Story highlights

The timeline in the 1957 disappearance of Maria Ridulph was always in dispute

A judge found Jack McCullough guilty of her murder in 2013

CNN's series on the case, "Taken" raised this question: Was justice really served?

CNN  — 

An Illinois prosecutor says he has found “clear and convincing evidence” that a former police officer was wrongly convicted of the 1957 murder of a 7-year-old girl in what is believed to have been the nation’s oldest cold case to go to trial.

Jack Daniel McCullough, a 76-year-old military veteran and former police officer from Seattle, was convicted in 2012 of the abduction and murder of Maria Ridulph. The child vanished from a street corner in Sycamore, Illinois, a small farming community about 65 miles west of Chicago. A judge hearing the case without a jury found McCullough guilty after a weeklong trial.

Richard Schmack, the state’s attorney for DeKalb County, said his review of the case led him to conclude that McCullough could not have committed the crime.

“The People are ethically compelled and constrained to admit the existence of clear and convincing evidence showing Defendant to have been convicted of an offense which he did not commit,” Schmack said in court documents.

McCullough has always insisted he was innocent.

“Look in the box. The truth is in the box,” McCullough said at his sentencing, pointing to a cardboard box in the courtroom. It was filled with old FBI reports and other documents that the judge, James Hallock, barred the defense from presenting, saying it was inadmissible hearsay.

Schmack looked in the box. He said he spent six months reviewing about 4,500 pages of vintage police and FBI reports, and reconstructed the timeline surrounding the child’s disappearance. He also turned up new evidence by subpoenaing AT&T phone records. He concluded that the alibi claimed by McCullough, who was then known as John Tessier, holds up.

It was impossible for McCullough to have committed the crime, Schmack said, because he was about 40 miles away in Rockford when Maria vanished. Even giving the prosecution’s revised timeline, he added, McCullough would have had to have driven more than 100 mph in the snow to make it from Sycamore to Rockford after snatching the girl.

“I truly wish that this crime had really been solved, and her true killer were incarcerated for life,” Schmack said. “When I began this lengthy review I had expected to find some reliable evidence that the right man had been convicted. No such evidence could be discovered. Compounding the tragedy by convicting the wrong man, and fighting further in the hopes of keeping him jailed, is not the proper legacy for our community, or for the memory of Maria Ridulph.”

A hearing in the case is scheduled Tuesday in Sycamore.

02 oldest cold case -- maria

Read the original series on the case: 'Taken'

  • Maria Ridulph’s murder went unsolved for half a century. Then detectives pursued a tip, and a man was brought to trial and convicted in the 1957 murder of the 7-year-old in Sycamore, Illinois. Now that man is free. Ann O’Neill’s 2013 series on the case, “Taken,” raised questions about whether the trial was unfairly one-sided.

    Schmack concluded that the Illinois State Police got the timeline wrong. There was no evidence to support the theory that Maria was taken as early as 6:15 p.m., as investigators claimed in an affidavit supporting the arrest warrant.

    The Illinois State Police said the case was thoroughly investigated and that the conviction had been upheld by Illinois’ 2nd Appellate Court.

    Schmack pointed to the account of a fuel oil deliveryman, Tom Braddy, and others who placed Maria and her friend, Kathy Sigman, on the street corner between 6:30 and 7 p.m., and to the AT&T records that support McCullough’s version of events. At least two people told police in 1957 that they heard a scream at about 7.

    “Thousands of pages of improperly excluded police reports more than 20 years old contain a wealth of information pointing to McCullough’s innocence, and absolutely nothing showing guilt,” Schmack said in a statement announcing his decision not to fight McCullough’s request to overturn his conviction. Without resistance from prosecutors, McCullough likely could go free as early as next week.

    Schmack told CNN his office notified the Ridulph and Tessier families by letter. The prosecutor also filed a lengthy report with the court, saying it was his ethical duty to take another look at the case, which was prosecuted by his predecessor, Clay Campbell.

    “I know that there are people who will never believe that (McCullough) is not responsible for the crime,” Schmack said. “Many of these people are my neighbors in Sycamore. But I cannot allow that to sway me from my sworn duty … and to perform faithfully the primary duty of my office, ‘To seek justice, not merely to convict.’”

    Campbell called the decision a “travesty.” He said he considered solving Maria Ridulph’s murder to be his “life’s work.”

    Charles Ridulph, Maria’s older brother, told a local newspaper that Schmack’s decison was “ridiculous.”