ROCKFORD – Days after a DeKalb County judge declared him innocent in the 1957 kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph, Jack McCullough has filed suit against state and local authorities accusing them of framing him.
McCullough's wrongful conviction lawsuit, filed in federal court in Rockford, accuses Sycamore, state and Seattle police of conspiring with DeKalb County prosecutors to frame McCullough, a Seattle man who lived in Sycamore at the time of Ridulph's disappearance. McCullough was convicted Sept. 14, 2012, by Kane County Associate Judge James Hallock. DeKalb County Judge William Brady vacated that ruling April 1, 2016.
McCullough's attorney, Russell Ainsworth, said the quick turnaround was essential.
"It's been a year since Jack was released from prison, and we wanted to get justice for Jack," said Ainsworth, a Chicago-based attorney with the civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy. "He's 77 years old. He can't wait forever."
The suit names 15 defendants, including: DeKalb County, the city of Sycamore, former DeKalb County State's Attorney Clay Campbell and assistant state's attorneys Victor Escarcida and Julie Trevarthen, Sycamore police officers Daniel Hoffman and Tiffany Ziegler, as well as Illinois State Police Special Agent Brion Hanley, who was named the Illinois State Police's "Officer of the Year" in 2013 for his work as lead investigator on the case. It also names Seattle police detectives and the city of Seattle. It seeks unspecified compensatory damages and attorneys fees.
"Although exonerated, Mr. McCullough must now attempt to resume his life despite the horrors he endured while imprisoned for a crime he did not commit," the lawsuit states. "Plaintiff was due to retire, but those efforts have been hampered by his wrongful conviction. In addition, Plaintiff has lost the precious time to be with his family, and watch his grandchildren age—something he can never get back."
McCullough accuses police and prosecutors of fabricating evidence. He says they created a false timeline for the crime in order to explain away the fact that he placed a collect call from Rockford to his home at 6:57 p.m. the night Maria disappeared.
He says they created a biased photo lineup leading to false identification by the only witness to the crime, Kathy Sigman, who was playing with Maria the night she was abducted near the intersection of Center Cross and Archie Place.
He claims they withheld evidence of McCullough's innocence and ignored the fact that the FBI had ruled McCullough out as a suspect in its initial investigation in the 1950s.
McCullough's says Hanley and others sought false testimony from jailhouse informants in exchange for favors, and then told them to lie about the arrangement.
The suit claims the prosecution, under then-State's Attorney Clay Campbell, did all this to gain fame and fast-track careers by securing a conviction in the case 55 years after the crime.
Authorities have stated they can't comment on matters in litigation.
Ainsworth said defendants typically have 60 days to respond to a lawsuit. After that, discovery will begin. A litany of subpoenas will be ordered. He said a successful lawsuit of this sort typically brings the plaintiff $1 million to $2 million for each year of imprisonment, but he claims McCullough's circumstances make his case unique.
"We're talking about justice for a man ripped from his home and being put in prison, where he very well could have died," Ainsworth said.
McCullough, who was transferred from DeKalb County custody to the Menard Correctional Center after he was sentenced to life in prison, was stabbed in the eye by a cellmate while he slept, the suit says.
McCullough was born John Cherry on Nov. 27, 1939, in Belfast, Ireland.
He was freed in April 2016, after former DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack, relying on FBI reports about the crime and having located records that showed the phone that McCullough was believed to have called from was in the downtown Rockford post office, concluded McCullough was in Rockford at the time of Ridulph's disappearance and couldn’t have committed the crime.