Harmony Kuller refused to believe it when she answered the phone at her family's home on Feb. 1, 1987 and the caller identified himself as a St. Paul police officer.
"Yeah, right," she said. "Which one of my brother's friends is calling?"
That's when the officer broke the grim news: Her 81-year-old grandmother, Lillian Kuller, had been murdered.
For the next three decades, Kuller's family wondered who did it and why. After a 31-year wait, they finally got some answers Friday as serial burglar Michael A. Withers pleaded guilty to killing Kuller during a burglary.
But their justice was tinged with anger as Withers recounted details that contradicted police evidence.
"He's a liar," granddaughter Patti Seal said after the hearing.
Withers, 60, pleaded guilty in Ramsey County District Court to second-degree murder without intent and agreed to a prison sentence of 20 years. A count of second-degree murder with intent was dismissed as part of the plea.
Although Withers admitted to strangling Kuller, a widow, he testified in court that she let him into her home when he posed as a UPS deliveryman. He said he searched for items to steal as she looked for a pen to sign for the bogus package he had brought with him.
Kuller confronted him and swore at him, Withers said under questioning by Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Andrew R.K. Johnson.
"She started hitting me, pushing me," Withers said in court. "We wrestled."
Withers testified that he grabbed her and eventually pushed her into a bedroom and squeezed her neck with his hands. "I put my hands basically around her neck," Withers said. "When I left I, thought she was still alive. …"
He repeatedly denied ransacking her unit in a duplex despite Johnson's attempts to elicit that confession.
Harmony Kuller, Seal and a third granddaughter, Cindy Brill, said after the hearing that they believe Withers broke into the home and ransacked it. Kuller was suspicious of opening the door for anyone, even her own family, they said.
Authorities found an open window in the study and drawers left on the very bed where Kuller's upstairs neighbors found her body with a pillow covering her face.
County attorney spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein on Friday called Withers' testimony "frustrating." His scenario "differs greatly from what the prosecution believes took place," but his plea provided enough evidence to close the case, Gerhardstein said.
The granddaughters weren't surprised to hear that Kuller, a Chicago native who danced on Broadway and in the Ziegfeld Follies, fought back despite her "petite" stature.
"She was a fighter," said Brill. "Feisty."
"No holds barred," said Harmony Kuller.
Police identified Withers in 1987 as a person of interest in Kuller's death, but he eluded them for years even as he committed several burglaries as recently as 2013 within 2 miles of the crime scene. Withers lived a mile from Kuller's home on the 1200 block of Goodrich Avenue.
Two months after her murder, he broke into someone's home nearby and stabbed the resident with a screwdriver.
"It just seemed hopeless," Seal said of the years her family waited for answers.
There was more heartache.
One of Kuller's grandsons was investigated as a suspect because his fingerprints were found in her home. Her granddaughters said he cared for Kuller. He died three years after his grandmother. Kuller's son also died never knowing that her killer would eventually be brought to justice with the help of DNA evidence.
"It's just like something … out of the Twilight Zone," Harmony Kuller said of the case.
Withers was charged with Kuller's death in March 2017, the same month DNA test results showed that Y-chromosome profile tests on "various pieces of evidence," including Kuller's fingernail clippings, were linked to him. He was in prison at the time for two unrelated burglaries.
Kuller's granddaughters credited St. Paul police and retired Sgt. Anita Muldoon with breaking the case, and urged police to find a way to fund dedicated cold case investigations.
Sgt. Mike Ernster, a police spokesman, said grant funding that supported a dedicated cold case investigator ran out several years ago. However, he said, cold cases remain assigned to homicide investigators, and police are looking for new funding for a dedicated cold case investigator.
Asked if she had any words for Withers, Harmony Kuller said she would reserve her statements for his scheduled sentencing on Oct. 30.
"It haunted me because I took that call," she said. "It will never let go of me."
Kuller is survived by her daughter, several grandchildren and great grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708