There’s no doubt someone murdered Paul Gruber, hid his body, then impersonated the wealthy retiree to loot his home and bank accounts, prosecutor Scott James told a jury Wednesday.
“Do you want to know who that fake Paul Gruber is?,” James said. “It’s the person whose DNA is on the (postage) stamps, whose handwriting is on those checks.
“This is the fake Paul Gruber and the real murderer in this case,” he said, pointing at Darryl Kuehl, who faces a possible death sentence for the 1994 killing.
“That’s a lie!” Kuehl shouted.
The outburst startled jurors. Kuehl, 46, didn’t testify on his own behalf during the nearly four-week trial in 1st District Court.
The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated about four hours Wednesday before being sequestered for the night.
Gruber, 53, was shot at least three times in his Muskrat Lake home. His body was wrapped in a plastic air mattress and buried four feet under his house. The victim’s relatives reported him missing, but it was 17 months before authorities found his remains.
To conceal Gruber’s death, authorities said Kuehl impersonated him, replaced bloody carpet in his home, collected his mail, paid bills and even sent Gruber’s relatives greeting cards. One card went to Gruber’s daughter, Shellie Kepley, who lives out of state.
Detectives saved the card and examined the dried glue and saliva on the licked postage stamp for DNA evidence. It matched the DNA in a blood sample drawn from Kuehl.
A handwriting expert also verified the card was written and signed by Kuehl, as were more than a dozen checks.
“After he cold-bloodedly killed Paul Gruber, he stole his car, his boat, his truck … and forged checks, just so he could keep the charade alive to keep looting the man he killed,” James told jurors in his closing argument.
Kuehl’s attorneys maintain the defendant never met the real Paul Gruber.
It was an impostor, they said, who gave Kuehl thousands of dollars, a boat, truck, and other property belonging to Gruber. It was a plan to “frame” Kuehl for Gruber’s death when and if authorities discovered the body.
“Darryl and Paul did not associate with each other, and he (Darryl) did not kill him,” said defense attorney Brent Featherston.
He suggested Gruber was attacked by a burglar. Instead, police focused on Kuehl, who has no criminal record, ignoring other leads.
“This case is riddled with questions,” Featherston said. James disagreed. The assistant attorney general said the evidence points to Kuehl, a man who was down on his luck and living with friends because he had no money. Kuehl wanted Gruber to invest in one of his bogus companies, James said.
Bullets found in Gruber’s body were fired through a silencer possessed by Kuehl, and Kuehl talked to his cellmate after being arrested about his desire to escape and kill the detectives investigating the case, James said.
The cellmate knew details about the murder no one but the killer would, the prosecutor said, such as the color of the air mattress Gruber’s body was buried in. In other prosecution evidence, the jury saw a videotape of Kuehl picking up Gruber’s mail at the post office after he was killed. The action was captured by a hidden camera.
A search of Kuehl’s home turned up dozens of items missing from Gruber’s residence, including a 25-foot boat, a truck, tools, televisions, videos and a cellular telephone.
“This was an intentionally deliberate act, not an accident,” James said. “Accidents don’t get shot four times. Accidents don’t get buried under the house.
“The evidence in this case is too strong not to convict. The family is entitled to it, the defendant deserves it, and justice demands it.”