Open murder case against Grayling man is bound over to circuit court for trial
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
A Grayling man who allegedly bludgeoned a 46-year-old woman using a can of yams was bound over to face continued criminal proceedings in Crawford County’s 46th Circuit Court.
Monte J. Burmeister, the chief judge of Probate and District Court for Crawford County, ruled that there was probable cause for John Robert O’Connor, 55, to face a jury trial following a hearing held in Crawford County District Court on Feb. 27.
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.
A preliminary exam was held for the case on Feb. 9.
Burmeister laid the groundwork for his analysis and decision in an hour long hearing last week.
According to previous testimony, Kukulski went to O’Connor’s home on Dec. 7 to retrieve some items for their daughter. During her time at the residence, she helped fold her daughter’s cloths and cleaned her room.
O’Connor claimed Kukulski left heading north on Chase Bridge Road. He told Crawford County Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Finstrom that she may have gone to some friends’ home on McMasters Bridge Road. Finstrom checked in with the friends, who said they had not been in contact with Kukulski.
Chris Kukulski filed a missing person’s report with the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office on Monday, Dec. 11, regarding the disappearance of his mother.
Deputy John Klepladlo obtained records for Michelle Kukulski’s cell phone, indicating it was last used in an area about six miles from O’Connor’s home. Police conducted a search in that area, but found no evidence.
Charles “Chuck” Spanielewski, O’Connor’s son-in-law, received a text on Saturday, Dec. 9, informing him that O’Connor’s truck had broken down. O’Connor was at Big Boy Restaurant near the Baldwin Commons Shopping Center in Clarkston. O’Connor claimed he was downstate to pick up a part for his home.
Spanielewski, and his wife, Jamie, drove O’Connor back to his home. The couple left on Sunday evening.
Spanielewski testified that O’Connor urged him to park his vehicle inside his garage due to snowy weather. O’Connor’s truck was not there at the time.
But when Finstrom talked with O’Connor on Monday, Dec. 11, the truck was located in the garage. O’Connor told Finstrom that Kukulski was known for leaving the area and not having contact with others.
Burmeister noted that statement contradicted information obtained by Klepadlo from Kukulski’s sister, Susan, asserting that Michelle always contacted family when she left the area.
Deputy Mike Miles from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office noticed a van on Monday, Dec. 11, near the shopping center. On Tuesday, Dec. 12, Miles ran the license plate of the van after observing that it was still there now covered in snow.
Miles 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 feet four inches tall.
Crawford County Sheriff’s deputies made a traffic stop on O’Connor’s vehicle with lights flashing near the intersection of M-72 East and Chase Bridge Road on Wednesday, Dec. 13. Deputy Michael Dekun, Deputy Shawn Schnoor, and Klepladlo approached O’Connor with guns drawn, ordering him to show his hands and get out of the truck.
Addressing arguments made by O’Connor’s defense attorney Don Sommerfeld Jr. regarding police procedures, Burmeister said there was no question that O’Connor was under arrest when he was placed in handcuffs. He was also told he was being taken back to the sheriff’s office for questioning.
“Clearly, he was under arrest,” Burmeister said. “Whenever you are placed in handcuffs, you are under arrest.”
Citing several established case laws, Burmeister said the deputies had the probable cause to arrest O’Connor as a suspect for unlawfully driving away an automobile since he drove Kukulski’s van from the crime scene. Further, the judge deemed that they 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 or his potential attempt to flee the area. Finally, Burmeister noted that police knew where Kukulski’s cell phone was last in service near O’Connor’s home, knew the van had been located, and the position that the driver’s seat was in when it searched by investigators. Those points created a circumstantial case and reasonable belief that O’Connor was involved with Kukulski’s disappearance.
“This was all information that they had known before the point they made the arrest,” Burmeister said.
O’Connor was read his Miranda Rights, the constitutional rights which protect citizen from self-incrimination, before three interviews with investigators.
Burmeister noted that O’Connor was provided appropriate treatment while he was at the sheriff’s office and was given food and beverages. He was also given the opportunity to smoke a cigarette in a storage area located by the sheriff’s office.
During that time with police, O’Connor claimed Kukulski tripped over a dog and fell while walking from the home into a garage. He then said he fell on top of Kukulski, which caused her neck to break.
After more information came in regarding the van and the blood in the vehicle, 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.
Burmeister ruled that information was relevant to binding over the case, along with an admission O’Connor gave Chris Kukulski while he visited him at the jail. Chris testified that O’Connor said: “I’m sorry that I hurt a lot of people. He said he regretted what happened, but had gotten angry, and didn’t remember all of what happened.”
Police on Wednesday, Dec. 13, searched an area on in Oscoda County, where O’Connor said he hid Kulkuski’s body.
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 had 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 disinterment and mutilation of a dead body, 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.
Klepadlo said O’Connor took Kukulski’s cell phone apart and threw pieces out the window as he drove downstate.
Based on testimony from Klepadlo regarding Kukulski’s autopsy and photos admitted into evidence, Burmeister concluded her injuries were consistent with blunt force trauma.
A number of Kukulski’s family attended the hearing last week.
Kukulski’s mother, Jean, said she is pleased that the most stringent charge that O’Connor is facing was upheld.
“I’m just happy with the judge’s findings,” Jean said regarding the count of open murder.