A young, second-grade girl was abducted and dragged into the woods where she was choked with wire as her assailant, believed to be Jack Daniel McCullough, stabbed her repeatedly until she went limp. The year was 1957 and the girl, Maria Ridolph, laid where she had been murdered until the winter had passed to spring. The attack was so brutal to the small farming community of Sycamore, Illinois that it garnered the attention of then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as well as former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ridolph’s case went on to be one of the longest cold-case murders in U.S. history, ending only when McCullough was captured and convicted in 2012, 57 years after Maria’s death. 2 years later McCullough is now demanding a retrial, stating his conviction was not on proper evidence and was “emotionally based” rather than based on facts.
“The evidence against Jack McCullough,” his appeal litigated, “was so unreasonable, so improbable, and so unsatisfactory as to create a reasonable doubt that he was responsible for a 1957 murder, kidnapping, and abduction of an infant.”
The evidence in question included odd bits such as “personal memories of what occurred 55 years ago; a photo identification made 53 years after the incident; testimony from jailhouse informants; innocuous statements from the defendant; and an improperly admitted and inconclusive statement from the defendant’s mother while on morphine and Haldol just before her death.”
While the defense may seem incredible, it’s not without its merit. Take for example the “star” witness in the case, Kathy Sigman Chapman, who was the last person to see Ridolph alive. She was 8 years old at the time she now claims McCullough kidnapped her friend. However, at the time she could not identify anyone in the town or in the thousands of pictures to place the face of the mysterious “Johnny” who identified himself and asked if the two girls wanted a piggyback ride. Maria, who took the ride, and the stranger were never seen again. It was only 53 years later, when she was in her 60’s and officers approached her with a picture she had not seen at the time that she made the connection.
That would be decent enough evidence for a conviction, however in 1957, when Jack McCullough was only 17, he already had a solid alibi. His stepfather, Ralph Tessier, told the FBI that he had taken Jack to an Air Force recruiting station in Rockford, over 40 miles away from where the attack had taken place. McCullough had been a suspect because he went by the name “Johnny Tessier” at the time, but there was no other evidence holding him to the case.
Then there is the prison admission that claims McCullough admitted to the crime to another inmate. Kirk Swaggerty, a convicted murderer who did time in the DeKalb County Jail with McCullough in 2011, testifies that the strangling of Ridolph was an accident.
“He said he was giving her a piggyback ride on his shoulders, and when she fell, she wouldn’t stop screaming, and when she wouldn’t keep quiet, he suffocated her,” Swaggerty said. While used as testimony, it doesn’t explain why Jack would have used a flexible wire to do this, nor why he had stabbed her. Under cross-examination it was discovered that Swaggerty was being offered a lesser sentence for his testimony, which is why he had taken his time coming out with the information. Still, Swaggerty claims he did not give the testimony in hopes of a reward.
“I really wanted to do something right,” he said. “I’m going to die in prison. I just felt like I should do it.”
On the judicial end of the system, it also appeared that McCullough was being railroaded. The court papers state that the judge’s pretrial rulings prevented McCullough from presenting his defense. He was refused the right to call witness, former Sycamore police detective Patrick Solar, whose research into the case had concluded another man, now in his grave, was the killer. He was also refused the right to bring in police and FBI reports from the 1957 investigation that showed he had been cleared a suspect because of his alibi. In these documents were eye-witness accounts by military recruiting staff who had been with McCullough that day, as well as a collect phone call record, which now no longer exists, that shows the phone call Jack made to his home at 6:57 p.m.
While there appears something was playing in the backgrounds of the trial, Jack McCullough wasn’t exactly the good guy he portrays himself as. His service as a police officer was terminated in the 1980’s when he was accused of sexually abusing a runaway teenager that he and his girlfriend had brought into their home. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the case. Then there is a claim by one of his own sisters that McCullough and two other men sexually assaulted her in 1962. While initially charged with the crime, Judge Robbin Stuckert dismissed it in April.
It is this sister and one other who claim that their mother, Eileen Tessier, confessed her son’s guilt shortly before cancer had taken her. One of the sisters, however, claims that her mother only whispered, “He did it,” without offering any other information on what she was talking about. To confront this, defense lawyers brought in the surgeon who has worked on her just before the admission, where he notes Eileen Tessier’s condition as “pleasantly confused.”.
Click here to read the appeal.
1957 murder convict Jack McCullough files appeal in Sycamore death of Maria Ridulph, 7
— ABC 7 Chicago (@ABC7Chicago) April 23, 2014