DeKalb County Cold Case Defies Odds

Dec 11, 2012

The sentencing of Jack McCullough Monday capped the successful prosecution of a high-profile cold case. While an appeal is expected, the life-in-prison term gives law enforcement officials hope about the future of this type of investigative work. That’s despite many of the hurdles in their way.

The sentence handed down to Jack McCullough was for the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph, the young Sycamore girl who disappeared outside her home. An intense manhunt and investigation followed. But the trail grew cold, and no one was charged.

Fast-forward several decades. Illinois State Police investigators receive a tip and follow up on it. Their review of the facts led them to Washington state, where the suspect had settled into a new life. McCullough was later charged in what was one of the oldest cold cases in the U.S. to make it to trial.

State Police Detective Brion Hanley says the conviction secured by DeKalb County prosecutors was a victory for those in the field who have devoted their time to solving these crimes.  

“I think it sends a strong message that it’s cold, but yet, it’s not frozen. You have to look at every piece of the puzzle” Hanley said.

Larry Kot was the intelligence analyst who worked with Hanley on the case. He stresses the importance of making sure that each tip receives a proper review.

“No matter how small it may seem, it’s just something you really have to thoroughly take a look at. In this case, one thing led to another, and here we are today” Kot said.

The two men said they ran into challenges along the way, including the speed bumps you might expect in a case as old as this one: Deceased witnesses, destroyed documents.

Brion Hanley says it becomes especially hard when agencies like the Illinois State Police have to deal with budget constraints, making it difficult to spread around resources.

“Flying to Seattle, getting in touch with citizens of Sycamore who have now moved to other states that we personally needed to go interview. It costs money” Hanley said.

Hanley says they were able to do those things, but the current fiscal environment prolonged their investigation.

Joe Giacalone is a retired New York City police officer and is considered by many to be a cold case expert. He says smaller budgets are putting more pressure on these units.

“The trend – cold case detective – is probably going by way of the dinosaur. However, cold case investigations will never end. They’ll always be taken up by somebody else whose gonna have to take up a second or third job within their day-to-day activities” Giacalone said. 

Giacalone points to what’s happening in Seattle, where officials are in the process of shutting down their cold case squad because federal grants have dried up.

As for the McCullough case, Giacalone says it’s rare for an unsolved murder this old to come this far without relying on DNA evidence.

“I think this will be a framework for use for future cold cases” Giacalone said.

Giacalone says that might happen in states that have laws favorable to hearsay evidence.

One person not satisfied with the outcome of this case is McCullough’s stepdaughter. Janey O’Connner questions how the proceedings got to this point.

“What is it for notoriety? Was it for fame? Cold cases don’t normally come to trial without the advancement of technology behind them” O’Conner said.

But state police investigator Brion Hanley says their re-examination of the case involved nearly four years of thorough detective work that brought the right man to justice.