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Ex-cop plans to appeal conviction in ’57 murder of 7-year-old

Jack Daniel McCullough who is serving life sentence after being convicted last year 1957 murder MariRidulph Sycamore is appealing convictisoon.

Jack Daniel McCullough, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted last year of the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, is appealing conviction soon. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 13, 2013 6:20AM

Jack Daniel McCullough is serving a life sentence for the murder of a 7-year-old girl, but the 73-year-old ex-cop still has big plans for the future.

He wakes up early in his prison cell to study Mandarin for three or four hours a day so he can learn enough of the language to visit China comfortably.

And McCullough lifts weights three days a week to stay in shape for the overseas trip — just one leg of a long-dreamed-about journey around the world.

Most importantly, McCullough is planning the upcoming legal appeal he hopes will overturn his conviction for the 1957 kidnapping and killing of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.

The potential of that appeal — which likely will target FBI reports that he says prove he didn’t kill the Sycamore girl — keeps him studying hard and exercising regularly as he dreams about life outside a prison cell.

“They’ve taken my life away, so I’m not gonna waste my time,” McCullough said during a recent interview at the maximum-security Pontiac Correctional Center, in his first extensive remarks since he was sentenced.

McCullough was convicted last September of the notorious, 55-year-old murder — possibly the oldest cold case prosecuted in the United States.

He didn’t testify during his trial, but at his sentencing he protested that he never harmed Ridulph, who vanished on Dec. 3, 1957, after being approached by a stranger while she played with a friend near her home.

Ridulph disappeared after her 8-year-old friend briefly left to get her mittens, leaving her alone with the young man, who had introduced himself to the children as “Johnny.”

Ridulph’s body was found five months later in a cluster of woods near Galena.

McCullough, then an 18-year-old named John Tessier, lived around the corner from Ridulph in Sycamore, a small DeKalb County farm town of 5,000 residents.

During a two-hour interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, McCullough repeatedly denied killing the brown-eyed second-grader, and he contended that he was falsely implicated decades later by his own embittered relatives.

McCullough said their allegations prompted a 2008 Illinois State Police investigation that led to then-DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell maliciously charging him and Judge James Hallock wrongly convicting him.

“What they’ve done to me is wrong. It’s really wrong,” said McCullough, who was arrested in 2011 near Seattle, where he worked as a security guard.

A frequent accusation offered by McCullough — usually calmly, but sometimes angrily — was that key evidence withheld from his trial backed his claim he wasn’t in Sycamore when Ridulph disappeared.

McCullough says a long-distance, collect phone call he made from Rockford to his home to ask his stepfather for a ride shows he was 40 miles away around the time the girl was taken.

“Why am I here? I’m here for a murder and kidnap that I could not possibly have done,” he said at one point, learning forward across the table in a visitor’s room at the prison.

FBI agents initially reported that they found telephone records confirming the call was made about 7 p.m. Those documents were enough to eliminate him as a suspect, said McCullough and his attorney, who contend that Ridulph was snatched no earlier than 6:45 p.m.

“If the FBI reports came in, he had an ironclad alibi. They were that good,” said DeKalb County Public Defender Thomas McCulloch, who represented McCullough at trial.

But the reports weren’t allowed in, and no separate telephone records that could have confirmed the call were found.

McCullough’s defense team tried desperately to locate surviving FBI agents to testify about the records, but because of the years that passed, all but one had died — and he was senile.

Even without witnesses, McCullough argued that prosecutors shouldn’t have charged him because of the original FBI reports.

Prosecutors vehemently disputed that the FBI records cleared McCullough.

“It doesn’t prove that at all,” Campbell, the former state’s attorney who charged and personally prosecuted McCullough.

The timing of Ridulph’s disappearance was so uncertain — she may have vanished as early as 6:10 p.m. — that McCullough could have snatched the girl, then later made the phone call, Campbell said.

“It would have been easy for him to stop at a phone booth and call to set up an alibi,” Campbell said.

Campbell insisted he wouldn’t have charged McCullough if FBI records or other information exonerated him.

“I wasn’t interested in prosecuting someone who wasn’t guilty,” Campbell said.

Perhaps the most critical evidence came from Ridulph’s childhood friend, Kathy Sigman Chapman, who was with her when the young man approached them as they played in the snow.

Using 1950s vintage photos provided by state police, Chapman identified McCullough at trial as the man she last saw with Ridulph.

He scoffed at her testimony, noting the FBI reports show that a few weeks after the kidnapping, she identified another man in a lineup as Ridulph’s abductor. That information wasn’t allowed at trial.

McCullough said she may have identified his photo simply because she had seen him before the kidnapping and murder.

“She’s been in my house and knows my sisters,” he recalled.

McCullough acknowledged that his defense had problems. He agreed that his mother and stepfather lied to investigators in 1957 when they claimed he had been home the night Ridulph was snatched.

“I don’t know why him and my mother lied about that. They were probably just trying to protect me,” McCullough said.

And his half-sisters told the truth at his trial when they testified they hadn’t seen him the night Ridulph disappeared, McCullough acknowledged.

He contended after he made the phone call from Rockford, his stepfather, Ralph Tessier, refused to give him a ride. McCullough insisted that he hitchhiked home from Rockford late that night, despite the cold winter weather and light snow.

His house was dark and locked when he arrived,McCullough said, so rather than wake anyone, he quietly crawled through a window into his bedroom and went to sleep.

He left Sycamore barely a week later to begin serving in the U.S. Air Force, a move that later led to a stint in the U.S. Army. McCullough spent about 14 years in the military, including a tour as an infantry officer in Vietnam.

While insisting he had last seen Ridulph about two years before she was kidnapped, McCullough offered a highly detailed description of their last conversation.

He even recalled nearly 60 years later how the girl was dressed.

“You seen these pictures of these cute little urchins on TV, you know for different commercials and stuff like that? That was her,” McCullough said. “Big dark eyes, innocent face, dressed to go to Sunday school. I think she even had those little patent [leather] shoes on.”

At another point, he referred to Ridulph as “precious,” though he said he didn’t personally know the girl.

McCullough has an unsettling history with young girls: He was charged in 1982 with raping a 15-year-old while he worked as a cop in Washington state.

He later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge that cost him his police job, but he insisted the teen had concocted the claim because he recently had arrested her boyfriend.

And during the investigation into Ridulph’s death, his half-sister, Jeanne Tessier, accused him of raping her in 1962 after he had returned to Sycamore from military duty.

He was acquitted of that charge before his murder trial.

The allegation by his half-sister demonstrated the animosity his siblings held towards him, McCullough said, largely because he was the eldest and his mother’s favorite. It also explained why two other sisters testified that their dying mother, Eileen Tessier, implicated him in 1994 in Ridulph’s disappearance, he said.

McCullough said his mother never asked him about the crime and “never believed that I had anything to do with it.”

McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, dismissed his claims that she and other relatives testified against him because of lingering childhood bitterness.

“This was not a personal vendetta. All I wanted to know was the truth,” Janet Tessier said.

No written filings in McCullough’s appeal are due until January. His court-appointed appellate defender declined to comment on the case last week.

Legal experts said McCullough faces a tough fight in the 2nd District Appellate Court, which has with a reputation for being reluctant to overturn guilty verdicts.

Persuading the justices to order a new trial and allow McCullough to use the FBI reports as evidence is at best a long shot, said attorney Kathleen Zellner, who isn’t involved in McCullough’s case but frequently handles criminal appeals.

A legal doctrine allows some “ancient documents’’— those more than 20 years old — to be used as evidence, but that provision virtually never applies to investigative reports such as the FBI documents, Zellner said.

McCullough, who without a new trial must serve 20 years before even applying for parole, is staying positive about his appeal.

“Without hope, what is there?” he said, shrugging. “I have hope.”

He’s continuing to study and exercise behind the razor wire in the prison yard at Pontiac and plan for a future that likely won’t ever come.

“What I’d like to do when I leave here — if I do get my appeal — I would love to travel,” he mused. “You know, take the last real vacation around the world.”

Then, he wants to disappear.

“After this,” McCullough said, “I’m going to be into obscurity.”


Twitter: @danrozek1

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