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Crime & Courts

Appellate court upholds Jack McCullough's murder conviction, vacates others

Jan (left) and Jeanne Tessier embrace on Sept. 14, 2012, outside the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore after the guilty verdict of their half-brother, Jack McCullough, in the 1957 disappearance and murder of Maria Ridulph. McCullough’s murder conviction was upheld by the appellate court Friday and he will remain behind bars.
Jan (left) and Jeanne Tessier embrace on Sept. 14, 2012, outside the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore after the guilty verdict of their half-brother, Jack McCullough, in the 1957 disappearance and murder of Maria Ridulph. McCullough’s murder conviction was upheld by the appellate court Friday and he will remain behind bars.

SYCAMORE – The worries that Jan Tessier had about her half-brother’s murder conviction being overturned disappeared Friday.

Jack McCullough will remain behind bars for murdering 7-year-old Sycamore girl Maria Ridulph in 1957, as the appellate court upheld his murder conviction and vacated two lesser charges of kidnapping and abduction of an infant. Tessier, who was 1 year old when Ridulph disappeared, reinvigorated an investigation long gone cold when she told Illinois State Police in 2008 that her mother had blamed McCullough for the crime on her deathbed.

“I am relieved, and I’m glad it’s over,” Tessier said. “He’s where he needs to be.”

The appellate justices ruled those deathbed statements should not have been admitted as evidence, but they didn’t toss out the conviction because Kane County Judge James Hallock did not rely heavily on it when issuing the conviction. The appellate court tossed the two lesser charges because they didn’t affect McCullough’s life sentence and because prosecutors did not prove the statute of limitations had not expired.

The case, reputed to be among the oldest cold cases in the nation to be solved, was the subject of a recent Lifetime Movie Network documentary and a book by Charles Lachman, both called “Footsteps in the Snow.”

Lachman said he wasn’t surprised to learn the court had upheld the murder conviction because of the evidence pointing to McCullough’s guilt. He hopes the decision might encourage other law enforcement agencies to pursue cold cases.

“Beyond that,” Lachman said, “it provides closure for the Ridulph and Tessier families and the citizens of Sycamore.”

Closure is the exact feeling Charles Ridulph had Friday. Ridulph, Maria’s older brother, learned of the court decision through Brion Hanley, a key state police investigator.

“At least we feel the conclusion of it now,” Ridulph said. “And I think others will, too.”

Ridulph said now is the time to focus on the good that has come from the case, such as the hope that some families might feel about their loved ones’ cold cases, or the Maria Rudolph Memorial Fund that will help children with ties to West Elementary School in Sycamore, which Maria attended.

McCullough, 75, can ask the Illinois Supreme Court to consider his case, but the state’s highest court does not have to take up the case. The Second District Appellate Court was legally required to hear his appeal, former prosecutor Clay Campbell said.

Campbell, who lost his bid for re-election as DeKalb County State’s Attorney about a month after Hallock convicted McCullough of murder, said he was “completely elated” with the 53-page opinion released Friday.

“It is an exacting dissection of the trial,” Campbell said. “It’s pretty impressive, and I’m only on page 30. It’s gratifying to know that they examined it as closely as it did.”

McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in December 2012; a panel of three appellate justices heard arguments in his appeal in December 2014, on the 57th anniversary of Ridulph’s disappearance.

Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy, who was 11 years old at the time of Maria’s disappearance and a friend of Charles Ridulph, said he would like to see the events put to rest with the appellate court’s decision.

“I’m hopeful this is the last chapter for a long, long story for the Ridulph family,” Mundy said.

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 who introduced himself as “Johnny” 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.

The appellate justices acknowledged they couldn’t find another case with such a long period between the incident and the identification, but figured Sigman had an excellent reason to remember the perpetrator she saw.

“She was a witness to an event that horrified the community and caused her to be the object of law enforcement and news media attention,” the opinion states. “For a time the police even accompanied her to Sunday school, making their presence in her life onerous.”

The appellate justice also rejected all the defense arguments on why the 1957 FBI reports that McCullough has long claimed offered him an alibi should have been admitted as evidence. The reports were created by FBI agents who couldn’t testify at trial and who “had no personal knowledge of the underlying assertions,” the opinion states.

“The ‘alibi’ contained in the FBI reports depends almost entirely on defendant’s own account of his actions and the accounts given by his parents,” the opinion states.

Campbell, who was among three prosecutors on the case, said he was pleased the appellate judges agreed with enough of the trial court’s decisions to find that the evidence showed McCullough was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“They take issue with some of [the trial court’s decisions,] but overall, they say it was adequate to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Campbell said. “Our goal was to hold him accountable for what he did to Maria, and not one but two courts have held him accountable.”

Five key points in appellate opinion

• The justices supported Kathy Sigman, Maria Ridulph’s childhood friend, identifying Jack McCullough as the kidnapper decades after the incident, partially because the event was so traumatic. “She was a witness to an event that horrified the community and caused her to be the object of law enforcement and news media attention,” the opinion stated. They noted her description of the defendant matched those of three other witnesses.

• The FBI reports that were not allowed as evidence “were authored by FBI agents who had no personal knowledge of the substance of the underlying assertions,” the opinion states. They also were authored after McCullough and his parents would have had a motive to lie to authorities.

• McCullough later contradicted the alibi purportedly contained in the FBI reports, telling police different stories for what he was doing the night Ridulph disappeared.

• The trial judge was right to ban possible testimony about another suspect Sycamore police publicized in 1996. There was no evidence that suspect was in Sycamore that night, and the justices suspected police were trying to reassure Sycamore residents that an outsider committed this horrible crime as a major anniversary approached.

• Testimony about what McCullough’s mother said on her deathbed should not have been allowed because her statements did not implicate her in a crime, as the trial judge had said.

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