Jack McCullough Granted New Trial In 1957 Child-Murder Case, Released On Recognizance

Apr 15, 2016

Jack McCullough's conviction in  the 1957 murder of a Sycamore girl has been vacated and he has been ordered released from custody on his own recognizance.

Jack McCullough in a DeKalb courtroom earlier this year.
Credit Danielle Guerra / Daily Chronicle

McCullough, 76, has been jailed in some fashion since he was arrested in his Seattle-area home in July 2011. He has been serving a life sentence in the Pontiac Correctional Center. He is required to remain in Illinois as part of the release order.

At the time of the original trial in September 2012, the disappearance of Maria Ridulph from a street corner near her home in December 1957 and her subsequent death was the oldest cold case brought to trial in the United States. McCullough was found guilty of murder, a verdict which was upheld on appeal.

DeKalb County Judge William Brady said he would not declare the 76-year-old defendant innocent of the charge but, based on certain evidence uncovered by DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack and used by defense lawyers in their petition, ordered a new trial.

"I'm not going to issue a ruling of guilt or innocence," Brady told defense attorneys Gabriel Fuentes and Shaun Van Horn during discussion of the petition.

Fuentes told the judge he believed Schmack would decline to pursue a new trial since the prosecutor had submitted a lengthy report last month that detailed errors in the investigation and original trial.

McCullough, 76, has been jailed in some fashion since he was arrested in his Seattle-area home in July 2011. He has been serving a life sentence in the Pontiac Correctional Center. He is required to remain in Illinois as part of the release order.

At the time of the original trial in September 2012, the disappearance of Maria Ridulph from a street corner near her home in December 1957 and her subsequent death was the oldest cold case brought to trial in the United States. McCullough was found guilty of murder, a verdict which was upheld on appeal.

DeKalb County Judge William Brady said he would not declare the 76-year-old defendant innocent of the charge but, based on certain evidence uncovered by DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack and used by defense lawyers in their petition, ordered a new trial.

"I'm not going to issue a ruling of guilt or innocence," Brady told defense attorneys Gabriel Fuentes and Shaun Van Horn during discussion of the petition.

Fuentes told the judge he believed Schmack would decline to pursue a new trial since the prosecutor had submitted a lengthy report last month that detailed errors in the investigation and original trial.

Brady specifically cited three of those points in issuing his ruling today:

  • Phone company records show the phone which McCullough -- then known as John Tessier -- used to make a collect call home shortly before 7 p.m. Dec. 3, 1957, was in the Post Office in downtown Rockford. This corroborates the alibi put forward by the defense.
  • Maria Ridulph's playmate, Kathy Sigman, had previously misidentified other individuals of different descriptions as the person who gave Maria a piggy-back ride on that night.
  • A "John Doe" witness said during the first trial that he had not been promised any special considerations for testifying that McCullough had admitted to the crime in jail. That witness later claimed in an appeal of his own case that he had been promised special considerations.

Brady put off until next week any discussion of a motion by Charles Ridulph, Maria's elder brother, to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case in the future. Ridulph asked for a continuance since his attorney wasn't available today, and Brady set a hearing for 9 a.m. next Friday. Brady told Ridulph his motion has to wait anyway since it is not relevant to McCullough's post-conviction motions today. 

Throughout the hearing, Judge Brady reiterated that he cannot ignore the law of this case. He said he had tried to read the transcripts of the original trial with an open mind, not re-litigating the matter.

Schmack says the exclusion of old reports from the original trial, which could have been used to show McCullough's innocence, was a generic exclusion. It didn't review specific facts related to the time of the kidnapping versus the time of a phone call McCullough made from Rockford.

Schmack, who has been accused of bias by the family of the victim, said, "Compliance with my ethical obligations is my sole motive in this proceeding."  In the same vein, Judge Brady told the courtroom  that state's attorneys are at the hub of justice and have the responsibility to dismiss cases when they think the person is innocent, so he doesn't question Schmack's motives.

McCullough’s stepdaughter Janey O’Connor characterized Schmack’s actions as “brave.”

“This case is about the epidemic that is facing our county. An epidemic of immoral and criminal behavior perpetrated by the very people we put into positions of power and authority. Laws are not just for the poor; they are for everyone.”

But for a family and community who believe the right person was behind bars, today’s ruling opened up an old wound, and more questions about the legal system. Maria Ridulph’s sister Patricia Quinn:

“What is there to say? This guy is guilty. We know he is guilty. To let him out on his own recognizance? Does that make sense? Does that make sense for a convicted murderer?"

Schmack's office issued a news release shortly after noon stating that "The State’s Attorney is currently reviewing the impact of the Judge’s ruling and will have no further comment today."

  • WNIJ's Victor Yehling, Jenna Dooley, Katie Finlon, and Susan Stephens contributed to this report. Follow our live tweets from the courtroom @wnijnews