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Don't bring cold case murder accused to trial again, ever: prosecutor

A man freed after his conviction for murder was vacated should never be prosecuted again, according to the state’s attorney instrumental in securing his release.
Jack McCullough has spent more than four years in prison following his cold case arrest for the murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.

He was released Friday after a judge in Illinois ordered a retrial of McCullough, who was convicted of the kidnapping and killing of Maria, which happened nearly 60 years ago. It was the oldest cold-case conviction in United States history.

Richard Schmack, state’s attorney for DeKalb County in Illinois, will file a petition early this week asking a court to dismiss with prejudice the case against McCullough, so that it can never be tried again.

Schmack, who re-investigated the case and McCullough’s trial, and concluded an innocent man was wrongfully convicted, said he is not going to prosecute and he does not want anyone else to do so in the future.

Questions have been asked about the the McCullough conviction ever since his 2012 “no jury” bench trial.

McCullough was convicted largely on the conflicting testimony of three jailhouse informants, the supposed confession of his heavily drugged, dying mother and the controversial photographic identification of the alleged abductor by Maria’s friend.

But ruled out was evidence of an alibi, including affidavits from three deceased FBI agents, and records of a collect call that put McCullough 40 miles away at the time of the Maria’s abduction in December 1957.

“I knew I was innocent,” McCullough told CNN Sunday. “I knew I had proof that I was innocent, and I was going to make them see the proof, one way or the other.”

Eileen Tessier, McCullough’s mother, was dying and on a cocktail of drugs, including morphine, when she is reported to have denounced her son. 

Her daughter Janet testified she was pulled close and her mother whispered: “Those two little girls – and the one that disappeared – John did it, John did it ... and you have to tell someone.” Her sister, Jeanne, testified that she heard the words: “John did it,”

Over some years, Janet Tessier, convinced her brother was the killer, tried to get law enforcement to investigate him.

It was only in 2008 that the Illinois State Police began a fresh investigation, ultimately leading to the 2011 arrest of McCullough, a former policeman then living in Seattle, Washington. 

Key to the arrest was Kathy Chapman — who was playing with Maria just before she disappeared — identifying McCullough from an old photograph. She said he was the young man who approached the pair as they played on the street more than five decades earlier. 

But Chapman, following the murder, identified an entirely different person. In addition, of the photographs laid out for Chapman to identify, one was blown up and otherwise substantially different from the others in clothing and demeanor. That photograph she identified was of McCullough.

As the trial date approached, McCullough elected to be tried by bench, before a judge and without a jury. That decision was made, in large part, because of his experience of an earlier trial.

Shortly after his late 2011 arrest for murder, McCullough was charged with being involved in the gang rape of his half-sister, Jeanne. This was alleged to have happened in the early '60s.

Judge Robbin Stuckert acquitted him. The accuser, his half-sister Jeanne, could not identify where it happened or the alleged accomplices. McCullough was also on active-duty service elsewhere when the alleged rape was said to have happened.

Judge Stuckert was listed to preside over the murder trial, but stepped aside two months before it was due to start. Then-State's Attorney Clay Campbell, who was up for re-election and ultimately lost to Schmack, was the lead prosecutor in both cases. 

Still, McCullough, according to his supporters, opted for no jury as he believed the evidence contained in the FBI files was so overwhelmingly strong no judge would, or could, convict him.

Then Judge Robert Hallock, the replacement on the bench, ruled those FBI files not admissible, concluding they were hearsay — that the agents were reporting only what McCullough told them at the time.

Also thrown out were police reports that McCullough was making a telephone call 40 miles away around the time Maria was abducted.

Maria Ridulph’s disappearance from the town of Sycamore, Illinois, in December 1957 led to national headlines and the personal involvement of FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who dispatched agents to Illinois to lead the investigation. Even President Dwight Eisenhower asked to be kept informed about the case. 

Maria and her friend were approached by a man who called himself "Johnny" and offered a piggyback ride. The friend, Kathy, ran home to get mittens and when she returned, Maria and the man had disappeared. 

Her body was found the following April, in a wood 100 miles away. She had been stabbed to death. 

McCullough was an early suspect, but FBI investigators ruled him out as he had an alibi. He was miles away at the time of the abduction and there were phone records to prove it, according to the FBI documents that were barred from being introduced by the defense.

McCullough’s wife Susan told this reporter last year: “Jack never had a chance, They would not let any of the evidence that said where he was. 

“He had five FBI affidavits that were taken in 1957, including a telephone operator who did a collect call for him. He was 40 miles away in Rockford. He called his dad to get a ride home. He ended up walking home.” 

Maria Ridulph’s brother, Charles, still believes McCullough is guilty. On Friday afternoon, after McCullough was released, Ridulph said he was "shocked" by the ruling that McCullough is innocent until proven guilty at a new trial, one that is unlikely to happen. 

"I've gone over it and over it," he said of the case and trial. "I just don't see that as a possibility."