In some years, the vote among Daily Chronicle staff members on the top local story of the year is a close one.
This year, the conviction of Jack D. McCullough in the 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph was the unanimous choice for the most important local story of the year.
McCullough’s being charged in the case was our top story for 2011.
The conviction capped one of the oldest cold case trials conducted in American history and solved a mystery that had lingered in Sycamore for 55 years.
The vote for No. 2 was close, with a narrow margin separating the “coffee fund” investigation at Northern Illinois University from the NIU football team winning its second Mid-American Conference title and securing a berth in the Orange Bowl, the school’s first BCS bowl berth.
For the first time, this year we offered viewers of our website, Daily-Chronicle.com, the opportunity to choose their top 10 stories.
Their choices were a little different from those of our news staff: In the viewers’ vote, NIU’s Orange Bowl berth edged out the McCullough conviction. The Orange Bowl appeared on 83 percent of ballots, McCullough on 79 percent.
Like our staff, audience members had a choice of 22 stories, and only one story viewers ranked in the top 10 – the IHSA state football championships coming to NIU in 2013 – did not appear on the Daily Chronicle staff list.
1. McCullough convicted
One of the nation’s oldest cold cases to go to trial likely ended with 73-year-old Jack D. McCullough being sentenced to life in prison for murdering a 7-year-old Sycamore girl 55 years ago.
McCullough, a 17-year-old known as John Tessier when Maria Ridulph was murdered Dec. 3, 1957, was among 100 or so people who initially were suspects. He told investigators he had been traveling to Chicago that day for a medical exam to join the Air Force.
He was indicted last year after his half-sister, Janet Tessier, came forward and told police about incriminating comments their mother made just before their mother died in 1994. At his sentencing hearing Dec. 10, McCullough maintained his innocence, while his attorney asked for a 14-year prison sentence, the minimum allowed under 1957 statutes.
Prosecutors and the Ridulph family requested the maximum sentence of life in prison. McCullough is appealing.
He was acquitted in April of raping his half-sister Jeanne Tessier, then 14, in 1962. Jeanne Tessier cooperated with the prosecution, although she told then-State’s Attorney Clay Campbell and other authorities several times she didn’t want them to pursue the case.
2. ‘Coffee fund’ leads to indictments
Nine current and former Northern Illinois University employees were indicted this month in connection with a “coffee fund” investigation.
The coffee fund allegedly was an off-the-books repository for proceeds from the sale of NIU-owned scrap metal and other materials that NIU officials have said was used for retirement parties and other office expenses. Records from local scrap metal company, DeKalb Iron and Metal Co., show the fund received more than $13,000 since 2005, although it apparently had existed long before that. The coffee fund held $2,187 when it was closed in August, NIU officials have said.
3. NIU football’s run to Orange Bowl
The Northern Illinois football team had its most successful season in school history in 2012. After losing to Iowa, 18-17, in the first week of the season, the Huskies rattled off a school-record 12 consecutive victories and won their second Mid-American Conference championship in a row with a 44-37 victory over Kent State in double overtime. NIU was then selected to play in the New Year’s Day’s Orange Bowl against Florida State, becoming the first MAC team to earn a berth in a Bowl Championship Series bowl game.
4. NIU police shakeup
Two Northern Illinois University police leaders were placed on paid leave Nov. 10 after a judge found one hid evidence favorable to a former NIU police officer accused of raping a student. Lt. Kartik Ramakrishnan has said he mistakenly placed two witness statements in rookie police officer Andrew Rifkin’s personnel file, rather than giving them to prosecutors. Those witness statements show the victim told other NIU students that she had an ongoing consensual sexual relationship with Rifkin, and he did not assault her.
Ramakrishnan and Chief Don Grady remained on leave Thursday, while Bill Nicklas remained acting director of public safety and Darren Mitchell remained acting chief.
5. Schmack defeats Campbell for state’s attorney
State’s Attorney Clay Campbell won a conviction in a 55-year-old murder case, but he wasn’t able to win re-election in the most hotly contested race this fall.
Instead, voters chose Democrat Richard Schmack, who argued traffic accidents – and impaired drivers – were the biggest threats to local public safety. During his two years in office, Campbell pursued criminal investigations of Northern Illinois University employees and promised to be personally involved in prosecuting William “Billy” Curl, who is accused in the 2010 slaying of NIU student Antinette “Toni” Keller.
Schmack defeated Campbell, a Republican, by 739 votes. Schmack had 19,895 votes to Campbell’s 19,156.
6. Drought parches DeKalb County
DeKalb County was hit by one of the worst droughts in state history over the summer, being declared a primary natural disaster in mid-August and suffering losses in the local agricultural industry.
Illinois’ corn-crop yield dropped 25 percent from 2011 to 2012 and 71 percent was reported as being in poor or very poor condition. The state’s soybean crop also dropped 26 percent.
DeKalb County had 18 days where temperatures climbed higher than 90 degrees in 2011 compared to 35 days in 2012. The county received only 18.69 inches of rain between January and September, an almost 50 percent drop from 2011.
7. Cole Hall reopens
The NIU academic building where five students were shot to death reopened for classes in January, nearly four years after the shooting.
Shortly after 3 p.m. Feb. 14, 2008, former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak killed Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter, and injured 21 others, before killing himself. Cole Hall, which housed two lecture halls at the time, was closed indefinitely.
In 2009, a memorial garden was created next to Cole Hall in honor of the victims, as well as a scholarship dedicated to them. In 2011, the university finally received money from the state for the building’s $6 million renovation. The building opened in 2012 with a classroom that features state-of-the-art technology, a lecture hall and the Anthropology Museum.
8. ‘Mr. Pumpkin’ Wally Thurow dies
Sycamore lost one of its legends in 2012 when “Mr. Pumpkin” Wally Thurow died in February.
Thurow was credited for starting the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival, an annual October tradition that has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to Sycamore since its inception in 1956. Thurow, known for his penny-farthing bicycle, annually attended the event that grew from a small collection of decorated pumpkins on his front lawn to an event that features hundred of decorated pumpkins on the courthouse lawn, a carnival and a parade. It also serves as the largest fundraiser for multiple area charities and nonprofits.
9. DeKalb city clerk resigns
After repeatedly failing to comply with the state’s Open Meetings Act, Steve Kapitan resigned as the city clerk for the city of DeKalb in February.
Kapitan, who has never publicly commented on why he left, received two months in salary and benefits as part of a separation agreement with the city. Since his resignation, Diane Wright has been filling the post. Wright said she will not run for re-election after finishing Kapitan’s term.
The episode touched off a debate on the City Council about whether to make the clerk position an elected one or an appointed one. The council voted to put the question on the Nov. 6 ballot, and 70 percent of the voters opted to keep the position an elected one.
At the end of the day Wednesday, no one submitted a candidate petition for city clerk, meaning the new City Council will have to appoint and approve one after the April 9 election.
10. NIU student’s death leads to hazing charges
Twenty-two Northern Illinois University students were charged with hazing after a 19-year-old pledge was found dead Nov. 2 in a fraternity house.
David Bogenberger, a 2012 Palatine High School graduate, died with a blood-alcohol content of 0.351 percent, more than four times the legal driving limit, authorities said. Police said Bogenberger and 18 others pledging Pi Kappa Alpha drank vodka and other liquor out of plastic cups. The “parents night” party was not approved by the university or the national fraternity organization.
The fraternity chapter and 31 students also face possible sanctions from NIU.