Jack McCullough freed after conviction vacated in ’57 Sycamore murder
Jack McCullough reacts to Judge William Brady’s order to vacate his conviction in the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph in suburban Sycamore. April 15, 2016. (WGN-TV/Chicago Tribune)
Less than four years after Jack McCullough was convicted in what had been one of the oldest unsolved murder cases in the country to go to trial, he walked out of jail Friday — and he might never return.
In a startling turn of events sparked by a state’s attorney review of the case, a judge scrapped McCullough’s conviction and life sentence for the killing of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, of Sycamore, in 1957.
Citing issues with an inmate’s testimony and the exclusion of evidence at McCullough’s 2012 trial, DeKalb County Judge William Brady ordered a new trial for McCullough, 76, who’d lived in the Seattle area before his arrest in 2011.
McCullough, in handcuffs, appeared overcome with emotion in the seconds after Brady vacated the conviction and ordered his release on bond. McCullough’s family embraced and cried, while on the other side of the courtroom, Maria’s brother and sister remained stoic.
Moments after the hearing, McCullough’s step-daughter said prosecutors and police who brought the case against McCullough should be punished. Someday, Janey O’Connor said, she hopes that Maria Ridulph’s family accepts the decision.
Authorities “lied” to the girl’s brother, Charles Ridulph, when they told him of their case against McCullough, she said.
“They used his family tragedy for their personal gain,” she said.
Less than two hours later, O’Connor drove McCullough from the DeKalb County Jail. His destination was unknown.
McCullough is required to stay in Illinois. For now he remains charged with the crime but a future prosecution seems unlikely, based on previous comments from DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack.
Charles Ridulph is fighting the decision to release McCullough, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former police officer who was arrested after investigators reopened the case.
On Friday afternoon, Ridulph said he was “shocked” by the ruling and rejects the notion that McCullough is innocent.
“I’ve gone over it and over it,” he said. “I just don’t see that as a possibility.”
Ridulph, of Sycamore, has asked the court to appoint a special prosecutor in the case. At Brady’s direction, Ridulph said he has hired an attorney, Bruce Brandwein, to represent his court effort. He was holding out hope that Schmack, who in March filed court papers contending McCullough was wrongly convicted, would allow the special prosecutor to take on the case.
“If Richard Schmack is so convinced of (McCullough’s) innocence, he should be open to a special prosecutor so there’s not any hint of impropriety,” Ridulph said.
He said he was not confident the case would be retried in light of Friday’s ruling and the passage of time.
“I just don’t see it happening,” Ridulph said. “It was hard to begin with.”
Brady set a hearing for Friday to consider the special prosecutor request, and noted his decision was not a declaration of McCullough’s innocence.
“I don’t get to retry the case from where I sit,” the judge said at the hearing.
Maria Ridulph was kidnapped Dec. 3, 1957, after playing near her home. Her disappearance led to an intensive search that included FBI agents, who sent daily reports to Director J. Edgar Hoover. Five months later her body was found in northwest Illinois.
Investigators at the time questioned McCullough, then a resident of the same Sycamore neighborhood as the Ridulphs and known as John Tessier. But authorities determined he was in Rockford near the time of the abduction and would have been unable to travel between there and Sycamore to commit the crime. In the 1980s McCullough was charged with statutory rape and accused of assaulting a 14-year-old girl but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
McCullough was arrested after a friend of Maria’s, an eyewitness, identified him. Kathy Chapman testified that an old photo of McCullough was a match for the man who approached her and Maria the night the child disappeared.
It’s unlikely Schmack will mount a second prosecution, but he did not commit to that on Friday afternoon.
“We are likely to file another motion after a review of the judge’s ruling,” he said, declining to elaborate.
One option available to Schmack would be a request to dismiss charges against McCullough, considering Schmack has said he believes McCullough is innocent. If the judge dismisses the request to appoint a special prosecutor and Schmack dismisses charges, the case against McCullough would end — unless a different state’s attorney rejected Schmack’s effort and decided to file charges again.
After starting his review of the case last year, Schmack rejected his predecessor’s decision to prosecute. In turning against the 2012 conviction obtained by then-State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, Schmack said Illinois State Police and other authorities disregarded evidence. Schmack also said a timeline laid out by witnesses and phone records left no chance that McCullough could have been at the scene of Maria’s abduction.
Brady cited that in his decision Friday. But he said two other factors were more prominent.
Chapman, who had been with Maria Ridulph shortly before she was abducted, had misidentified someone other than McCullough in a lineup in 1957 as the person who had approached them. When the case was reopened in 2011, Chapman was shown a photo lineup and identified McCullough as Maria’s kidnapper.
Brady said the false identification in 1957 should have been made known during McCullough’s trial. McCullough’s public defender had tried to introduce it but another judge barred the evidence.
In addition, the judge said information concerning McCullough’s fellow inmates in the DeKalb County Jail also played a role in his decision. Inmates testified against McCullough at trial and the court was told they did so with no promises of leniency. But one of the inmates now says he had a quid pro quo arrangement with prosecutors.
An appeals court upheld the 2012 murder conviction, but McCullough’s assertions of innocence gained new life last month with Schmack’s announcement of his investigation.
“The Ridulph family has no doubt suffered mightily in this matter, but innocence has suffered as well,” McCullough’s attorney, Gabriel Fuentes, wrote in a motion filed this week.
On Friday, Fuentes in a prepared statement said McCullough is “pleased that the Court undertook a very careful and thoughtful analysis of the issues he presented in his petitions.”
“The Court’s granting of his petitions was a very positive step for him,” Fuentes said, “as was his release today on bail. Mr. McCullough also appreciates the courageous and independent actions of the prosecutor in this case, Mr. Richard Schmack, for having acknowledged the errors that were the basis for the Court’s decision today.”
Clifford Ward is a freelance reporter. Tribune reporter Ted Gregory contributed.
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