ELGIN – On the 57th anniversary of the day his sister disappeared from the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street in Sycamore, Charles Ridulph listened to legal arguments in the appeal of the man convicted of killing her.
None of what he heard convinced Ridulph that the trial judge was mistaken in finding Jack McCullough guilty in the 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.
“I don’t have any doubts,” Ridulph said. “None.”
Justices are expected to issue a written decision in three to eight weeks after attorneys for both sides argued Wednesday before a three-judge panel at the Second District Appellate Court in Elgin. McCullough, 75, was sentenced in December 2012 to life in prison.
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, Public Defender Tom McCulloch and Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy, along with members of the Ridulph family, packed the courtroom. Maria’s disappearance initially inspired an FBI investigation that went cold for decades until McCullough’s half sister told Illinois State Police about their mother’s deathbed confession.
Defense attorney Paul Glaser, from the Office of the State Appellate Defender, argued prosecutors did not produce enough evidence at trial to prove McCullough guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He also argued that McCullough should have been allowed to present his alibi that he claimed was bolstered by FBI records stemming from the case’s initial investigation.
The trial judge refused to allow the FBI reports as evidence, agreeing with prosecutors that they were based on hearsay and contained no observations from investigators. McCullough has maintained that he was in Rockford when Maria Ridulph was kidnapped.
“The defense has to be allowed to present something, too,” Glaser said. “There’s no reason the FBI would fabricate the reports.”
McCullough, who was known as John Tessier at the time Maria disappeared, was arrested in 2011 in Seattle after the investigation was renewed because his mother, Eileen Tessier, told her daughter that McCullough was responsible for the crime.
Maria’s childhood friend, Kathy Sigman, was the only person who saw a stranger take Maria for a piggyback ride as the trio were playing near her Sycamore home. Decades later, she identified McCullough as that stranger from a series of photographs police showed her.
Glaser’s written argument questions Sigman’s personal memories of what occurred 55 years prior. He also tried to cast doubt on testimony from jailhouse informants who incriminated McCullough, innocuous statements from McCullough, and McCullough’s mother’s confession during a time when she was given medications whose side effects included confusion and disorientation – all evidence that then-DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell and his prosecutors presented during McCullough’s five-day bench trial.
When Judge Kathryn Zenoff told Appellate Prosecutor Scott Jacobson on Wednesday that prosecutors would not have gone to trial without McCullough’s mother’s confession, Jacobson replied that wasn’t the only evidence in the case.
“That has nothing to do with the evidence against the defendant to show he committed the crime,” Jacobson said. “If that was the only evidence, then maybe you should be concerned.”
Instead, Jacobson argued that McCullough had enough time to abduct Maria in Sycamore, dump her body in Jo Daviess County and then travel to Rockford, even during an evening when it was snowing outside.
As far as Sigman’s testimony, Jacobson emphasized that the trial judge had stated Sigman’s testimony was the most convincing and that she was the most credible.
Jacobson said he likes what McCullough’s case says about the legal system and society.
“It says no offense, even with the passing of time, no offense will be forgotten,” he said.