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Prosecutor wants conviction tossed for 1957 slaying of 7-year-old

Jack Daniel McCullough in a 2013 photo during a Sun-Times prison interview.| Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

Charles Ridulph was on his way to deliver a sermon at a local nursing home Friday morning, when he got the email that he’d been dreading.

Five years after learning a man had finally been charged in the 1957 kidnapping and murder of his 7-year-old sister, Maria Ridulph, the pastor heard this: Jack Daniel McCullough didn’t do it after all.

In a stunning twist to the case that brought national attention to the small, rural town of Sycamore, 70 miles west of Chicago, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack announced, after a six-month review, that the case against McCullough had been built on “clearly inaccurate testimony” and “misleading presentations.”

“I truly wish that this crime had really been solved, and her true killer were incarcerated for life,” Schmack said in a three-page statement. “When I began this lengthy review, I had expected to find some reliable evidence that the right man had been convicted. No such evidence could be discovered. Compounding the tragedy by convicting the wrong man, and fighting further in the hopes of keeping him jailed, is not the proper legacy for our community, or for the memory of Maria Ridulph.”

Schmack also said “newly discovered” pay phone records prove McCullough, now 76, wasn’t in Sycamore at the time Maria Ridulph disappeared.

“You talk about shock and wondering what to do,” said an incredulous Charles Ridulph, who still lives in Sycamore. “Back [in 2012], we had a state’s attorney’s office working with us and for us and keeping us informed. Now we have a state’s attorney office working against.”

Ridulph, who said he still believes McCullough to be his sister’s killer, said he was shocked but not surprised by Schmack’s decision. During a meeting several months ago with Schmack, DeKalb County’s top prosecutor strongly suggested McCullough’s innocence, Ridulph said.

McCullough was convicted in September 2012 in the notorious murder — considered possibly the oldest cold case prosecuted in the United States.

He didn’t testify during his trial but at his sentencing, he protested that he never harmed Ridulph, who vanished on Dec. 3, 1957, after being approached by a stranger while she played with a friend near her home.

Ridulph disappeared after her 8-year-old friend briefly left to get her mittens, leaving her alone with the young man, who had introduced himself to the children as “Johnny.” Ridulph’s body was found five months later in a cluster of woods near Galena. McCullough, then an 18-year-old named John Tessier, lived around the corner from Ridulph in Sycamore, a small DeKalb County farm town of 5,000 residents.

McCullough, serving a life sentence at Pontiac Correctional Center, has long maintained that he was in Rockford, placing a collect call to his parents in Sycamore, when Ridulph disappeared. And newly obtained phone records prove McCullough’s alibi, Schmack said Friday.

Maria Ridulph | File photo
Maria Ridulph | File photo

Schmack also criticized the photo lineup used to identify McCullough in 1957 as “suggestive in the extreme,” pointing out that McCullough’s picture was more like a casual snapshot, while the other men were captured in “professional yearbook” images.

And Schmack goes on to say, “Thousands of pages of improperly excluded police reports more than 20 years old contain a wealth of information pointing to McCullough’s innocence, and absolutely nothing showing his guilt.”

Schmack didn’t charge McCullough. Then-DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, who filed the murder charge, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Campbell has previously said he would never have charged McCullough if FBI records or other information exonerated him.

“I wasn’t interested in prosecuting someone who wasn’t guilty,” Campbell told the Sun-Times in 2013.

Paul Glaser, who represented McCullough during his unsuccessful appeal, praised Schmack’s decision.

“I’m very happy for Jack,” said Glaser, an Elgin attorney. “I wish this could have happened earlier in the appeal. It’s amazing what the state’s attorney has done here. He took seriously his obligation to represent all the people of the State of Illinois and seek justice. He should be applauded for that.”

McCullough is expected in be court in Sycamore Tuesday, when a judge is likely to appoint him a lawyer to respond to Schmack’s filing.

Susan McCullough, Jack McCullough’s wife of 23 years, lives in the Seattle neighborhood of Bitter Lake. She has a “bucket” of letters she’s received from her husband since his arrest five years ago.

She said she’s only visited him once in five years because “it’s really expensive to get there.” She said she always knew he was innocent.

“He told me in the very beginning, if I wanted to divorce him and change my name, that it would be OK,” said McCullough, 63. “I don’t know what kind of wife would say, ‘I’m going to divorce your ass’?”