SYCAMORE – A judge could decide in March if convicted child murderer Jack McCullough will get another chance to prove his innocence.
McCullough entered a Sycamore courtroom Thursday for the first time since he was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for the murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph of Sycamore in 1957.
His conviction marked the end of the oldest cold case to be solved in U.S. history.
DeKalb County Judge William Brady presided over what attorneys called a case management hearing Thursday, where Brady set a deadline for DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack to file a response to McCullough’s petition.
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 a lawyer.
However, the 76-year-old ex-police officer filed a successive motion Dec. 11 in another attempt to make his case.
McCullough believes Jan Swafford, 74, who was known as Jan Edwards in 1957 and was dating McCullough, who was known as John Tessier at the time, has new information that would prove his innocence.
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, however, Swafford contradicted 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 in her letter.
McCullough’s motion claims prosecutors didn’t want her to testify.
Thursday was the first time McCullough and his half-sister, Mary Hunt, had seen each other since the trial. McCullough was one of more than 100 people who were briefly suspects after Maria’s disappearance. But the case went cold for decades until Hunt told Illinois State Police about a deathbed confession from their mother, naming McCullough as the murderer.
In court Thursday, Hunt sat among the Ridulph family, having disowned her brother years ago, she said.
“[Seeing him] doesn’t faze me at all,” Hunt said. “He’s dead to me. He really is. He’s just an old man – a sick, sorry old man.”
Maria Ridulph’s brother, Chuck Ridulph, hoped Thursday would be his family’s last trip to courthouse, where they have relived the tragedy of Maria’s disappearance repeatedly since McCullough’s trial.
“You can’t just pick and choose what you want,” Chuck Ridulph said. “All the evidence – when you put it together – leaves no doubt of his guilt. We’re confident that the system will prove that to be true.”
The case will reconvene March 2, when McCullough will be transported again from the Pontiac Correctional Center to the DeKalb County Courthouse for a review of Schmack’s response and a possible ruling.