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Duchnowski: Ridulph not the only murder to haunt police

Investigators periodically review murder cases dating back to the 1970s

Susan Olsen doesn’t have 55 years to learn what happened to her 26-year-old missing son, who police believe likely was murdered six years ago.

Olsen followed the prosecution of Jack McCullough, the 73-year-old man convicted last year of kidnapping and murdering 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in December 1957. She watched the “48 Hours” special, “Cold as Ice,” about McCullough because she knew Ridulph’s older brother, Charles.

Like Charles Ridulph, she knows what it is like to wonder for years what happened after a family member vanished. Maria Ridulph disappeared one evening after a man approached her and a friend playing near their homes. Bradley Olsen, 26, disappeared after looking for a ride home to Maple Park at a bar on West Lincoln Highway in DeKalb in January 2007.

Unlike Charles Ridulph’s case, though, Olsen’s case has never been cold. She speaks weekly with DeKalb investigators about the case and still has her son’s information displayed on her car, advertising the case to passers-by.

“There’s never been a time when there hasn’t been something going on in Brad’s case,” Susan Olsen said, declining to discuss recent developments in the investigation. “Most recently, we have a few new things that have popped up. It’s been a roller coaster.”

It’s the little things that pop up, though, that can be the missing pieces in murder cases that have left generations of police officers puzzled. In the Ridulph case, it was the words McCullough’s mother spoke as she lay dying and his half-sister’s determination to bring them to investigators.

In a McHenry County case I covered earlier in my career, it was a mob biography.

Whispers had floated around McHenry County for decades that mob hitman Larry Neumann might have been responsible for killing two people in a Lakemoor bar in 1981. Little had happened with the case for years when sisters Holly and Heidi Hager, family friends of the bar owner, tracked down “Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness.”

Frank Cullotta’s 2007 biography detailed several mob-related burglaries and slayings before Cullotta became a government witness in 1982 to avoid his own prosecution. Cullotta offered a loose description of the double homicide at Lakemoor’s PM Pub and claimed Neumann, his partner-in-crime, told him he shot two people to avenge a perceived slight against his ex-wife.

The McHenry County Sheriff’s detectives delved into the allegations outlined in the book in 2008, ultimately spending more than 1,200 hours on the renewed effort and declaring Neumann, who had died in January 2007, the murderer. They did not find enough evidence to charge two possible accomplices, McHenry County Sheriff’s leaders said at the time.

Cullotta said McHenry County officials didn’t seem too interested in his information in 1982, when investigators were focused on one of the victim’s previous boyfriends. But a new generation of investigators took his information more seriously.

One of those police was Gene Lowery, a former McHenry County undersheriff who became DeKalb’s police chief last summer. Lowery said DeKalb police recently briefed State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, who took office in December, on the Olsen case to bring him up to speed.

DeKalb police also are planning new reviews of two other older, unsolved murders: Elna Jarvi, a 59-year-old DeKalb woman found stabbed to death in her car in September 1973, and Barbara Wagner, a 25-year-old Northern Illinois University graduate student last seen leaving a DeKalb tavern in May 1978.

Meanwhile, the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office periodically reviews two other unsolved murders, Sheriff Roger Scott said.

Amy Fleming was a 25-year-old special education teacher in the Indian Creek School District who was found dead in January 1996 in her home in Lee, about two miles outside DeKalb County.

Donna Doll was a 21-year-old NIU senior who vanished in October 1970 after leaving her part-time job at a campus library. Three teenagers found her body about a week later on Nelson Road west of DeKalb. She had been suffocated.

The DeKalb Sheriff’s Office and Secret Service agents reviewed Doll’s case and reached out to the original investigators more than a year ago, and are happy to help with the Fleming case in Lee County.

“We’d certainly be very eager to follow up on any tip we get,” Scott said. “Everybody has theories, but the fact is you need evidence. ... We’ve had many investigators look at this with different eyes.”

If you have information that could be helpful for any of those cases, contact the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office at 815-895-2155 or the DeKalb Police Department at 815-748-8400.

• Jillian Duchnowski is the news editor at the Daily Chronicle. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, email jduchnowski@shawmedia.com or follow her on Twitter @JillianDuch.      

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