Wrong man convicted in 1957 murder
An Illinois prosecutor on Friday said that new evidence has persuaded him that a 75-year-old man was wrongly convicted in 2012 for the decades-old murder of a 7-year-old girl in the northern Illinois town of Sycamore.
Jack McCullough, a former cop in Washington state who was convicted in a bench trial for the abduction and killing of Maria Ridulph, had long insisted he wasn’t even in Sycamore, about 65 miles from Chicago, when Maria was abducted in December 1957. Her body was found in the nearby town of Galena five months later.
Newly found phone records and other evidence bolster McCullough’s defense that he was 35 miles from the small farm community at the time of Maria’s abduction, says DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack.
McCullough, who was 17 at the time of the incident, had long contended he was at a U.S. Air Force recruitment center in Rockford at the time of the abduction. He said he made a collect call home from a payphone at the Rockford post office asking for a ride home that supported his alibi.
The incident shook the community and captured national attention — even President Dwight Eisenhower took notice of it — as police and the FBI grappled with the case. When McCullough, who was living in the Seattle area, was charged in 2011, it was believed to have been the oldest cold case ever to go to trial.
“I know that there are people who will never believe that he is not responsible for the crime,” said Schmack, who announced his findings after completing a six-month review of the case that was spurred by McCullough’s push for a new trial.
“Many of these people are my neighbors in Sycamore. But I cannot allow that to sway me from my sworn duty to support the Constitution of the United States, the constitution of the state of Illinois, and to perform faithfully the primary duty of my office: ‘To seek justice, not merely to convict.’ ”
Police had interviewed McCullough, who previously went by the name John Tessier, soon after the killing and said his alibi had checked out. But the Illinois State Police reopened the case in 2010 after getting a tip from McCullough’s sister, Janet, who said their mother told her weeks before her death that McCullough had committed the crime.
McCullough is due to appear in court Tuesday in Sycamore, and Schmack said he will not oppose a defense motion to dismiss the conviction. Schmack said he believes that McCullough, who is serving his life sentence at a prison in Pontiac, Illinois, could be released “very soon.”
Schmack said that while the state’s attorney and FBI accepted McCullough’s alibi as they investigated Maria’s murder in 1957 and 1958, the judge in 2012 would not allow defense attorneys to present the evidence because it was derived from FBI documents or police reports that could not be substantiated by agents.
“Because all of the police officers were dead and you couldn’t call them as witnesses, you couldn’t introduce the police reports” under Illinois statute, Schmack said Friday after releasing his findings.
But Schmack, who did not head the state’s attorney’s office at the time of McCullough’s prosecution, said the judge failed to consider an “ancient documents exception” in state law that would have allowed the police reports to be considered.