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Crime & Courts

Judge orders McCullough released from custody, vacates his conviction

SYCAMORE – Jack McCullough walked free Friday for the first time since his 2011 arrest after a DeKalb County judge vacated his murder conviction, and he could be less than a week away from vindication.

McCullough, 76, was released on his own recognizance after Judge William Brady ruled that enough questions had been raised about the case that led to his 2012 conviction to merit a new trial. But a new trial appears unlikely.

McCullough left the DeKalb County Jail at 1 p.m., seated next to an investigator from the DeKalb County public defender's office in the back seat of a rental car. Hours later, DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack said he would ask the judge to dismiss the charges in connection with the 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, of Sycamore.

"I would expect to file a motion to dismiss on Monday or Tuesday," Schmack said.

Another hearing in the case has been set for Friday, and if the judge agrees to drop the charges, McCullough would be free to leave Illinois.

McCullough was convicted in 2012, and Illinois' Second District Appellate Court upheld that conviction in a 2015 decision. But FBI investigators' reports that were excluded from his 2012 trial – and found to have been properly excluded by the appellate judges – proved to be the key to his exoneration.

It was what McCullough had long contended.

Friday's hearing

There was little new evidence presented Friday to win McCullough his freedom, but Brady decided there were enough questions about how he was prosecuted in 2012 to merit another trial.

A phone record proving conclusively that McCullough – then 18 and known as John Tessier – placed a collect call at 6:57 p.m. from the downtown Rockford post office the night Maria was abducted was not available to the defense at the time and could have helped established an alibi, Brady said. Schmack has said this call, along with the fact that FBI reports from the time establish that Maria was abducted between 6:45 and 7 p.m., prove McCullough's innocence.

Brady gave credence in the possibility that McCullough was falsely identified by Kathy Sigman as the man who gave Maria a piggyback ride before abducting her from near the intersection of Archie Place and Center Cross Street that night. Sigman identified McCullough more than 50 years after the abduction.

The judge also cited allegations that prosecutors at the time made offers to jail inmates in exchange for their testimony as among the unanswered questions that required re-opening the case.

"These individual factors may not have raised to the level of reasonable probability of a different [trial] result," Brady said. "But collectively, when they are agreed to by the state" they do merit vacating McCullough's conviction.

McCullough's stepdaughter, Janey O'Connor, let out a sigh of relief when she heard Brady's decision. Meanwhile, Charles Ridulph, Maria's brother, sat expressionless in the gallery's front row.

Ridulph, as an interested party under the Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act, has asked the court to appoint a special prosecutor for the case, claiming Schmack has acted more like a defense lawyer than a prosecutor.

Ridulph on Thursday asked for a continuance on his request, since he was only able to hire a lawyer this week and his attorney was not available to appear in court Friday, court records show. Brady agreed to continue Ridulph's motion for a special prosecutor until next Friday, when his attorney can be present.

"I have said on more than just a few occasions that I would give anybody a brief continuance to be represented by counsel, and it applies in this case as well," Brady said.

The only thing keeping McCullough in any jeopardy was Brady's refusal Friday to declare him innocent, since he did not think prosecutors had purposely concealed the truth, as Schmack has said in court filing.

"I know both attorneys, and I've known them well, and it is not my belief there are ill motives," Brady said. "... I cannot accept the invitation to what I believe would be ignoring the law of this case and ignoring the law of Illinois and enter an order of actual innocence."

McCullough was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2012, and his murder conviction was upheld by the 2nd District Appellate Court in 2015.

On Friday, however, he was at least partially vindicated.  

"Mr. McCullough very much appreciates what was a thoughtful ruling by the court in granting his petition," his attorney, Gabriel Fuentes, said. "He appreciates the courage and independence of the prosecutor who worked to bring the truth forward. This was a very positive day for him." 

'Wherever Jack wants to go'

With reporters closing in Friday afternoon, O'Connor hit the gas in a white Nissan. McCullough was in the back seat, sitting next to DeKalb County Public Defender Investigator Crystal Harrolle, who heavily researched his case. In the passenger seat was O'Connor's cousin, Jenn Houton.

"I will have possession of him and that's really [where] I'm at right now," O'Connor said. "And wherever Jack wants to go after that within the state of Illinois, I will take him."

On the courthouse lawn after the hearing, O'Connor was furious with Brion Hanley, the Illinois State Police's lead investigator on the case, and former DeKalb County State's Attorney Clay Campbell, who prosecuted McCullough twice in 2012 (he was acquitted of a rape charge in April 2012). Throughout the trial, they behaved "criminally and immorally," O'Connor said.

Now, she wants to see them punished.

"We have a problem in our country when people in a position of power or authority break the law for their own personal gain and go unpunished," O'Connor said. "The Seattle police and those involved in Sycamore did not even bother to hide their immoral behavior, and why should they when they know they will not be held accountable?"

She is holding on to the hope that one day, Ridulph will stand beside her, equally as angry with McCullough's conviction.

"Brion Hanley and Clay Campbell came to [Charles Ridulph] under the guise of friendship," O'Connor said. "They preyed on his family tragedy for their personal gain. They used his suffering and his pain to further their own agenda."

Ridulph was not available to comment Friday. His family hoped a January hearing would be the last time they traveled to the courthouse to listen to McCullough's pleadings.

"You can't pick and choose what you want," Ridulph said at the time. "And all of the evidence, when you put it all together, leaves no doubt of his guilt, and we're confident the system will prove that to be true," he said at the time.

Law Enforcement Responds

Many connected with the investigation, including Hanley and Campbell, have had nothing to say since Schmack filed a scathing rebuke of their work March 24.

But Seattle cold case detective Mike Ciesynski, reached Friday by phone, said he remains convinced of McCullough's guilt.

Ciesynski had McCullough in custody on a flight from Seattle to Chicago in 2011, and said McCullough didn't show a shred of fear about the charges against him.

"He looks at me and said, 'Remember, I only need one juror,' and he kind of smiled. That’s how confident he was," Ciesynski said. "It looks like he never got that one juror, but he got one other person to get him off."

Hanley was named Illinois State Police Investigator of the Year in 2013 for his work on the McCullough case.

In a March 24 filing, Schmack took Hanley and the Illinois State Police to task for their handling of the case, and said they “knew, or should have known, that [McCullough] could not have been involved in Maria Ridulph’s murder.” Schmack also concluded that Campbell had ignored exculpatory evidence and introduced false testimony at trial.

But Ciesynski, who was there for both McCullough's arrest and trial, remembers nothing other than a spotless prosecution and investigation.

"The Illinois State Police and DeKalb State's Attorney's Office did a great job. They really, really did," he said. "So now, I really believe this is a travesty. There’s no doubt in my mind that he committed this crime."

Schmack has said his office isn't likely to further pursue the case, and suspect the person responsible for killing Maria's could be dead – or in prison for another crime. But local police aren't ready to quit investigating, Sycamore Police Chief Glenn Theriault said.

"I'll be looking forward to meeting with State's Attorney Schmack to see how he suggests we proceed with, what according to him, is an open homicide case in our community," Theriault, who took over as chief after McCullough's conviction, said. "That's something that clearly has to be solved.

" ... There's no such thing as too cold. It's the homicide of a young girl. I can't imagine anyone would call that too cold or not worth investigating."

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