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Crime & Courts

Convicted Sycamore child murderer seeks another chance

Public defender helping McCullough in his attempt to get a hearing

Jack McCullough is escorted into the DeKalb County Courthouse by Sheriff's deputies Ray Nelson (back left) and David Rivers (front right) on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012.
Jack McCullough is escorted into the DeKalb County Courthouse by Sheriff's deputies Ray Nelson (back left) and David Rivers (front right) on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012.

SYCAMORE – Convicted of murder and with his appeals denied, Jack D. McCullough is trying again to get a judge to reverse his conviction, contending new evidence could prove his innocence.

McCullough, 75, has help from Tom McCulloch, the DeKalb County public defender who represented him at trial and has filed two motions for him for free, without being appointed by a judge.

“It was the right thing to do,” McCulloch said.

McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in December 2012 for the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph, 7, of Sycamore, closing the oldest cold case in U.S. history. He is an inmate at Pontiac Correctional Center.

In September, DeKalb County Judge Robert Pilmer dismissed McCullough’s request for post-conviction relief calling it “frivolous and without merit,” according to court documents. McCullough wrote the petition by hand from prison without help from an attorney.

In a motion written by McCulloch and filed Oct. 13, McCullough asks the judge to reconsider that decision.

One point of contention centers on the recollections of Jan Swafford, 74, who was known as Jan Edwards in 1957 and was dating McCullough, who was known as John Tessier at the time.  

It was Swafford who found McCullough’s unused train ticket in a framed photo of the two of them, which poked a hole in his alibi and led police investigators to renew their focus on McCullough as a suspect.

Swafford said she remembered that McCullough asked her to hold on to his train ticket. She said she told McCullough he should put the ticket in his wallet, but he insisted and she put the ticket behind a framed photograph of the two of them.

But in a 2014 letter to DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, Swafford contradicts FBI reports that said she didn’t see Jack McCullough on the night Maria Ridulph disappeared. Schmack wrote to Swafford after she appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show, noting her account “seemed more consistent with the defense’s theory of the timeline than the prosecution.”

Swafford was subpoenaed by the prosecution and came to Sycamore for the 2012 trial, but never testified, she said.

In the motion, McCullough claims prosecutors didn’t want her to testify.

“I believe that the person known as Jan Edwards would testify that she was brought to DeKalb County by the prosecution, interviewed in contemplation of testimony at trial, and that, when she provided information inconsistent with the state’s theory, she was physically moved and kept from access to [McCullough’s] counsel,” the motion said.

Swafford said she didn’t know if her testimony would help her one-time sweetheart with his appeal. She also said she wasn’t positive her recollections are from the night Ridulph disappeared from a Sycamore street corner.

Swafford said she believes it was the same night – largely because she remembers that McCullough was excited because he had just passed his test for the Air Force. She said she didn’t remember McCullough calling her to say he’d be late, but does remember seeing him at 9:30 p.m. that night.

McCullough has claimed phone records, FBI investigation reports and comments from military recruiters show he was in the Rockford area when Maria Ridulph was abducted. Throughout his trial and sentencing, McCullough has maintained he is innocent

McCullough also raises questions about the use of jailhouse informants, whether prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that could have been helpful to the defense at trial and other arguments similar to those that McCullough and his lawyers raised during his 2012 trial and subsequent appeal.

He also claims newly discovered evidence would cast doubt on the testimony provided by two witnesses at the McCullough’s 2012 trial.

McCulloch plans to request a hearing on the motion to reconsider at 9 a.m. Oct. 28 in room 210.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack said his office is considering whether or not to respond to McCullough’s filing and what that response may entail. Schmack also said his office has reached out to Sycamore Police and the Ridulph family.

In February, an appellate court upheld McCullough’s murder conviction, but tossed two other convictions – kidnapping and abduction of an infant – because prosecutors didn’t prove the statute of limitations had not expired. That ruling didn’t affect McCullough’s life sentence.

McCullough was one of more than 100 people who were briefly suspects after Maria’s disappearance. The case went cold for decades until McCullough’s half sister told Illinois State Police about a deathbed confession from their mother.

Clay Campbell, the former DeKalb County State’s Attorney who secured the conviction against McCullough, said he wasn’t surprised by McCullough’s latest attempt to prove his innocence. He said inmates serving life sentences “have lots of time to file pleadings.” However, he said he didn’t expect much to come of prisoner’s efforts.

“I personally think Mr. McCullough is going to die in jail.”

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