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Crime & Courts

Road to dismissal: Pay phone record convinces prosecutor of McCullough’s innocence

SYCAMORE – By October 2015, the case against Jack McCullough hinged on a critical, unanswered question: Where was the pay phone he used to call Sycamore on the night Maria Ridulph was kidnapped?

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack already strongly suspected McCullough had been wrongfully convicted in the Dec. 3, 1957, murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph. But during a meeting with Maria’s siblings Oct. 22, Schmack realized there was a document with the number of the phone in Rockford McCullough had used to make a collect call at 6:57 p.m.: 2-9297.

Schmack made up his mind to find out where that phone had been located. He either would confirm or disprove McCullough’s decades-old alibi for that evening – that at the time Maria disappeared, he was visiting military recruiters in downtown Rockford. McCullough said he had made the call from the downtown Rockford Post Office at 401 S. Main St.

“Everything else I had looked at pointed to his innocence,” Schmack said. “But the phone number, if it wasn’t where he said it was, would have pointed very strongly to his guilt.”

Emails obtained by the Daily Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request show Schmack had doubts at least as early as 2014. In particular, he thought FBI and police reports from the time the crime occurred clearly showed Maria had been abducted between 6:45 and 6:55 p.m., much later than the 6 p.m. time the state had given at McCullough’s 2012 trial.

After he spent the summer of 2015 researching the case, those doubts had crystallized. Schmack now believed there was a very good chance that McCullough had been wrongfully convicted, as he had told Public Defender Tom McCulloch in an October letter.

McCulloch had gone to work, asking a judge to reconsider his former client’s appeal for post-conviction relief. He stayed in contact with McCullough throughout the process and shared information with him to help bolster his case for release.

But before Schmack took the next step and asked the court to set aside McCullough’s murder conviction, he wanted to at least try to find a record of where the pay phone McCullough had used that night had been.

He reached out to police.

Police: Case closed

The record of the two-minute phone call had not been allowed at McCullough’s 2012 trial, a decision the 2nd District Appellate Court had upheld. But it was a key reason investigators in the 1950s wrote him off as a suspect.

Schmack wanted to do a final check on that alibi. He said his search could have led to one of three conclusions:

• If a record of the phone’s location could not be found, Schmack said he still thought there was enough evidence to suggest McCullough had been falsely convicted.

• If records showed the phone had been anywhere more than a block or two from the post office, then McCullough had lied about his alibi. The foundation of his case for innocence would collapse, and Schmack would do nothing.

• If the phone really were in the post office, where McCullough claimed he had been at 6:57 p.m. Dec. 3, 1957, and Maria hadn’t been abducted from Sycamore until at least 6:45 p.m., then McCullough wasn’t “not guilty” – he was innocent.

Schmack said police weren’t interested in his new theory. In late October, he reached out to Sycamore police, who referred him to Illinois State Police. Schmack also contacted Illinois State Police Special Agent Brion Hanley, who had been the lead investigator on the case.

Hanley never contacted him, Schmack said. Instead, Hanley’s superior, Lt. Cindy Tencza, did.

Emails show Schmack explained to state and local police what he was looking for, and why. On Nov. 3, he wrote Tencza that “because of the obvious allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct,” they should meet privately.

There would eventually be two meetings, including one with Schmack, Tencza and Illinois State Police Capt. Steve Loan on Nov. 30. That meeting was followed by a terse email from Tencza to Schmack on Dec. 2, advising Schmack to call a state police lawyer in Springfield. There would be no more police involvement.

“They decided not to do any inquiry into the location of the phone booth,” Schmack said. “There was no major disagreement. They basically said they weren’t going to investigate and that they had talked to their lawyer, and I should talk to their lawyer, too.”

Usually police do most of the investigating for the state’s attorney’s office. This time, it would be the public defender’s office – and its investigator, Crystal Harrolle.

Pay phones, parties, and old acquaintances

It was Harrolle – who did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story – who knew who could provide records of where the phone number came from, Schmack said. And Schmack had the power to subpoena the information.

On Dec. 22, Schmack sent a subpoena to AT&T, and by Jan. 6, he got his answer: a record with fine print showing a public phone with the number 962-9297 had been installed in the downtown Rockford post office at 401 S. Main.

That record would be the new evidence Schmack would introduce in March seeking McCullough’s release.

In the weeks that followed, Schmack and Harrolle worked together to try to find other information, such as records of when the 4-H Christmas party McCullough’s sister said she had attended that night occurred (they never exactly nailed it down, although most agreed the party would have been from 7 to 9 p.m. as most meetings were, and not 5 to 7 p.m.).

They also retraced the steps of police investigators who had interviewed people in Rockford about the phone, and an attorney who was the nephew of the military recruiter that McCullough said he had met that evening.

One person Schmack said he never spoke to was McCullough himself, but word of what was happening clearly got back to him in Pontiac Correctional Center.

At a court hearing in January, McCullough tried to shake Schmack’s hand. The prosecutor declined.

Days before he filed a response to McCullough’s petition for post-conviction relief declaring him innocent, Schmack sent a copy to Harrolle and McCulloch. In a March 22 email to Harrolle, he noted it was still in draft format.

“So right now it is for your and Tom (McCulloch’s) eyes only,” Schmack wrote.

Communication between prosecutors and defense lawyers, especially public defenders, is quite common, both sides said. In this case, they said they had a common cause because they needed each other’s help to seek justice.

“It’s more like they were willing to work with me, rather than the other way around,” Schmack said. “They had knowledge of certain pieces of information that they had looked into that I could ask them about.”

A matter of ethics

McCulloch said his office’s work on the case was “a labor of love” that did not come at the expense of DeKalb County residents who needed its help, and eventually McCullough was appointed private lawyers.

He added that Schmack making his actions in the case an ethical issue was the right approach.

“It’s hard to criticize him for that,” McCulloch said. “He’s going to be criticized no matter what, but it’s hard to criticize him for his ethics.”

As for the process that led to what he considers the conviction of an innocent man, McCulloch said when police are convinced they’ve found a culprit, that can guide their investigation.  

“Police that think they’ve got a guilty guy and rely on maybe inadmissible or speculative stuff and think they’re putting together a case,” he said. “They think they’re doing the right thing, even if they’re cutting the corner. I think that’s the problem.”

Schmack expected some of his neighbors in Sycamore to be angered by his conclusions, and many were.

Ken Mundy, a longtime friend of Charles Ridulph and the mayor of Sycamore, called Schmack as a “rogue state’s attorney” in an affidavit filed in court. More than 200 people signed a petition that was presented in DeKalb County Court on Friday, which read in part “we have lost all confidence in the impartiality and integrity of our criminal judicial system as a result of Richard Schmack’s actions/inactions ... .”

The same hearing ended with Jack McCullough, a 76-year-old man, free to return to Washington state after almost five years in Illinois jails and prisons. Harrolle walked out of the building with him and helped him into a waiting car.

Although many people have said Schmack has shaken their faith in the judicial system, in his view, he had no choice but to do what he did. Other people see that, too, Schmack said.

“Many people have said, ‘I don’t know that you’re right, but you’re doing it because you think you’re right, so hang in there,’ ” Schmack said.

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