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Jack McCullough sentenced to life for 1957 murder of 7-year-old

Jack Daniel McCullough

Jack Daniel McCullough

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Updated: January 12, 2013 6:23AM

Before Jack McCullough was sentenced to life in prison for the 1957 murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, he adamantly insisted he played no part in her death.

“I did not, I did not kill Maria Ridulph. I did not,” the white-haired, 73-year-old McCullough said Monday, his voice rising as he turned in the Sycamore courtroom to face the gallery where Ridulph’s two surviving siblings sat.

The crime drew nationwide attention to the small DeKalb County farm town, but no one was charged with the girl’s baffling disappearance and death until McCullough was arrested last year.

The former Sycamore man, who on Dec. 3, 1957 lived just a few blocks from Ridulph, was found guilty in September of kidnapping and killing the brown-eyed second grader.

His trial — nearly 55 years after Maria’s death — was one of the oldest murder prosecutions ever in the United States.

Despite McCullough’s loud denials, Ridulph’s relatives said they remain convinced he killed Maria, whose body was found near Galena about five months after she vanished from her neighborhood.

“We know in our minds he did it,” Patricia Quinn, Maria’s older sister, said outside the Sycamore courtroom.

One of McCullough’s relatives also dismissed his claims of innocence, calling him a “sociopath” who can’t admit his guilt.

“Those were the words we expected,” said half-sister Mary Hunt, who testified against McCullough at his trial.

Speaking in court for the first time, McCullough flatly told Judge James Hallock he had erred in convicting him of Ridulph’s slaying. McCullough repeatedly criticized Hallock for barring from his trial 4,000 pages of evidence collected during the FBI’s original investigation that he said proved his innocence.

“What purpose is served if you put an innocent man in prison?” McCullough asked the judge, gesturing with cuffed hands toward a white cardboard box at the defense table filled with the documents.

Hallock earlier ruled that evidence wasn’t admissible because the FBI investigators and the witnesses they interviewed were dead or, in one case, senile.

That issue will be raised when McCullough appeals his conviction and sentence, said his attorney, DeKalb County Acting Public Defender Thomas McCulloch.

For his part, Judge Hallock didn’t directly reply to McCullough before imposing the life sentence — the maximum penalty — but indicated he’s comfortable with the guilty verdict.

“This court expects the case to be affirmed on appeal,” Hallock added afterward.

Ridulph’s siblings said he deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison for the “evil act” he committed against their younger sister.

“I wouldn’t have been satisfied with anything other than life,” said Charles Ridulph, Maria’s older brother.

The sentence, though, will allow McCullough — if he’s still alive — to apply for parole after he serves 20 years behind bars.

McCullough’s stepdaughter said she and her mother want an appeals court to toss out his conviction long before then.

“It’s hard to have faith in the judicial system now, but we’re hoping,” said Janey O’Connor.

Illinois State Police began investigating the killing in 2008 after receiving a tip from another of McCullough’s half-sisters that their mother on her deathbed had incriminated McCullough in the crime.

Hunt and three of her siblings later testified against him, with two describing how they heard their mother tell police McCullough had been home when Maria vanished. Both said they had not seen him in the house that night.

Maria’s childhood friend, Kathy Sigman Chapman, also identified a 1950s photo of McCullough as the man she had seen with Maria just before the girl vanished.

“There isn’t doubt. I’m sure,” Chapman said after the sentencing.

A state police investigator dismissed McCullough’s allegations that evidence from the initial investigation proved he was in Rockford at the time Maria disappeared.

“It’s a bunch of nonsense,” Special Agent Brion Hanley said.

Former State’s Attorney Clay Campbell likewise scoffed at McCullough’s courtroom claims that his prosecution was politically motivated. Campbell personally led the team that prosecuted McCullough, but lost his election bid two months later.

“If that was a political ploy on my part, I’m not a very good politician,” said Campbell.

His successor, State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, in a statement called the sentence “appropriate” but declined further comment.

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