Grayling man awaits pending court ruling in Crawford County open murder case
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
A Grayling man bludgeoned a 46-year-old woman, who he had lived with and had children with, using a can of yams in early December, causing her death, according to police. John Robert O’Connor, 55, appeared in Crawford County District Court for a daylong preliminary examination on Friday, Feb. 9. O’Connor is accused of killing Michelle Kukulski on Thursday, Dec. 7. They had lived together for 29 years, and had three children. The couple was estranged when the incident occurred.
Larry Farley, who said he had been dating Kukulski for seven months and had been living together, said she left home that morning to go to O’Connor’s home. When she did not return, Farley became concerned and made phone calls and sent her text messages. Over the next few days, Farley looked for Kukulski’s van at her place of work and establishments in Grayling and Roscommon. He thought she may have spent the weekend at her mother’s with Kukulski’s daughter.
Farley’s anxiety peaked when Kukulski’s son, Chris Kukulski, showed up at his home on Monday, Dec. 11.
“That’s when it set in that something wasn’t right,” Farley testified.
Chris Kukulski filed a missing person’s report with the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office. Deputy John Klepladlo and Frank Foguth, a parole officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections in Crawford County, went to Farley’s residence. Farley was released from prison last year after serving 28 years for kidnapping. Officers searched Farley’s garage, home, and the bedroom he shared with Kukulski.
Deputy Ryan Finstrom from the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office made the first contact with O’Connor on Monday, Dec. 11. He said he talked with O’Connor for 20 to 30 minutes. He told Finstrom that Kukulski was there on Thursday, and helped fold some of their daughter’s clothes and cleaned her room. Finstrom described O’Connor as chatty and told him she was known for leaving the area and not having contact with others.
“He repeated that quite a bit,” Finstrom said.
Charles “Chuck” Spanielewski, O’Connor’s son in law, received a text on Saturday, Dec. 9, informing that his truck had broken down and he was at Big Boy Restaurant near the Baldwin Commons Shopping Center in Orion Township.
O’Connor claimed he was downstate to pick up a part for his home. Spanielewski said he did not notice the truck in the parking lot because he was told it was towed. He said he did not second guess O’Connor’s presence in the area.
“We didn’t question it,” Spanielewski said. “He’s the type of person that would come downstate to save a buck or to see his family.”
After getting some rest, Spanielewski, and his wife, Jamie, drove O’Connor back to his home. The couple left on Sunday evening.
Deputy Mike Miles from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office noticed a van on Monday, Dec. 11, near the back of the mall’s parking lot. He did not question it at first since employees were there for the holiday season. Miles ran the plate van the second night after the van was covered with snow on Tuesday, Dec. 12.
“It was quite a way out there,” Miles said. “That’s what caught my interest.”
Miles ran the plate and learned that the van was flagged through the Law Enforcement Information Network and linked to a Crawford County missing persons case. The van was towed from the scene.
Deputy Robert Charlton, a forensic investigative specialist from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, took photos inside and outside of the van after gaining access to the locked vehicle. He noted that the driver’s seat was moved all the way back, indicating a taller person was in the vehicle. O’Connor is six feet and three inches tall, compared to Kukulski, who was described as being five foot six inches tall.
Charlton discovered blood on a floor mat near the back of the van. He also found carpet that was soaked with blood. He cut away the carpet and sent it to the Michigan State Police Crime Lab.
O’Connor’s home was placed under surveillance by the Michigan State Police’s Fugitive Team and Strike Investigative Narcotics Team.
A search warrant was issued for O’Connor’s home and his vehicles on Wednesday, Dec. 13. A member of the surveillance team notified sheriff’s office investigators that O’Connor drove away from his property heading north on Chase Bridge Road.
Police made a traffic stop on O’Connor’s vehicle with lights flashing near the intersection of M-72 East and Chase Bridge Road. Deputy Michael Dekun and Deputy Shawn Schnoor and Klepladlo approached O’Connor with guns drawn, ordering him to show his hands and get out of the truck.
Dekun handcuffed O’Connor and searched him for weapons.
“He was very cooperative. There was no resistance,” Dekun said. “He responded just fine.”
The deputies said that they drew their guns and took O’Connor into custody for their safety. They also said the vehicle was listed as part of the search warrant even though it was not on his property.
Don Sommerfeld Jr., O’Connor’s defense, questioned which traffic law or authority the police had to pull the truck over.
O’Connor was then taken to the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office for questioning.
O’Connor initially told investigators that Kukulski tripped over a dog and fell while walking from the home into a garage, according to police. He then said he fell on top of Kukulski, which caused her neck to break.
After more information came in regarding the discovery of the van and the blood, Klepadlo and Detective Lt. John McDonald, from the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office, interviewed O’Connor a second time. It was then O’Connor said he snapped, hit Kukulski in the head with a can of yams, and struck her again several times after she fell.
O’Connor was read his Miranda Rights, the constitutional rights which protects citizen from self-incrimination, before both interviews, according to police.
Klepadlo and McDonald took O’Connor to the area in Oscoda County where he claimed to have left Kukulski’s body. The search ended after a couple of hours due to darkness and chilly temperatures.
Trooper Kris Mikowski, a K-9 handler from the Cadillac Post of the Michigan State Police, discovered Kukulski’s body about 10 minutes after reconvening the search on Thursday, Dec. 14. She said Kukulski has several lacerations to her face and head.
O’Connor was arrested that day and was arraigned in the Crawford County District Court on a charge of open murder. O’Connor faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, if convicted. He is also being charged with dead bodies disinterment and mutilation, a 10-year felony, for moving Kukulski’s body from the location of her death.
Klepadlo said McDonald found the can of yams in a burn barrel behind O’Connor’s home after sifting through some freshly fallen snow with a stick. Deputies searched the area where Kukulski’s cell phone signal was last recorded. Klepadlo said O’Connor took the phone apart and threw pieces out the window as he drove downstate. O’Connor planned on taking Kukulski downstate, but changed his mind when he left southbound I-75 near Standish. He then headed north and left the body off of Mapes Road in Oscoda County by a forest service trail road.
During the hearing on Friday, Sommerfeld questioned the submission of evidence given by O’Connor after he was pulled over and taken into custody. He said he would further address the admissibility of the evidence given by O’Connor as the case against him developed and more information was obtained.
“If that is the case, that taints the confession elicited by the police officers even though Mr. O’Conner did voluntarily hand sign his Miranda rights,” Sommerfeld argued.
Monte Burmeister, the chief judge of Probate and District Court for Crawford County, said the police had the right to take sudden action to pull over O’Connor’s vehicle to preserve the integrity of the evidence which may have been in the truck. He said he would issue a written opinion or set a separate hearing to address transferring the case to the Crawford County Circuit Court for a jury trial.
Burmeister noted that there was no premeditation and or attempt by O’Connor to ambush Kukulski as he considers which elements in the murder law to hone in on before binding the case over for trial.
“Obviously, I do not want to take a tremendous amount time to render a decision since this a criminal case, but there are issues that are significant enough that I want to give this a thorough analysis,” Burmeister said.