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End Of The Road For McCullough Case?

Susan Stephens
DeKalb County Courthouse

The case of The People vs. Jack McCullough is back in a DeKalb County courtroom Friday. The story of the disappearance of Maria Ridulph spans seven decades.

Seven-year-old Maria Ridulph of Sycamore was kidnapped and murdered in 1957. Jack McCullough was convicted in the cold case in 2012: He was freed earlier this year when his conviction was vacated.

A lot happened in between.

Maria Ridulph’s disappearance from a street corner on a snowy December evening rocked her hometown. Search parties combed the area, the FBI set up shop, 200 possible suspects were interviewed. Nothing. Daily Chronicle Editor Eric Olson:

“They were really working hard to find out what had happened to this little girl; it was a national story. So it wasn’t as though there was a slipshod investigation done and, you know, people didn’t dot their Is and cross their Ts. The feds were working on this very hard and dredged up a whole lot of dirt on people in the community.

Four months after she disappeared, Maria’s body was found by mushroom hunters, more than a hundred miles from her home.

“The investigation went cold after a few years because simply there wasn’t any leads,” says former DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell. He ended up reviving that investigation when a suspect emerged, more than 50 years later, “We’ve been fairly astonished at not only the leads that we have gotten, but the recollection of some of the local residents and they’ve been absolutely critical in assisting us in this case”

In 2008, a woman contacted the Illinois State Police to say her half-brother Jack McCullough had killed Ridulph. She said her mother told her so from her death bed. Two years later, Kathy Sigman Chapman identified a line-up photo of a teenage McCullough as “Johnny,” the man who gave them piggyback rides the night Maria disappeared.

McCullough was arrested in Seattle in 2011 and charged with kidnapping and murder. Campbell would lead the prosecution in a bench trial -- no jury -- in a DeKalb County courtroom not far from where Ridulph disappeared.

Campbell says he was “... struck by the fact that it was never given up as a lost cause and that there was always some law enforcement officer out there that had it in the back of his mind that that’s the cold case were going to solve.”

In mid-September 2012, Maria Ridulph’s brother Charles took the stand as the first witness in McCullough’s trial. Over the next four days, Chapman, McCullough’s half-sisters, fellow inmates, and a forensic anthropologist testified against the former police officer. Judge James Hallock found him guilty of murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced three months later to life in prison. The appeals began. And State’s Attorney Clay Campbell lost his bid for re-election to Richard Schmack.  

“I want nothing more than for Jack to live to see the end, but he’s an old man," said Janey O'Conner, McCullough's stepdaughter, "but he is strong and determined and has from day one said he was innocent.”

O’Connor supported her stepfather throughout the trial and appeals. And, in March 2016, McCullough received news he’d been waiting for: State’s Attorney Richard Schmack released the court-ordered review of the case that he’d been working on for the previous half year. Records showed McCullough was in Rockford around the time Ridulph disappeared from Sycamore -- too far away to have kidnapped her.

McCullough let the judge know he was ready to move on: “Your honor, I’ve been in prison, locked up now for about for almost five years," he said in court. "I’m innocent, and I can prove I’m innocent, and there has to be an end to this somewhere.”

On April 15, McCullough’s conviction was vacated and he was free for the first time in years. But Maria Ridulph’s family wasn’t buying it, including her sister Patricia Quinn:

“What is there to say? This guy is guilty," Quinn said. "We know he’s guilty. And to let him out on his own recognizance? Does that make sense, own recognizance, does that make sense for a convicted murderer?

Ridulph’s family wants a special prosecutor appointed to the case. They contend Schmack is biased and made a campaign promise to free McCullough. Schmack says that, as much as he wanted it, he could not find the evidence to keep McCullough imprisoned

“Because the conflict, to the extent that there is one, is not a conflict of interest, it’s a conflict of conclusion between the conclusion to which I arrived and the conclusion that Mr. Ridulph arrived.”

Judge William Brady will hear testimony tomorrow, then may decide if a special prosecutor is needed. Meanwhile, no matter how the case turns out, Charles Ridulph says there’s still a lot of love in Sycamore for his little sister.

“Maria’s not being forgotten, I have no fears of that.”

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.
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