminal convictions, and a woman living in St. Cloud could not be ruled out as contributors.
In 2013, the Ramsey County attorney’s office declined to file charges against Withers or the woman due to insufficient evidence.
The county attorney’s office reopened the case in 2016. In March 2017, Y-chromosome profile tests on “various pieces of evidence,” including Kuller’s fingernail clippings, and found matches with Withers. Johnson said those results were just received by the county attorney’s office Monday.
“…it gave our office the confidence to conclusively eliminate the second female suspect who was considered in our prior review,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said.
Authorities do not believe the St. Cloud woman was involved; Johnson said her DNA just happened to match enough.
Mark Kuller called the police for years hoping for a break in the case, and witnessed close calls that failed to reach fruition. But he said he was glad authorities didn’t rush.
“It was a little frustrating … but they’re doing the right thing,” he said, “because if they didn’t have the right test, they couldn’t have solidified evidence and they couldn’t prosecute and get a conviction. It would actually be worse for us.”
Kuller grew up in the Chicago area, where her father had been relatively prosperous. But the Depression hit the family hard, and while still a teenager, Kuller, then Lillian Garmisa, began dancing professionally to help her father and mother feed 13 children.
She danced on Broadway alongside Buddy Ebsen and Eddie Cantor in the 1920s, and also danced with the Ziegfeld Follies. While dancing in Minneapolis, she met and later married Nate Kuller, whose family owned Minnesota Knitting Mills.
“I just remember going to her house, and her telling stories, and she was very, very elegant, very eclectic,” Mark Kuller said. “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.”
Kuller is survived by her daughter (her son, Mark Kuller’s father, is deceased), seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.