Two inmates and a forensic anthropologist testified Wednesday in the murder-kidnap trial of Jack Daniel McCullough, accused in the disappearance and death of little Maria Ridulph in Sycamore nearly 55 years ago.
The inmates told slightly different – but not necessarily contradictory – stories of McCullough’s jailhouse conversations about his case, and the scientist explained how she found evidence of deep cutting wounds on the skelton of the 7-year-old victim.
Assistant State’s Attorney Victor Escarcida was setting up a large flat-screen TV and laptop computer Wednesday in the third-floor courtroom of the DeKalb County Courthouse as the start of the third day of testimony in the bench trial approached.
As the session began, Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Trevarthen asked for some leeway in questioning the first witness to avoid identifying the “John Doe” witness discussed in a motion made Monday and approved by Judge James Hallock.
Chief defense attorney Tom McCulloch, Interim DeKalb County Public Defender, expressed somewhat hesitant agreement, and Hallock said he would allow some leading of the witness to accommodate the gag order.
Jail inmate relates eavesdropping
The first prosecution witness was Christopher Diaz, 21, a DeKalb County prisoner currently being housed in the Kendall County jail. He was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and wearing jail mufti. Tattoos are visible on his neck, arms and hands. He wrote a letter to DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, who has been sitting “third chair” at the prosecution table, disclosing some jailhouse conversations about the case.
Taken into custody on July 2, Diaz acknowledged that he is charged with aggravated criminal abuse of a child. He also has been found guilty on a misdemeanor attempted mob action charge and felony use of a fraudulent ID card. Until recently, he told the court, he was housed in G Block of the DeKalb County Jail – the same cell block where McCullough resides. He agreed with Trevarthen’s list of the eight inmates on the four-cell block, including McCullough and John Doe, from Sept. 1 through 4 this year.
Diaz said his letter, written Sept. 4, was “explaining what I overheard between Jack McCullough and John Doe” over the first four days of the month. Under questioning by Trevarthen, he recounted what he had heard.
On Sept. 1, Diaz said, he was lying on his lower bunk in his cell listening to music on headphones when Jack McCullough came in after supper.
“Jack started talking about his case,” said Diaz, so he lowered the volume on his music to hear the conversation. “Jack said he gave this girl a piggyback ride and took her down an alley and into his house.”
To avoid looking too interested, Diaz said, he went and stood outside his cell. “I was standing there watching TV but I was also listening,” he said. “Jack said he had the victim in his house for quite a while, and his mom knew about it.”
In the 1950s, McCullough was known as John Tessier. His mother, Irene Tessier, had told police on Dec. 4, 1957, that Johnny was home on the night of the abduction. Two of her daughters – McCullough’s half sisters – testified Tuesday that Johnny was not home that night nor early the next morning.
The next day, Diaz said he again was lying on his bunk listening to music after supper. “Jack walked into my cell and starts talking to John Doe,” Diaz said. “He starts describing about his case … like how he killed the little girl, that he strangled her with a wire and he made a motion with his hands.”
Trevarthen asked the attending detective to uncuff Diaz so he could demonstrate the motion, which he did, and was recuffed. “He was saying about how he hit the little girl on the head,” Diaz recounted, “and her skull was intact.” Then Diaz walked out of the cell and sat down to watch TV and heard nothing else. McCullough walked out about five minutes later, Diaz said.
McCullough changes his story about his car
On Sept. 3, Diaz said, he was sitting on his bunk drawing after dinner. John Doe and McCullough also were in the cell. “Jack said he had told people that he didn’t have the car that night just to throw them off,” Diaz said, “but he really did have the car.” McCullough told John Doe the car “had fire stripes, fire flames on it,” according to Diaz. “He told John Doe he painted them himself.”
The courthouse was treated to a 35-minute break, courtesy of a fire alarm, and Diaz resumed his testimony afterward. He said McCullough and John Doe “were talking about legal stuff.”
“Jack was talking about paperwork he wanted his attorney to file,” Diaz said. “He was really mad at Clay Campbell, the state’s attorney, and said he wanted to kill him.”
The conversation on Sept. 4 took place in the cell about 2 p.m., involving McCullough, John Doe and Diaz. “I was listening to the conversation they were having,” Diaz said. “Jack said the state’s attorney offered him a deal.”
Diaz said he went out of the cell and “tried to call my fiancé, but she didn’t answer,” but he pretended she was still on the phone so he could eavesdrop on the other men. “Jack said the state has no evidence whatsoever, except for his mom who was dead and his sister who he called a dumb bitch,” Diaz recounted, and McCullough said he rejected the deal.
Diaz said McCullough also referred to giving another girl a piggyback ride “in his dad’s father’s house.”
Diaz said McCullough spoke about a Kirk Swaggerty and called him “a snitch.” “He asked John Doe what happens to snitches,” Diaz said, “and Jack asked John Doe and me if we could do something to Kirk Swaggerty.”
At the prosecutor’s request, Diaz identified McCullough in the courtroom and said he had received no offers from the state’s attorney’s office in return for his testimony.
Interim Public Defender McCulloch used his cross-examination to grill Diaz about his criminal record, his probationary period and subsequent charges, and his contact with gang members after his conviction. Diaz explained that his fraudulent identification card “had my picture and my middle name but not my first name on it,” and he acknowledged he was born outside the United States and was under an immigration hold.
He told McCulloch he did not believe his testimony would help him with any of the pending actions against him, and acknowledged all the potential penalties for his pending charge of Aggravated Criminal Sexual Abuse, a Class 2 Felony. Diaz also agreed that the charge arose from him having sex with a 14-year-old. When McCulloch started asking Diaz what he told whom and when, the prosecution objected and the defense turned to other topics.
“When did you first contemplate writing the letter (to State’s Atty. Campbell)?” McCulloch asked.
“It happened once I realized that Jack was opening up to John Doe about his case,” Diaz responded, “and I thought it was the right thing to do.” He added that he didn’t call his lawyer or the arresting officer about the situation.
Defense drills in on discrepancies
McCulloch repeated questions about Diaz’s story, honing in on details and potential discrepancies in what was in the letter to Campbell and Wednesday’s testimony. He drilled in on Diaz’s statement about giving another girl a piggyback ride in McCullough’s grandfather’s home, and how Diaz recorded the conversations before he sent the letter on Sept. 4, among other topics.
Trevarthen asked, and Diaz affirmed, that he never attempted to clarify anything McCullough said. During the break before the next witness, Escarcida stepped to the news media gallery and cautioned the courtroom artist not to use any images of Diaz because of the delicate situation.
The prosecution next brought a bit of “Bones” to the courtroom with Dr. Krista Latham, a University of Indianapolis forensic anthropologist since 2007. She is the Director of the university’s anthropology laboratory and specializes in extracting DNA from skeletal remains. She has conducted workshops and training courses in the U.S. and Canada for audiences of all ages, including law-enforcement groups.
She was contacted by DeKalb County Coroner Dennis Miller and asked to observe the exhumation and subsequent autopsy of Maria Ridulph, and to conduct a detailed exam of skeletal remains to determine any evidence of trauma.
Photographs reviewed and explained
The bulk of her testimony was devoted to reviewing and explaining to Judge Hallock what some 20 or more photographs of the July 2011 exhumation and subsequent autopsy of Maria’s body, responding in the affirmative to the prosecutor’s question: “Does this photo fairly and accurately depict …?” whatever it showed.
She explained that she brought colleague Dr. Stephen Nawrocky and graduate students to observe as the casket was exhumed, taken to the county morgue and opened. They watched as a second autopsy was conducted, and they helped prepare the skeletal remains for shipment to the university laboratory.
During her testimony, McCullough was looking around the courtroom and peering at notes on the defense attorneys’ table.
Dr. Latham said her team took the remains to Indianapolis for a more detailed examination and described the kinds of procedures seen on the television show “Bones” for cleaning, reassembling and examining the remains.
Those procedures led to discovery of “multiple examples of cut marks,” she said, that were not discovered in the 1958 autopsy in Jo Daviess County.
“The cut marks we found were lower than the throat and much deeper, within the chest cavity,” Dr. Latham explained. “There were wounds on the front of the back bones and the inside of the breastbone.”
She showed visuals of two cut marks on one backbone, “clearly different from the scalpel and saw marks” in the original autopsy, as well as other injuries.
She described three “cutting events” in the chest area of the child, one diagonally from each shoulder and one straight down from neck area.
There was an unexplained break about 11:30 a.m. as McCullough was taken out for a few minutes. He was brought back shortly thereafter, minus his suit jacket in the warm courtroom. Before testimony resumed, Judge Hallock cautioned against discussion in the gallery – “talking with your neighbors, as they used to say in grade school.”
Dr. Latham explained that water in the casket, augmented by leaves and beetles that were interred with Maria, accelerated the degradation of any transfer (or touch) DNA, indicating that evidence of contact by another person would have disappeared long ago.
McCulloch used his used his cross-examination to clarify his understanding of some of the terminology Dr. Latham had used and to gain affirmation that no transfer DNA would be available.
Following a lunch break, Sycamore Police Det. Dan Hoffman -- who has been investigating the Ridulph case since June 2011 – testified about the area in Jo Daviess County where the girl’s body was found in Spring 1958. He indicated on old maps the Apple River area, Galena, Woodbine and Stockton.
The defense offered no cross-examination, but said they may recall Hoffman for later testimony.
"We need a conversation" – and a recess
State was going to call “John Doe” next, but Trevarthen said, “We need to have a conversation about John Doe.” The attorneys huddled at the judge’s bench and a recess was declared to allow the defense to interview the witness before he testified.
Eventually, “John Doe” was brought in wearing orange jail clothes, handcuffed and shackled. Trevarthen went through his criminal history – convicted of murder and home invasion, criminal damage to property, and unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon.
In late August, he was brought from a state penitentiary to the DeKalb County Jail to appear in court on his petition to have his life sentence changed to a determinate number of years. While there, he shared a cell with Diaz, and Jack McCullough was an inmate of his cellblock.
Doe said he had multiple conversations with the defendant. He said he met McCullough on his first or second day in the jail, and the defendant asked Doe if he had seen anything about McCullough’s case on TV. The next day, Doe said, McCullough asked him how long he’d been locked up.
“He asked me questions about the penitentiary and what it was like for people accused of crimes like his,” Doe said. “He asked if I knew anything about a 1956 or '57 child murder.”
In later conversations, Doe said, McCullough asked me more questions about prison.
“He said somebody from prison was testifying against him, a snitch,” Doe said. “He asked if I could protect him in prison, given the case that he had.”
Doe also recounted a new version of McCullough’s story: “He said he met the little girl and another girl, and one of the girls went home to get gloves or mitts, and he picked up the other girl and ran down an alley. He slipped and fell, and the little girl hit her head and started to yell. He was afraid, so he picked her up and took her to his house … and he pulled the little girl through the window into his room.
“He said his mother knew that he was there,” Doe said, “and that his mother despised him.”
Doe said he got more than one story from McCullough. “The defendant told me that he choked the girl,” Doe said, “then he changed it up later and said he choked her with a wire.
“He said he lied about his car having a flat tire; he said he put the girl in the back of the car and drove to Jo Daviess County. He said he placed her by some trees, some fallen trees or something.”
Doe reported having “many conversations” with McCullough, more or less corroborating the story offered by Diaz earlier in the day. He said McCullough loved to ramble.
“He would seem almost childlike, he would get almost giddy, if that’s the word,” Doe said. “Most of the time, when he would get to going, when he was talking about the little girl, he would get amped up about her.”
Doe recounted McCullough’s theory that “most criminals can draw” and his call to the FBI with a false story trying to throw the investigation off track.
Defense hammers on criminal record, status
Doe said he was not offered anything for his testimony, but McCulloch’s cross-examination hammered on Doe’s criminal status and his problem designation in prison, and suggested that Doe wanted to parlay his testimony into support for his petition for a change in sentence.
The defense attorney went so far as to ask, “Why are you called John Doe? Were you born to Mr. and Mrs. Doe?” Objections from the prosecution shut down that line of questioning, and McCulloch moved to other areas.
Cloyd Steiger and Michael Ciesynski, the Seattle Police detectives who accompanied McCullough on his extradition flight, were next to the stand. They told similar stories of the trip and the continuous conversation with their charge.
“He wanted to talk with us about the Casey Anthony case,” Steiger said. “He said she had to wait a long time to be set free, just as he would be set free after a long time.”
During the flight, both said McCullough described Maria as “a beautiful little Barbie doll.” Both also noted that the defendant wanted them to note the time it took to go from Chicago to Sycamore, that it was important.
Both also said McCullough denied taking a train out of Chicago on the day of the abduction.
“He said he went to Rockford,” Steiger said. “There was a guy who was going to Rockford, so he hitched a ride to Rockford because it was close to Sycamore … He said he called his dad, but his dad couldn’t come so he hitchhiked home.”
When McCullough got to Sycamore that night, “he said he climbed into his house through the side window,” Ciesynski testified. “He said he climbed onto the garbage cans and through the window.”
Both detectives also related how McCullough said the body was found 120 miles south of Sycamore, and he never went south. They said McCullough told them he would have taken the body to the Kishwaukee River, if he had committed the crime, because he went shooting there.
They told about stopping for lunch at a Steak ‘n’ Shake along with the Illinois State Police officers who provided the SUV to transport the trio from O’Hare airport to Sycamore. Ciesynski sat in a booth with McCullough while Steiger sat behind their charge and took notes on the back of a placement whenever McCullough spoke.
“He told us about his car, how proud he was of it,” Steiger said. “He said he bought it with money from a paper route.”
When they arrived in Sycamore, they drove around to various sights that McCullough remembered from his adolescence, including his old neighborhood. Both said they stopped in front of the former Tessier home – McCullough was known as John Tessier in the 1950s – and he pointed out the window where he said he secretly climbed into his home. He also showed them the house where the Ridulphs had lived.
“He said Sycamore was like Mayberry or Happy Days,” Steiger said.
Digging at the accuracy of testimony
Assistant Public Defender Robert Carlson cross-examined both men, digging at the accuracy of the details in the testimony. Both detectives had needed to refer to their reports of the extradition to refresh their memories. Carlson asked about conversations on several subjects, leading basically to one point:
“He did not admit that he had any involvement in Maria’s kidnap or murder,” Steiger acknowledged.
As court adjourned for the day about 4:45 p.m., Escarcida said the prosecution would have only two witnesses on Thursday and then would rest its case.