McCullough: ‘I did not commit a murder’
SEATTLE – A former police officer arrested in the 1957 kidnapping and murder of Sycamore girl Maria Ridulph suggested in a jailhouse interview he may have been the one that prompted authorities to reopen the investigation.
Jack Daniel McCullough told The Associated Press on Thursday night he called the FBI a few years – around 2008 – after a dream prompted his recollection of a slightly older boy who had lived in the same Sycamore neighborhood where both his and the Ridulph family lived in 1957. The boy, named Brooks, had been taken in by a family named Davies, McCullough said, and Brooks would have also matched the suspect’s description.
“I called the FBI,” the 71-year-old McCullough said. “They said thank you. And here I am.”
McCullough was arrested in Seattle last week after investigators said new evidence undermined his alibi at the time Ridulph disappeared. He’s being held in lieu of $3 million at the King County Jail in Washington on a fugitive charge pending his return to Illinois.
According to documents filed Wednesday at the DeKalb County Courthouse, the case was reopened in October 2008 because of new leads.
McCullough’s claim of calling the FBI a few years ago could not immediately be verified Friday.
The Illinois State Police, which led the investigation, referred a request for comment from the Daily Chronicle to the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office. Clay Campbell, the DeKalb County state’s attorney, did not immediately return a phone message Friday. A news conference on the Ridulph case is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Legislative Center in Sycamore.
During his jailhouse interview with The AP on Thursday night, McCullough said he has an “iron-clad alibi” and had nothing to do with Ridulph’s disappearance or death. He said he wants justice to be done for the 7-year-old, whose disappearance in December 1957 terrified Sycamore and drew the personal interest of then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
But he stuck to the same alibi he gave when first questioned by investigators more than half a century ago – he could not have committed the murder because he had traveled to Chicago that day for military medical exams before enlisting in the Air Force.
“I have an iron-clad alibi,” he said. “I did not commit a murder.”
Suspect says military records can prove alibi
According to a police affidavit in the case, last year McCullough’s high school girlfriend discovered, behind a framed photograph of the then-couple, a train ticket to Chicago she said McCullough gave to her from the day Ridulph disappeared. Detectives wrote that when he was questioned in 1957, McCullough claimed he had traveled to Chicago by train.
McCullough said he didn’t remember every detail of what he told the FBI in 1957, but he said there’s a good reason his train ticket was unused: He never used it.
In 1957, McCullough was 18, and went by the name John Tessier. At the time he lived within two blocks of the Ridulph family. He also matched the description of the suspect given by Ridulph’s 8-year-old friend, Kathy Sigman, who last saw Ridulph about 6 p.m. Dec. 3, 1957, as the two played near their home, enjoying the first snowfall of the year near the intersection of Center Cross Street and Archie Place in Sycamore.
Sigman, now Kathy Chapman of St. Charles, said the pair were approached by a young man who introduced himself as Johnny. She ran home to get some mittens; when she returned 15 minutes later, Maria and Johnny were gone. Maria’s remains were found in April 1958 in rural Jo Daviess County by mushroom hunters.
Though Sigman said she was never asked to identify McCullough as the suspect in 1957, she picked his photo out of a montage detectives showed her last September, the affidavit said.
McCullough said on Dec. 3, 1957, his stepfather, Ralph Tessier, gave him a ride to Chicago, and after a long day of physical and psychological tests, he hitched a ride with someone he’d just met to Rockford. From Rockford, a drive of about 40 miles from Sycamore, he called home to ask his stepfather to come pick him up.
Investigators wrote in the affidavit that they have verified that a collect call was made from a Rockford pay phone to McCullough’s childhood home that night, lasting from 6:57 to 6:59 p.m. If he made that call, he said, “How am I involved in a kidnapping at 6 p.m. in Sycamore? A fifth-grader can figure this out.”
Rockford is roughly on the way from Sycamore to where the girl’s body was eventually discovered.
McCullough said he didn’t believe investigators had ever tried to verify he was in Chicago that day for medical tests — and records of that day should still exist at the National Archives repository of military personnel records in St. Louis, he said.
“St. Louis will have records of everything,” he said. “If somebody would go there, it would exonerate me.”
A clerk at the repository told The Associated Press on Friday that no records could be made public without McCullough’s signed permission. She said law enforcement authorities are allowed access to the records without a person’s authorization.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the records do in fact still exist. A fire at the archives in 1973 destroyed millions of military personnel records — including about 75 percent of records of Air Force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964 whose last names came alphabetically after H. McCullough left the Air Force in 1960.
The affidavit also alleged that McCullough has a history of molesting girls. One young witness told agents in 1957 he had sexually abused her on numerous occasions, and in the early 1980s he lost his job with the Milton police department in Washington state after he was accused of having sexual abuse with a runaway in her early teens. He pleaded guilty in 1983 to unlawfully communicating with a minor.
McCullough declined to discuss those topics with the AP.
“Don’t go there. What I did or didn’t do in my private life that would make me look bad, so what?” he said. “I didn’t commit a murder, and that’s all I’m charged with.”
McCullough moved to U.S in 1946 from England
McCullough spoke with The AP by telephone through a glass partition, wearing a bright red jail uniform, and began the interview by pressing against the glass a crinkled piece of white paper on which he had scrawled letters and words in various alphabets — by which he meant to demonstrate that he wasn’t an idiot, he said.
He developed a love of studying other languages and alphabets while in the military, and maintains the hobby as a vehicle for learning about history, he said. He’s currently studying the ancient script of cuneiform and said he has recently started praying to the ancient god of the Persians, Ahuramazda.
“I’m trying to get my wife to send me the cuneiform so I’ll have something to do here,” he said.
Jack Daniel McCullough was born John Cherry on Nov. 27, 1939, to Eileen McCullough Cherry. He said he moved with his mother, Eileen, to England when she took a position as a searchlight operator with the Royal Air Force, once lighting up a Nazi plane during a bombing raid. His father left when he was 3 — his mother claimed he was killed in the war, but McCullough always suspected that he simply left the family.
Eileen married Ralph Tessier on Nov. 18, 1944, in Boxmoor Station, England. In 1946, after Tessier had come home from the war, Eileen joined him in Sycamore, bringing with her 6-year-old John and a newborn, Katheran, the first child born to Ralph and Eileen Tessier.
McCullough said he lived in Sycamore until he was 18, and described the town as being a lot like the TV show “Happy Days” when he was growing up.
McCullough said he served four years in the Air Force followed by 10 in the Army, including a stint in Vietnam for which he said he was awarded a Bronze Star. He then settled in Washington state, where he worked as a police officer and security guard and started a company driving pilots between hotels and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
He married three times, the last time to his current wife in 1994. It was then that he changed his name from Tessier, his stepfather’s name, to McCullough, his mother’s maiden name.
He had been living with his wife at a North Seattle retirement home, where he worked as a night watchman, when he was arrested. Residents there describe him as pleasant and helpful.
“If I’d have done this, how could I have possibly lived with myself?” he said. “That had to have been an emotional trauma.”
McCullough maintained that he doesn’t know how his high school sweetheart wound up with the unused train ticket — but learning of its curious discovery behind the photograph tickled him. The couple broke up when he left to join the Air Force.
“She doesn’t know it, but I loved her for decades,” he said. “She got married and I put it aside and said, ‘Eh, give up.’”
“But she keeps a picture of me and her for 50 years. Imagine that.”
• Daily Chronicle reporter Bill Braksick contributed to this report.