The City of Seattle has paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed against the Police Department and three now-retired detectives who helped investigate and arrest a Seattle man accused in the sensational cold-case abduction and murder of a 7-year-old Illinois girl in 1957.
Jack Daniel McCullough, now 78, a former Washington police officer, was arrested by Seattle police in 2011 after Illinois prosecutors and detectives claimed to have new evidence implicating McCullough in the murder of Maria Ridulph, who disappeared off a Sycamore, Illinois, street corner one snowy evening in December 1957. Her skeletal remains were found that April near Galena, Illinois, about 100 miles to the northwest.
McCullough was convicted in Illinois after a bench trial in 2012 of murder, infant abduction and kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison.
However, a new prosecutor elected in DeKalb County reviewed the case and concluded that McCullough could not have committed the crime. After additional investigation, he asked another judge to throw out the conviction. All charges were dismissed, and McCullough sued officers in Illinois and Seattle over allegations of “pervasive misconduct,” including allegations of perjury.
The city of Seattle, representing a trio of detectives who worked the case — Cloyd Steiger, Irene Lau and Michael Ciesynski — settled its portion of the lawsuit in May. McCullough already had settled with the other defendants for a total of $445,000. His case is now listed on the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations.
All three detectives have since retired from the SPD. Department spokesman Detective Mark Jamieson said he could not comment on the case because the individuals were no longer employed there. Telephone messages seeking comment from Lau and Ciesynski were not immediately returned.
However, Steiger, a veteran homicide detective now working as chief criminal investigator at the Washington State Attorney General’s Homicide Investigation Tracking System (HITS), was unapologetic about his role in the investigation and McCullough’s arrest.
“That he got a penny is an outrage,” Steiger said Wednesday. “He killed that little girl.”
Steiger believes the case was influenced by “small town politics and corruption” in Illinois.
The disappearance of Maria Ridulph in December 1957 terrorized the community of Sycamore and shocked the nation. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Dwight 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.
McCullough was a neighbor of the victim at the time of the killing, but he had long ago been cleared by authorities before a renewed effort was launched to solve the case.
McCullough emerged as a suspect in the new push, and he ultimately was convicted. However, a new prosecutor said a review found flaws in the case and determined his alibi was solid.
Phone records ultimately proved 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.
Court transcripts showed that detective Lau, a 22-year veteran at the time of the trial, testified McCullough had described Maria as stunningly beautiful and “lovely, lovely, lovely,” and talked about her “as if he was talking about someone he had been deeply, deeply in love with,” according to news reports during the trial.
However, a recording of the interview obtained by McCullough’s son-in-law through a public-disclosure request showed McCullough never made the “lovely, lovely, lovely” statement.
At one point in the video, McCullough refers to Maria as “just an adorable little girl, big brown eyes, and everybody in the neighborhood loved her.”
In another comment, he appears to call her a “loved little girl,” although the clarity of his words is not precise.
The video “appears to contradict” elements of Lau’s narrative account prepared shorty after interviewing McCullough on June 29, 2011, and her Sept. 10, 2012, trial testimony, the court petition says.
During the trial, an assistant state’s attorney told the court there was no video or audio of the Seattle police interview, according to the petition.
“I’ve known he was innocent all along, I knew he could never have done such a thing, but nobody would listen to me,” McCullough’s wife, Susan McCullough, said in an interview. “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.”
McCullough was 18 and went by the name John Tessier when Maria disappeared. He changed his name in 1994.
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.