Man wrongly convicted in Ill

Man wrongly convicted in Ill. girl’s 1957 murder is released

CHICAGO –A 76-year-old man who a prosecutor says was wrongly convicted in the 1957 killing of an Illinois schoolgirl was released Friday shortly after ajudge vacated his conviction, meaning that one of the oldest cold cases to be tried in U.S. history has officially gone cold again.

WATCH: "48 Hours:" Cold as Ice

Jack McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 in the death of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, about 70 miles west of Chicago. In a review of documents last year, a prosecutor found evidence that supported the former policeman’s long-held alibi that he had been 40 miles away in Rockford at the time of Maria’s disappearance.

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Maria Ridulph remembered

Judge William P. Brady said Friday that he knew Maria’s murder had haunted the small town of Sycamore for decades, and that he had also lost sleep over the case.

"I’m not blind to the importance of this proceeding to many people," he said, minutes before ordering McCullough’s release.

McCullough, in handcuffs, appeared shaken by the decision, rocking back and forth, then taking a deep breath. Family members behind him hugged and cried. Moments later, McCullough, of Washington state, looked back and smiled broadly.

On the other side of the room, Maria’s brother and sister displayed little emotion.

A few hours later, McCullough’s stepdaughter, Janey O’Connor, drove McCullough away from a jail near the courthouse. McCullough, wearing street clothes, smiled to reporters from the back seat.

The DeKalb County state’s attorney who played a central role in pushing for McCullough’s release, told Brady earlier that his office would not retry McCullough if a retrial was ordered. Richard Schmack said there are no legal grounds to try someone again when prosecutors are convinced of that person’s innocence.

Schmack, who wasn’t involved in McCullough’s case and was elected to the state’s attorney post as that 2012 trial was coming to an end, filed a scathing report with the court last month. He had conducted a six-month review of evidence, including newly discovered phone records, and his report picked the case apart, point-by-point.

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Jack McCullough: "I’m not a murderer"

He said in an email that he was reviewing the judge’s ruling and would not be commenting Friday.

Maria’s brother, the now-70-year-old Charles Ridulph, said at the start of Friday’s hearing that he would continue to push for the appointment of a special prosecutor to take over the case. Brady will consider that motion at an April 22 hearing.

McCullough, who was living in the Seattle area when he was arrested, was released on a recognizance bond and isn’t allowed to leave Illinois until the state attorney makes a formal decision on a retrial.

Maria’s disappearance made headlines nationwide in the 1950s, when reports of child abductions were rare.

She had been playing outside in the snow with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, when a young man approached, introduced himself as "Johnny" and offered them piggyback rides. Maria’s friend dashed home to grab mittens, and when she came back, Maria and the man were gone.

Forest hikers found her remains five months later.

At trial, prosecutors said McCullough was Johnny, because he went by the name John Tessier in his youth. They said McCullough, then 18, dragged Maria away, choked and stabbed her to death.

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Jack McCullough questioned about 1957 Maria Ridulph disappearance

McCullough’s long-held alibi was that he had been in Rockford, attempting to enlist with the U.S. Air Force at a military recruiting station, on the night Maria disappeared.

Schmack said newly discovered phone records proved McCullough had made a collect call to his parents at 6:57 p.m. from a phone booth in downtown Rockford, which is 40 miles northwest of where Maria was abducted between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m.

Schmack also reviewed police reports and hundreds of other documents, including from the Air Force recruitment office, which he said had been improperly barred at trial and contained "a wealth of information pointing to McCullough’s innocence, and absolutely nothing showing guilt."

He also noted that Maria’s friend had identified McCullough as the killer five decades later from an array of six photographs; McCullough’s picture stood out, partially because everyone but him wore suitcoats and their photos were professional yearbook photos.

O’Connor said she had been convinced of her stepfather’s innocence from the start.

"Jack was just a normal person doing his grandpa thing, and his happened to him," she said.

She said he told her he’s looking forward to shopping for his children and grandchildren, because he has "a lot of birthdays and Christmases to catch up on." She said McCullough has been studying Japanese while in prison and that he wants to travel to Japan.

Maria’s family previously said they are convinced of McCullough’s guilt. Charles Ridulph still lives in Sycamore and has said in recent weeks that his family feels let down by the state prosecutor’s office about-face.