Jack McCullough trial
3:51 pm
Thu September 13, 2012

Testimony Ends; Defendant Doesn't Testify

Testimony is over in the murder-kidnap trial of Jack Daniel McCullough, accused of abducting and killing 7-year-old Maria Ridulph from a street corner just three doors from her Sycamore home on the evening of Dec. 3, 1957.

The child's badly decomposed body was found a few months later in a wooded area off U.S. 20 near Woodbine in Jo Daviess County.

The defendant's fate is now in the hands of Judge James Hallock.

The state wound up its case in the morning with three witnesses, and the defense offered one witness before the lunch break.

Attempts to enter medical evidence to contradict testimony that the defendant's mother accused him on her deathbed were thwarted somewhat by prosecution objections, and testimony came to an end.

At the start of the day, prosecutors presented video recordings from the DeKalb County Jail for various dates and times referred to by inmates Christopher Diaz and John Doe when they testified Wednesday about jailhouse conversations with defendant Jack McCullough. The dates ranged from Sept. 1 through 5 this year, when all three were in Block G of the jail.

Chief Defense Attorney Tom McCulloch complained about the “amazingly late” disclosure and asked that it be barred from being played in the court.

“It is a day late and a dollar short,” he said. “I would have wanted to have time to review the recordings before Diaz testified.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Victor Escardia explained that the continuous recording system in the jail required a very long time to download, so they were unable to provide recordings sooner.

“If we are going to do this, we have to go through four or five all-day disks just to determine if these are the right times,” McCulloch said. “Is there audio?”

When Escardia responded that there was no audio, the matter seemed to drop.

The prosecution brought in Sycamore Police Sgt. Steven Cook, who went to Seattle in June 2011 to help with the investigation and arrest of McCullough. He testified that he and other officers went to the McCullough apartment, where he interviewed McCullough’s wife Susan while other officers arrested McCullough and still others searched the apartment.

After some legal wrangling over how questions should be asked, Cook acknowledged that Susan McCullough, at officers’ request, had opened a large gun safe in the apartment where Cook had seen a box of ammunition. Escardia asked, “Was the opening of the safe ever released to public?”  Cook replied, “Not that I am aware of.”

Cook was followed to the stand by Kirk Swaggerty, 42, an inmate at Menard Correctional Center serving 33 years for a 2011 murder conviction and home invasion. He also was convicted of drug offense in DuPage County in the late 1990s and is seeking leniency on the murder penalty.

Conversations with McCullough reported

Swaggerty was in the DeKalb County Jail 2009 in late July through early August 2011 during his murder trial.  He had contact with McCullough at that time, he testified, and he sent a letter to the DeKalb County State’s Attorney about his conversations with the McCullough.

Swaggerty explained that inmates were allowed an hour per day in the jail’s multipurpose room to read books, watch TV and talk. He said he was housed in G Block and the defendant was in a segregation cell at that time, but he used the multipurpose room at same time as G Block.

The first time the two men met, according to Swaggerty, the multipurpose room TV was showing a news story about McCullough’s case, and Swaggerty asked if McCullough was the person in the news story. “He said ‘yes’ and we just started talking,” Swaggerty recounted. “I told him I was extradited as well.” Under questioning, he added, “It was obvious he was being charged with a 50-year-old murder.”

In their second conversation, also in the multipurpose room, they talked about lawyers and attorneys, Swaggerty said.  “I asked about his crime,” he testified, “and I asked if he was going to take a plea or jury trial.

“He said he would probably get probation if he had a jury trial because it was an accident,” Swaggerty said McCullough told him. “He said he was giving the girl a piggyback ride on his shoulders and she fell and started screaming. He tried to keep her quiet and she suffocated.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Trevarthen asked if McCullough had mentioned a dream, and Swaggerty offered this account: “He said he had dream that a  guy called Johnny killed the girl, and he lived just a few blocks away from the girl. Later he told me he used to be called Johnny.”

Swaggerty said McCullough also told him that, when he was arrested, investigators pulled his wife aside and made her open a gun safe.

About the defendant’s prospects, “He said you had no evidence whatever,” Swaggerty recalled. “The only evidence you had was 50 years old; that you didn’t have any DNA evidence, and if you did he would plea bargain.”

Swaggert said McCullough believed the case made him a celebrity and he could probably get a “dream team” of attorneys.

Swaggert agreed that he had written to the State’s Attorney and to Illinois State Police Special Agent Brion Hanley, and that he had met with Hanley and a detective from Sycamore, getting “just a little more specific about what I remembered.”

"I want to do something right."

Asked why he would offer this information, Swaggerty said, “I want to do something right. I’m going to die in prison; I just thought I should do it.” He said he had received no promises in return for his testimony.

On cross-examination, McCulloch repeated the litany of Swaggerty’s offenses, of his flight to Mexico to avoid arrest and prosecution, of his extradition from there and return to DeKalb County, his pending motion to reconsider his sentence, and letters he wrote to investigators and prosecutors about various crimes.

“I was trying to come clean about everything,” Swaggerty said. “I wrote letters about drug dealers I knew …  a letter about Jack, a letter to my attorney. I was trying to come clean.”

McCulloch also questioned details of the reported meetings with the defendant, who said what and when.

Trevarthen asked Swaggerty to repeat McCullough’s statement about DNA, and Swaggerty recited, “He said that they didn’t have any DNA, and if they find some then he would ask for a plea bargain.”

DeKalb County Deputy Sgt. Katherine Christensen, a jail operations sergeant, provided explanations of the jail’s physical layout and of various procedures, including inmate inspection logs, where activities and events on each shift are recorded.

She also explained that inmates are let out of the cells by cell block to go to the multipurpose room for one hour each day, and that prisoners in segregation cells went with a cellblock.

McCullough's cell block mates confirmed

She confirmed that McCullough, Diaz and John Doe were in G Block together the first several days of this month. She also confirmed that Swaggerty was in G Block and McCullough in J1 holding cell from late July through mid-August.

She reviewed certain logs that appeared to confirm that Swaggerty and McCullough were in the multipurpose room together at least twice, although there was a small discrepancy on the log regarding the second visit.

McCulloch leaned on that discrepancy in cross examination, and he also asked Christensen about possible gang affiliation of Christopher Diaz, who had testified earlier this week that he was not a member of a gang.

Christensen agreed that a gang roster prepared by other deputies listed Diaz as a member of the Ambrose gang, and that Diaz had been disciplined for an infraction. “He had written an A for Ambrose on his jail uniform,” she said. “That indicates that he is a gang member of Ambrose.”

Following her testimony, the defense rested and the court recessed for lunch.

The first item after lunch was a motion by Defense Counsel McCulloch for a directed verdict in favor of defendant.

“The only evidence is that which is subject to 50 years time passage,” he said, “the declaration of a mother who was ill and mentally disturbed, and testimony from three snitches.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Trevarthen objected, citing each of the charges – murder and the abduction of an infant – and testimony by prosecution witnesses validating that the crimes occurred. She also pointed to contradictions offered to previously published accounts of McCullough’s activities at that time, when he was known as John Tessier, and the identification of Tessier by friends and family members.

Judge Hallock said he believed there was enough evidence for the case to be considered and denied the defense motion for a directed verdict.

The first defense witness was Mary Tessier Hunt, McCullough’s half sister, who was asked about her mother Eileen Tessier’s purported comments on her deathbed. Hunt, a nurse, acknowledged that her mother was hospitalized for a period before her death on Jan. 23, 1994, and was basically and on medication.

Asked about sister Janet Tessier’s report that their mother had made a deathbed declaration that Johnny had killed Maria Ridulph, Hunt stated, “She said, ‘he did it’.” Hunt told Assistant Public Defender Robert Carlson that her mother did not further identify who was meant by “he” or what was meant by “did it.”

Trevarthen asked if Hunt recalled her mother being lucid at times, and whether she was not comatose until the last week, with an affirmative response. “When your mother said ‘he did it,’ did you know who she was talking about?” Trevarthen asked. Hunt responded, “Yes.”

Objections made to medical records

When the lunch break ended at 1 p.m. the defense was attempting to call someone from the record office at Kishwaukee Community Hospital, but there were objections from the hospital attorney due to privacy restrictions. The defense team prepared a court order directing the records testimony, and Judge Hallock signed it.

Stephanie Roberts, Assistant Director of Health Information Management, reviewed part of the subpoenaed medical record of Eileen Tessier for January 1994 and was preparing to testify about the diagnosis when State’s Attorney Clay Campbell objected on grounds of hearsay.

After a bench conference, the objection was sustained and Roberts was dismissed.

Then Dr. John Prabhakar, M.D., a surgeon in the area for three decades who retired eight years ago, came to the stand. He testified that he had no recollection of treating Eileen Tessier in January 1994 but, after reviewing hospital records, he recalled a surgical consult for a patient of Dr. Goldman.

“She had metastatic cancer with constant pain medication,” Prabhakar said. “I put a line in her neck for continuous morphine infusion.”

The doctor noted that the side effects of morphine and another medication could include sleepiness and confusion.

“I put down at time that she was pleasantly confused and disoriented,” he said. “It must have impressed me if I put it in the notes.”

Carlson noted the term “unspecified psychosis” in the patient’s diagnosis and started to question Prabhakar about that, but the doctor demurred.“I’m a surgeon, not a psychiatrist,” he said, noting that his only training was “on a psych rotation in medical school, but nothing since.”

He told Campbell under cross-examination that he spent only about a half hour total with Eileen Tessier and could not testify to her mental state on any other day.

Judge Hallock advised McCullough that he has the right to testify or to not testify, with no presumption of guilt if he declined. “You and only you can make that decision; it is up to you and you alone,” the judge said. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, your honor, I understand,” the defendant said. “I choose not to testify.” He said he was not being coerced and was not under the influence of anything that would affect his judgment.

Then the defense rested.

The state offered no rebuttal and objected to admitting hospital records into evidence based on statute and case law.

Hallock recessed the court until 9 a.m. Friday to review the case. “I would be remiss if I didn’t go through all my notes and all the evidence,” he said.