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Prosecutor’s Investigation Results in Release of Illinois Prisoner Convicted in 1957 Cold Case

by Christopher Zoukis

Jack Daniel McCullough, a 76-year-old veteran and former police officer, was convicted in 2012 of the 1957 abduction and murder of a young girl in perhaps the oldest cold case in the nation to go to trial. He was sentenced to life in prison and his murder conviction was affirmed on appeal. See: People v. McCullough, 2015 IL App (2d) 121364, 38 N.E.3d 1 (Ill. App. Ct. 2d Dist. 2015).

But newly-elected Dekalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack was not convinced of McCullough’s guilt. Schmack embarked on a six-month review of the case, including reams of vintage police and FBI reports from the original investigation – most of which were not allowed into evidence during McCullough’s bench trial.

At the end of the review, Schmack concluded that McCullough’s alibi was legitimate and he could not have committed the crime. Noting that the state was “ethically compelled and constrained to admit the existence of clear and convincing evidence” establishing a defendant’s innocence, Schmack joined McCullough’s attorneys in seeking his immediate release.

Despite the rare agreement of both prosecutor and defense counsel, Judge William Brady initially refused to free McCullough in late March 2016. Acknowledging that he was “making this up as [he went] along,” the judge declined to grant McCullough’s release and ordered the attorneys to brief the case again and return in two weeks. “My courtroom, my rules,” Brady stated.

The disappearance of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph shocked the small town of Sycamore, Illinois. She had been kidnapped while playing near her home on the evening of December 3, 1957. Nearly three dozen FBI agents arrived in the town of 7,000, interviewing dozens of people and searching for evidence. It was not enough, however, as Maria’s body was found around five months later, over 100 miles from where she was abducted. The public attention surrounding her murder was so sensational that President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took personal interest in the case.

Despite the extensive investigation and media attention, no clues were found to connect anyone to the crime. No suspects were identified.

Over 50 years later, in a move that reeked of possible political calculation, State’s Attorney Clay Campbell acted on a 14-year-old deathbed statement made by McCullough’s mother that he had committed the crime, and indicted him. McCullough was charged despite having an alibi that placed him 40 miles away at the time of Maria’s abduction, which was reinforced by a record of a phone call he made at 6:57 p.m. the same day. A few weeks after McCullough was convicted, Schmack defeated Campbell in an election for State’s Attorney.

Although Schmack claimed the Illinois State Police and others had disregarded evidence pointing to McCullough’s innocence, Judge Brady noted that two other factors had to be taken into consideration.

First, Maria’s friend, Kathy Sigman Chapman, who was eight years old at the time of the abduction, testified that an old photo of McCullough matched the profile of the man who approached her and Maria on the night that Maria was taken, offering them piggyback rides. However, Chapman’s identification was made 52 years after the crime occurred. Her first attempt, just three weeks after the abduction, had been wrong. Despite efforts by McCullough’s attorney to present Chapman’s initial incorrect identification as part of his defense, the court excluded that evidence at trial.

The second factor was McCullough’s fellow prisoners at the DeKalb County Jail who testified against him. Initially, it was understood they had received no promises of leniency that would have given them an incentive to testify falsely, but two of the prisoners later claimed they had in fact received deals from prosecutors in exchange for their testimony. A third prisoner who testified against McCullough had since been deported.

Maria’s brother, Charles Ridulph, rejected claims of McCullough’s innocence. “I’ve gone over it and over it. I just don’t see that as a possibility,” he said. “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.”

Former State’s Attorney Campbell said that solving Maria Ridulph’s murder was his “life’s work.” But in court documents, Schmack and attorneys from the Exoneration Project asserted that Campbell “claimed falsely that [Maria] disappeared earlier than she actually had,” in an effort to defeat McCullough’s alibi. In the face of a solid alibi and prosecutorial misconduct due to evidence that had been withheld at trial, Schmack concluded that “Mr. McCullough’s conviction in the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph cannot stand.”

Judge Brady agreed, subsequently vacated McCullough’s conviction and released him on bond on April 15, 2016. Moments after his release, McCullough’s family “embraced and cried,” according to the Chicago Tribune. At the same time they demanded that the prosecutors and police officials who had wrongfully accused McCullough be held accountable. McCullough’s step-daughter, Janey O’Connor, said authorities had lied to Maria’s family and used their “family tragedy for their personal gain” in order “to further their own sick agenda.”

“I truly wish that this crime had been solved, and her true killer were incarcerated for life,” said State’s Attorney Schmack. “When I began this lengthy review I had expected to find some relevant evidence that the right man had been convicted. No such evidence could be discovered.” He called McCullough’s prosecution an “almost systematic concealment of the truth.”

When McCullough was released, his attorney, David Fuentes, said he appreciated “the courageous and independent actions of the prosecutor in this case, Mr. Richard Schmack, for having acknowledged the errors that were the basis of the Court’s decision today.”

According to a November 2016 CNN news report, the Illinois State Police are now considering another suspect in Maria Ridulph’s murder, while McCullough is seeking a formal certificate of innocence.

Schmack lost his re-election bid for State’s Attorney in November 2016; Charles Ridulph had urged local residents to vote against Schmack due to his efforts to have McCullough exonerated. A special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate whether misconduct by law enforcement officials, including perjury by a police detective, had contributed to McCullough’s wrongful conviction.

After numerous twists and turns in the case over more than half a century, the question remains: Who abducted and murdered 7-year-old Maria Ridulph?