An Illinois prosecutor announced Friday that a Seattle man was wrongly convicted in 2012 of the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old girl in 1957, believed to be the nation’s oldest cold-case conviction.
Susan McCullough of Seattle is grateful but not surprised by the startling turn of events that could free her husband from an Illinois prison.
An Illinois prosecutor announced Friday that her husband, Jack McCullough, could not have abducted and killed a 7-year-old girl in Northern Illinois in 1957, a crime that sent him to prison for life in 2012.
“I’ve known he was innocent all along, I knew he could never have done such a thing, but nobody would listen to me,” said Susan McCullough, 63. “The state’s attorney knew Jack was innocent, but wanted to close the oldest cold case in history and he didn’t care who he pinned it on.”
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack said his six-month review firmed up an alibi and convinced him it was a “manifest impossibility” that Jack McCullough could have been anywhere near the area when Maria Ridulph disappeared in the small community of Sycamore.
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The disappearance of Maria on Dec. 3, 1957, terrorized Sycamore, about 70 miles west of Chicago, and shocked the nation. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower both took an active interest in the case, according to reports.
Maria’s 8-year-old friend said the two girls had been playing in a neighbor’s front yard when a man named “Johnny” came up and asked to give them a piggyback ride. The friend went inside for a moment, and when she returned, Maria was gone.
Maria’s body was found five months later about 100 miles from her home.
The slaying remained a mystery for decades before McCullough, who was initially cleared in the case, was charged in 2011.
McCullough is a longtime Washington state resident who served as a police officer in Lacey and Milton, according to court documents. At the time of his arrest he was working as the night watchman at The Four Freedoms House of Seattle, a 300-unit retirement home in North Seattle, where he lived with his wife.
Susan McCullough said she believes that her husband of 23 years will be released from prison over the next few days.
She said that during her husband’s imprisonment he endured humiliation, was put in a tiny cell and was stabbed in the eye by another inmate she described as a violent, crazy person.
“The guards would put dangerous people in with him intentionally,” she said. “It’s been a really rough road.”
Susan McCullough and her husband are considering filing a lawsuit for wrongful prosecution and imprisonment, she said.
Seattle police played a significant role in the investigation, questioning McCullough and testifying at his trial.
Seattle Detective Irene Lau testified McCullough referred to Maria as “stunningly beautiful” and “lovely, lovely, lovely,” but denied any role in her death, according to news reports.
After McCullough’s conviction, another Seattle police detective told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that McCullough “didn’t confess but we caught him in so many lies.”
The newspaper’s 2012 story quoted an Illinois police official about the role of Seattle police. Had “it not been for the assistance of the Seattle Police Department,” the official wrote to then-police chief John Diaz, “it is unlikely that charges against Mr. McCullough would have been approved.”
McCullough’s stepdaughter, Janey O’Connor, 38, of Shoreline, said Friday she was disturbed that Illinois and Seattle police treated McCullough as guilty from the beginning.
“That’s not what our laws are based on,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said she was “pretty shocked” about the turn of events, having assumed McCullough would die in prison because of the slow wheels of justice.
Seattle police declined to comment Friday, referring questions to Illinois prosecutors.
Schmack said his office will not oppose a defense motion to dismiss the conviction, although it’s unclear when McCullough could go free, the Chicago Tribune reported.
McCullough, now 75, was a neighbor of the victim at the time of the killing. He had long ago been cleared by authorities before a renewed effort was launched to solve the case.
New evidence included recently subpoenaed phone records proving that McCullough made a collect call to his parents from a phone booth in the city of Rockford, about 35 miles from Sycamore, just minutes after the abduction took place — which had always been McCullough’s professed alibi, but it had previously come under doubt.
Testimony that the abduction had taken place earlier has been discredited, Schmack said, meaning there was no possibility McCullough could have committed the crime and driven to Rockford in time to place that call.
“I know there are people who will never believe that he is not responsible for the crime,” Schmack said in a statement. “But I cannot allow that to sway me from my sworn duty.”
Schmack was not the state’s attorney who prosecuted the case. His office was ordered to conduct the review as part of a push by McCullough’s attorney for a new trial.
McCullough was 18 and went by the name John Tessier when Maria disappeared. He changed his name in 1994.
After he moved to Washington state as an adult, McCullough was fired from the Milton Police Department after he was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage runaway and pleaded guilty to unlawful communication with a minor, according to an affidavit of probable cause.