March 16, 2017 01:59 PM
New DNA evidence in a 30-year old St. Paul cold case has resulted in second-degree murder charges against a convicted burglar now serving time in state prison, Ramsey County authorities announced Thursday.
Authorities said 81-year-old Lillian Kuller was killed on Jan. 31, 1987, and was found in her 1290 Goodrich Avenue home the following day. The case went cold until Ramsey County authorities said they've now linked DNA evidence to Michael Anthony Withers, 58. He was scheduled to be released from prison in Stillwater in October 2017.
Kuller was found by a tenant who lived upstairs around 1 a.m. Feb. 1, 1987, and who told police the door was ajar and a window opened.
Police told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS at the time there was evidence someone was in the house overnight, but there were "no signs of forced entry."
Neighbors told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they didn't hear anything. Kuller was described as "extremely independent" and lived alone, but she was in "poor health."
At a press conference about the charges Thursday, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Withers couldn't be charged earlier due to insufficient evidence. Withers' name had come up in the 1987 investigation, but authorities couldn't link him to the crime.
The St. Paul Police Department took a second look at the case in 2010 in an effort to reopen cold cases. Withers was considered at the time, but when it came to Choi's office on Feb. 11, 2013, he said there was not enough evidence to file charges.
Around the same time, Choi said his office began to take a look at "unsolved crimes that couldn't be charged due to insufficient evidence," which is an effort that continues today.
"I really believe that fresh eyes and perspective can make a big difference in these cold cases and in our pursuit of justice," Choi said. "In this case, further forensic testing within the past year developed more confirmation (of) Michael Withers and his presence at the crime scene in 1987."
Choi also said the DNA evidence eliminated a second female suspect who was considered in the earlier review of the case.
"We are now able to bring forward criminal charges and seek justice for our community, Lillian Kuller and her family," Choi said. "I couldn't be more please for this outcome and what it now means to Lillian Kuller's family."
Choi thanked all those involved with the investigation for their work.
Kuller's grandson, who was a teenager at the time of the incident, spoke during the news conference, saying, "It's been a long time coming and it's a great relief to myself and my whole family to have the police and the cold case team and everybody involved working so hard and diligently to have this come to fruition."
He added, "I can't wait for (Withers) ... to get justice that's deserved."
Withers' first court appearance is scheduled for March 24.
Withers is serving a sentence in Stillwater for two instances of burglary in 2013.
On March 14, 2014, Withers entered the guilty plea and said in court that he was homeless. He told the judge he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and on medication for awhile, but Withers also said in court he is able to make decisions, according to the court transcript.
A criminal complaint details the following:
Police were called to an apartment building on the 880 block of Grand Avenue in St. Paul at 6:20 p.m. in December 2013 on a report of a burglary in process. When officers arrived, Withers was discovered in the building, and he fled through the building's back door. Officers caught up to him and he was arrested. Withers was searched and found to be carrying a garbage bag containing a significant amount of coins, four wrist watches and a necklace.
While officers were responding to the call at the Grand Avenue apartment building, another call came in from a residence on the 90 block of South Victoria Street, one block away from the Grand Avenue apartment building. Those living at the Victoria Street residence told police that between 5:30 and 6 p.m., they heard a noise like someone rummaging through their back bedroom. The residents found a footprint and boxes of jewelry on the bed and the room's window left open with the screen pried off.
Officers matched the footprints at both locations, and other residences in the area, to the tread pattern on Withers' shoes.
According to court documents, Withers has been convicted of burglary previously.
He has nine prior felony convictions, including five first- and second-degree burglary convictions. Withers has two additional felony convictions for receiving stolen property and first-degree aggravated robbery.
Withers had other burglary run-ins and pleaded guilty to two separate cases in 2006 in Ramsey County.
On Nov. 1, 2006, Withers appeared in a Ramsey County court to plead guilty to aggravated robbery in the first-degree and false imprisonment for an incident on Dec. 8, 2005.
In a court transcript, Withers admitted to going with his son to rob a West 7th Street Subway sandwich shop with a gun. He admitted he got about $300 in the heist.
His son confined one of the workers within a freezer, Withers admitted in court.
According to court transcripts, the lawyer said, "(Withers) does not want to risk the possibility of career criminal penalties if he goes to trial. That's one of the reasons he wants to go forward today."
The judge did say there was a pursuit of an alibi, but his "sister couldn't remember certain timeframes or dates. Although you and her both believe you were together, you couldn't put it together to the point where she could testify under oath as to exactly what happened."
The judge said he "wasn't comfortable" and "didn't want to present" the alibi, believing a "jury would not look kindly upon" it.
Withers admitted he was one of the people present at the robbery, and two female workers at the Subway had identified him.
However, Withers said he believed he had good cross-examinations, since the women did not identify a scar on his head or "some indications about (his) nose," according to the court transcript.
"Putting the 12 people in the box, they would have to find you guilty unanimously; you understand that?" the judge asked.
"I understand," Withers replied.
On Nov. 9, 2006, just days later, Withers pleaded guilty to one count of burglary in the first degree in a Jan. 11, 2006, case on the 500 block of Lincoln Avenue in St. Paul.
Withers admitted he was in the apartment without permission of the owner, entering through a window.
He admitted to stealing earrings, and the resident walked into the home during the incident.
In the court transcript, Withers acknowledges the aforementioned burglary case before a different Ramsey Court judge.
The two sentences were to be served concurrently.
Theresa Malloy & Rebecca Omastiak
Updated: March 16, 2017 01:59 PM
Created: March 16, 2017 10:51 AM
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