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Crime & Courts

Convicted murderer Jack McCullough to return to DeKalb County

SYCAMORE – Convicted child killer Jack McCullough will appear before a DeKalb County judge Jan. 14 in another attempt to prove his innocence in the 1957 murder of a Sycamore girl.

A DeKalb County judge issued an order Dec. 17 requesting McCullough be transported from the Pontiac Correctional Center for his next court date. Judge William Brady will either consider appointing an attorney to represent McCullough on his petition for post-conviction relief or make a decision based on information from McCullough and the State’s Attorney’s Office, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack said.

“It will likely be a major factor in determining the direction in which the case goes,” Schmack said.

McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in December 2012 for the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, closing the oldest cold case to be solved in U.S. history.

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.

But the 76-year-old ex-cop filed a successive motion Dec. 11 in another attempt to make his case. Unlike the original petition for post-conviction relief, the successive motion can’t be denied without a hearing from the State’s Attorney’s Office, Schmack said.

Because McCullough is representing himself at this time, Brady thought it appropriate for the defendant to be present during what attorneys are calling a “case management conference,” Schmack said.

DeKalb County Public Defender Tom McCulloch, who defended McCullough at trial, has continued to investigate the case and has remained in contact with McCullough throughout his incarceration.

Pilmer questioned McCulloch’s investment in the case, however, because he had not been appointed to represent McCullough since his 2012 conviction.

“I became aware of his pro se post conviction petition, and knew that there were items and facts that I was aware of and that he was not aware of due to his incarceration,” McCulloch said in a report to the court. “There are still facts that we are attempting to investigate and evaluate which bear directly on his innocence and the manner in which his conviction was obtained.”

McCulloch contacted the Office of the State Appellate Defender, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission ethics office hotline, and the former head of the ARDC to determine if he had acted unethically in October by filing a motion asking Pilmer to reconsider his dismissal of McCullough’s initial post-conviction petition, court records show.

The ARDC is the administrative agency that regulates licensed lawyers in Illinois at the direction of the state’s Supreme Court.

Based on the feedback he got, the public defender said he believes he acted appropriately.

“When the County entered its original Order of Dismissal, it became clear to me that certain items should be brought to light to avoid any further injustice,” McCulloch said in his report.

One point of contention centered 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 McCullough asked her to hold onto 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.

In a 2014 letter to Schmack, Swafford contradicts FBI reports that said she didn’t see McCullough on the night Ridulph disappeared.

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

McCullough’s motion claims prosecutors didn’t want her to testify.

The continuous rehashing of the case has been a painful process for Ridulph’s surviving family members, who believe the case is being handled irregularly, said Chuck Ridulph, Maria Ridulph’s brother.

“It’s basically been the same thing over and over and over,” he said. “The same things have been denied now by five different judges, and now for them to bring [McCullough] back here – it’s very upsetting. We don’t see this changing anything.”

The Ridulph family has been present at each of the hearings since McCullough’s appeal.

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