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Prosecutor seeks to drop charges in ’57 cold case

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SYCAMORE, Illinois– One of the nation’s coldest cases could return to the deep freeze on Friday as a prosecutor seeks to dismiss charges he says sent an innocent man to prison for the 1957 murder of a little girl.

Jack Daniel McCullough, 76, has been free since his murder conviction was thrown out a week ago. But the question of whether he could be tried again had been left unresolved. And so, he is back in court, hoping he’ll be cleared for good so he can return home to Seattle.

He has spent nearly five years behind bars.

Others will come to court on Friday, too, but they will be looking for ways to keep this cold case closed. Charles Ridulph, a 70-year-old church deacon, is seeking appointment of a special prosecutor to protect the conviction of a man he is certain killed his 7-year-old sister, Maria.

A petition circulating around town and on social media urges residents of “old Sycamore” to “stand up” with Ridulph. “We have lost all confidence in the impartiality and integrity of our criminal justice system,” the petition states, leveling sharp criticism at DeKalb County state’s attorney Richard Schmack, who took a second look at the case and decided that McCullough was innocent.

More than 200 people had signed the petition by the time it was submitted to the court on Thursday afternoon. Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy’s name tops the list, along with his personal appeal to appoint a special prosecutor to restore the community’s faith in the justice system. A longtime friend of the Ridulph family, he called Schmack a “rogue” prosecutor “who refused to follow the law” and respect the decisions of the trial and appeals courts.

A plaque remembering Maria Ridulph stands in front of Sycamore’s police station, and the mystery of what happened to her has cast a long shadow. In the half century since her murder, Sycamore has grown from an isolated farming town of 5,000 to a Chicago exurb of 17,600 people. But nearly everybody knows about Maria, the little girl who was snatched away by a man who called himself “Johnny” and gave her a piggyback ride on a December evening.

McCullough grew up in a tiny, crowded house around the corner from the Ridulphs and joined the U.S. Air Force less than two weeks after Maria vanished.

He was questioned and cleared by the FBI before he left home, but was arrested in Seattle in 2011 after investigators began looking into the case again following a tip. McCullough was taken to Sycamore and tried the following year by a judge brought in from a neighboring county.

Although the case spanned 55 years by then, testimony lasted just four days. Among the witnesses against McCullough were several of his siblings. People who crowded into the courtroom cheered when the guilty verdict was announced.

McCullough always insisted he was innocent — and always said he could prove it. That proof was contained in the thousands of pages of police and FBI reports that were barred from his trial, he said.

Schmack agreed and dropped a bombshell on Sycamore in late March. He filed court papers stating that McCullough is innocent and sought his immediate release from prison. The prosecutor said he spent about six months reviewing the files his predecessor, Clay Campbell, had left behind.

Schmack concluded that prosecutors and state police made two key missteps: They tweaked the timeline, moving up the time of the abduction to fit their theory for the crime, and they ignored details that didn’t support that theory.

Schmack found no evidence that Maria could have been missing “a little after 6,” as Illinois state police investigators had theorized. Instead, he concluded, the FBI got it right in 1957: Maria more likely vanished between 6:45 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Among the evidence the prosecutor reviewed was CNN’s 2012 series on the case, “Taken,” which examined McCullough’s murder trial and raised questions about whether it was fair. CNN was able to review some, but not all, of the FBI reports after requesting them from the National Archives. The U. S. Justice Department declined a request to review all the reports, stating that the Ridulph case remained under investigation.

Schmack inherited the case from Campbell, whom he narrowly defeated in an election a few weeks after the guilty verdict. Schmack sat through the trial, which Campbell prosecuted personally, and said he always considered the evidence thin. But when McCullough persisted in filing appeals, Schmack decided he’d better learn more about a case he might be called on to defend.

Instead, he said, the evidence led him to an inescapable conclusion: McCullough is innocent.

In his filings with the court, Schmack said he was ethically bound to right a wrongful conviction. And he minced no words in a scathing assessment of the case that others had built against McCullough.

He went so far as to allege that “fraudulent” evidence and “false” testimony were used to obtain warrants and grand jury indictments.

Schmack is pressing for a court order dismissing the case “with prejudice,” meaning that McCullough can never again face charges in connection with the murder of Maria Ridulph. He cited an appeals court’s findings that the FBI and police reports from 1957 could have come into the trial. He said he disagreed with the appeals court’s ruling that barring the records was a “harmless error.” Not allowing the records into evidence unfairly prevented McCullough from establishing his alibi, Schmack concluded.

“The demonstrated pattern of clearly inaccurate testimony, intended or otherwise, and misleading presentations to two grand juries and two judges in two states all shielded by an erroneous ruling which buried any effective impeachment at trial borders on remarkable,” he stated in his report.

Once all the evidence — including the police reports — is presented at a new trial, Schmack concluded, “there is insufficient evidence to support the judgment of guilt in this case.”

Friday’s hearing may not be McCullough’s last appearance in a Sycamore courtroom. He has indicated he plans to sue the state of Illinois over his wrongful conviction.

By Ann O’Neill