On Friday, Jack McCullough, 76, got his first taste of freedom in five years, after a judge ordered his release from prison and vacated his 2012 conviction for a crime that occurred 55 years before. Encouragement for the judge’s reversal came from an unlikely source — DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, who reviewed the evidence against McCullough and determined that he had to be innocent in the death of seven-year-old Maria Ridulph in 1957.
Ridulph’s death was one of the oldest cold cases in history until McCullough was arrested in 2011. The little girl disappeared when a young man identifying himself as “Johnny” approached Maria and a friend while they were playing outside in the snow and offered them piggyback rides. Maria’s friend ran inside to grab her mittens, and by the time she came back, Maria was gone; her remains were found five months later.
Ridulph’s murder went unsolved for over half a century until McCullough’s sister, Janet Tessier, called a tip line and relayed the information that her mother had shared with her on her deathbed 14 years before: “Those two little girls, and the one that disappeared, John did it. John did it, and you have to tell someone.” The Illinois State Police opened an investigation and McCullough was arrested. Clay Campbell, Schmack’s predecessor, prosecuted the case and succeeded in convincing Judge James Hallock to convict and sentence McCullough, a Vietnam War veteran, to life in prison. Schmack defeated Campbell in his bid for reelection just as McCullough’s trial was coming to a close.
McCullough — then known as John Tessier — and his family had been neighbors of the Ridulphs, but he insisted that the FBI had questioned him back in 1957 and ultimately cleared him after confirming his alibi, which was that he had been 40 miles away at the time Maria was taken. Cold cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute because there is rarely any physical evidence and witnesses are less reliable. Nevertheless, Campbell based his case on a revised timeline for the crime and new eyewitness testimony from Kathy Sigman Chapman, who had been playing with Maria in the snow that day. Defense attorney McCulloch, meanwhile, was hindered by the judge’s decision not to allow crucial police and FBI files about the case into evidence, including documentation which corroborated McCullough’s alibi. Because they did not call McCullough to testify, the defense was barred by hearsay limitations from presenting its own timeline.
Since then, all of McCullough’s appeals have been denied, though he did succeed in having a few lesser charges thrown out. McCullough, who was no longer required to represent his former client, decided to take up the case once again, and this time filed an appeal citing new evidence, including allegations of false promises made by prosecutors to inmates who testified against McCullough, as well as the disputed testimony of McCullough’s former girlfriend, who said at a taping of “Dr. Phil” that she may have seen McCullough the night of the girl’s disappearance. McCulloch’s motion led Schmack to revisit the case files, and in parsing one of the court’s appeals decisions, he discovered that while the FBI reports were deemed inadmissible evidence as “business records,” they could have been included as “ancient documents” because they are more than 20 years old.
Schmack also began corresponding with McCullough’s ex-girlfriend, Jan Edwards Swafford, and shared with her the investigator’s interview notes from 1957, in which she allegedly stated that she had not seen McCullough the night of the disappearance. Swafford replied four days later, insisting that the investigator had gotten it wrong.
“It is completely the opposite,” she wrote. “I never did say he wasn’t with me that night or that Dad wouldn’t let me out of the house. What I did say is, ‘I can’t confirm the exact date that my recollection happened, but he came over around 9:30 p.m. as we had planned.'”
Then there was McCullough’s alibi. According to CNN:
Freshly subpoenaed phone records place the pay phone used for a 6:57 p.m. collect call to McCullough’s parents at the post office in Rockford — just where he said he was at the time the girl was snatched on December 3, 1957. The records support McCullough’s alibi, which he was unable to present at his murder trial.
All of this information was “clear and convincing evidence” of McCullough’s innocence, Schmack said.
“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 guilt,” Schmack said in a statement explaining why he would not pursue a new trial after McCullough’s conviction was vacated.
Later, Schmack told CNN:
“I truly wish that this crime had really been solved, and her true killer were incarcerated for lifeWhen 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.”
McCullough, meanwhile, is deeply grateful to the prosecutor for prioritizing the truth over closing a case by imprisoning the wrong man.
“People have to realize, it’s not about winning,” McCullough told CNN. “It’s about justice. And this brave man — I probably shouldn’t talk about him at all — but he put his career on the line for me. It isn’t about winning a case, it’s about justice. And God bless the man who stood up for justice. He’s probably going to pay a penalty for that because to everyone else it’s about winning. But it’s not about winning. It’s about doing the right thing.”
Read more: CNN
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