SYCAMORE – DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack said Friday that the 76-year-old man serving a life sentence in Sycamore's most notorious murder case had been wrongfully convicted, possibly clearing the way for Jack McCullough to walk free as soon as Tuesday.
In an answer to McCullough's appeal for post-conviction relief, Schmack said the state joins in McCullough’s request to set aside his conviction because he was arrested under false pretenses and because evidence proves that he could not have been in Sycamore when 7-year-old Maria Ridulph was abducted Dec. 3, 1957. Her body was found in April 1958 in Jo Daviess County.
"The people are ethically compelled and constrained to admit the existence of clear and convincing evidence showing Defendant to have been convicted of an offense which he did not commit,” Schmack wrote.
McCullough, who was 17 when Maria disappeared, has long maintained his innocence in her murder. A hearing is set for Tuesday in DeKalb County Court before Judge William Brady.
In a scathing court filing questioning the ethics of almost everyone involved, including his predecessor, Clay Campbell, Schmack accused police and prosecutors of "almost systematic concealment of the truth" and said McCullough received unfair treatment from start to finish as he was railroaded to a conviction in Maria Ridulph's 1957 abduction and murder.
"I know that there are people who will never believe that [McCullough] is not responsible for the crime," Schmack said in a written statement. "Many of these people are my neighbors in Sycamore. But I cannot allow that to sway me from my sworn duty to support the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Illinois, and to perform faithfully the primary duty of my office, 'to seek justice, not merely to convict.' "
Schmack's conclusions are based in part upon police and FBI reports from 1957 and 1958, which were ruled inadmissible in McCullough's 2012 trial.
There was also newly discovered evidence, Schmack said, confirming that McCullough placed a call from the downtown Rockford Post Office at 401 S. Main St. A panel of appellate judges found the old reports should not have been admitted, but also found that evidence wouldn't have changed the outcome of the trial.
In a six-month review, Schmack determined that the evidence should have exonerated McCullough. The state's timeline for Maria's killing, which was one of the weakest parts of its case, fell apart when compared with the 1957 reports, he said.
"It is a manifest impossibility for [McCullough] to have been in Sycamore at 6:45 and also have made a phone call in downtown Rockford at 6:57," Schmack said. "Thousands of pages of improperly excluded police reports more than 20 years old contain a wealth of information pointing to McCullough’s innocence, and absolutely nothing showing guilt."
In his summary of his findings, Schmack also said that key state witnesses were wrong. Kathy Sigman Chapman, who was playing with Maria at the time she disappeared, was guided toward identifying McCullough in a photo lineup that Schmack called "suggestive in the extreme."
“Her selection in 2010 of a black-and-white headshot of him as a teenager is clearly an unintentional and tragic mistake on her part,” the prosecutor said.
Katheran Caulfield, who testified about seeing a search party looking for Maria at 7 p.m. that night, was mistaken. A Christmas party she was at that night was from 7 to 9 p.m., not 5 to 7 p.m., Schmack said.
Schmack's position surprised many in the community, including Charles Ridulph, Maria's older brother, who still lives in Sycamore.
He called Schmack’s court filing “ridiculous.” Ridulph said Schmack was totally disregarding all the other evidence that pointed to McCullough’s guilt, including later police reports from 1958, which changed the original time frame.
“A few months ago [Schmack] gave me a copy of his time frame, and I went through that and it just made me sick,” Ridulph said. “There’s a reason that none of [the old police reports were] allowed into evidence to begin with, because there were so many discrepancies and you couldn’t cross-examine it.”
Campbell, a Republican, was DeKalb County State's Attorney in September 2012 when Kane County Associate Judge James Hallock found McCullough guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. It was touted as the oldest cold case to be solved in American history and inspired a couple of books, including Charles Lachman's "Footsteps in the Snow."
Lachman, who donated part of the proceeds from his extensively researched book to Maria's memory, said he knew Schmack had reservations about the case but was surprised by his complete repudiation of it.
“I think what’s most surprising to me is that he doesn’t say there’s reasonable doubt, which reasonable people might conclude, he’s declaring McCullough innocent,” Lachman said.
Lachman also said that Schmack had ignored an Illinois State Police report compiled in July 1958 about the case which suggested that Maria might have been kidnapped earlier.
“We feel certain facts might have been overlooked … ,” the report reads. “A man was with Maria at a much earlier time than was indicated by previous reports.”
McCullough, who was known as John Tessier at the time Maria disappeared, was arrested in Seattle in July 2011.
At trial, McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, testified that weeks before her death in 1994, their mother had told her “those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it. You’ve got to tell somebody.”
Two of McCullough’s other half-sisters, Katheran Caulfield and Jeanne Tessier, testified that they did not see McCullough at their house the night that Maria disappeared or the next morning.
But Schmack said that Caulfield, who testified that Maria had disappeared earlier than 6:45 p.m., was disproved by “newly discovered documents,” which prove that Maria’s abduction was not reported until 8 p.m. and so there could not have been anyone out searching for her at 7 p.m.
Charles Ridulph said that timeline doesn't make sense. His sister wouldn't have been out of the house so late.
"This has been horrible. It's been horrible since Schmack has been involved in this," he said. "There's been no one speaking for us at all. He says he doesn't speak for the victims. That's what he told us when we asked.
"Schmack has ignored not only previous rulings, but also all other evidence, especially he is ignoring the time frame schedule presented in the 1958 state police report."
Schmack said he undertook his investigation of the case hoping to find that it really had been solved.
“When I began this lengthy review, I had expected to find some reliable evidence that the right man had been convicted,” Schmack wrote. “No such evidence could be discovered.”