Judge Vacates Conviction of Man Accused of 1957 Killing of Illinois Girl

The New York Times
APRIL 15, 2016

CHICAGO — A 76-year-old man who a prosecutor says was wrongly convicted in the 1957 killing of an Illinois schoolgirl was released from prison Friday shortly after a judge vacated his conviction, meaning one of the oldest cold cases tried in the nation’s history has officially gone cold again.

Jack McCullough, was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 in the death of Maria Ridulph, 7, in Sycamore, about 70 miles west of Chicago. In a review of documents last year, a prosecutor found evidence that supported Mr. McCullough’s alibi that he had been 40 miles away at the time of the girl’s disappearance.

Judge William P. Brady said Friday that the abduction and slaying had haunted the small town of Sycamore for decades.

“I’m not blind to the importance of this proceeding to many people,” he said, minutes before ordering Mr. McCullough’s release.

Mr. McCullough, in handcuffs, appeared shaken by the decision. Family members behind him hugged and cried. Moments later, Mr. McCullough looked back, winked and smiled broadly.

On the other side of the room, the brother and sister of the victim displayed little emotion.

Hours later, Mr. McCullough’s stepdaughter, Janey O’Connor, drove him from a jail near the courthouse. Mr. McCullough, wearing street clothes, grinned at reporters from the back seat. His request for a first meal out of prison, Ms. O’Connor said in a telephone interview later, was for pepperoni pizza.

Ms. O’Connor said she was convinced of her stepfather’s innocence from the start.

“Jack was just a normal person doing his grandpa thing, and this happened to him,” she said.

She said Mr. McCullough had studied Japanese while in prison and wanted to travel to Japan.

The DeKalb County state’s attorney, Richard Schmack, who pushed hard for Mr. McCullough’s release, told Judge Brady earlier that his office would not prosecute Mr. McCullough if a retrial were ordered. He said prosecutors were fully convinced of Mr. McCullough’s innocence.

Mr. Schmack, who was elected as state’s attorney as Mr. McCullough’s 2012 trial was coming to an end, filed a scathing report with the court last month. He had conducted a six-month review of evidence, including newly discovered telephone records, and his report picked apart, point by point, the case against Mr. McCullough.

Maria’s brother, Charles Ridulph, 70, said at the hearing that he would continue to push for a special prosecutor to take over the case. Judge Brady will consider that motion on April 22.

Mr. McCullough, a retired police officer, who was living in the Seattle area when he was arrested, was released on a bond and is not allowed to leave Illinois until the state attorney announces a formal decision on a retrial.

Maria’s disappearance made headlines nationwide in the 1950s, when reports of child abductions were rare.

She had been playing outside in the snow with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, when a young man approached, introduced himself as “Johnny” and offered them piggyback rides. Maria’s friend dashed home to grab mittens, and when she came back, Maria and the man were gone.

Hikers found her remains five months later.

At his trial four years ago, prosecutors said Mr. McCullough was the man who called himself Johnny in 1957, noting that he went by the name John Tessier in his youth. They said Mr. McCullough, then 18, dragged Maria away, choked and stabbed her to death.

Mr. McCullough has maintained his innocence throughout, saying he had been in Rockford, Ill., trying to enlist with the Air Force on the night Maria disappeared.

New phone records, Mr. Schmack said, helped prove Mr. McCullough had made a collect call to his parents at 6:57 p.m. from a phone booth in downtown Rockford, which is 40 miles northwest of where Maria was abducted between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m.

Mr. McCullough, who was born in Belfast, Ireland, came to the United States with his mother in 1946. Mr. McCullough served four years in the Air Force and 10 years in the Army, including a stint in Vietnam, and rose to the rank of captain.

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