Belfast-born man convicted of 1957 murder released from US jail

Jack McCullough leaves prison as new evidence emerges in case of abducted child (7)

In his first television interview after his release from prison in 2016, Jack McCullough, who has been cleared of a 1957 murder, insists that he is not a killer. Video: CBS

 

A Belfast native, who was sentenced to life in prison in the US in 2012 over the 1957 murder of a seven-year-old girl, has been released after new evidence emerged supporting his innocence.

Jack McCullough (76), who moved to the US with his mother when he was seven, was convicted of the murder of Maria Ridulph. She was abducted on December 3rd, 1957, while playing in the snow with a friend near her home in the town of Sycamore outside Chicago, Illinois.

A girl who was with Maria at the time said she was abducted by a man who called himself “Johnny”.

The friend went home to get mittens but when she came back Maria and the man were gone.

A retired police officer and Vietnam veteran, McCullough was living with his wife in the Seattle area before his arrest in 2011. Police decided to reopen the cold case at that time after new evidence emerged.

Illinois state attorney Richard Schmack filed court papers last week saying a review of the evidence showed that McCullough could not have kidnapped Maria Ridulph nearly 60 years ago, according to the Chicago Tribune.

A county judge ordered his release and vacated his 2012 conviction.

Court documents in Jack McCullough case

Schmack said the timeline laid out by witnesses and phone records showed he could not have been at the scene when Maria was abducted as he was in Rockford some 65km away.

The search for Maria, which involved FBI agents who reportedly sent daily updates to director J Edgar Hoover, lasted five months.

Investigators questioned McCullough who was living in Sycamore at the time. Maria’s body was eventually discovered in northwest Illinois in April 1958. Kathy Chapman, who was with Maria shortly before her disappearance, identified McCullough when she was shown a photo line-up after the case was reopened in 2011.

A television documentary on the case was aired due to the national interest in the story and a key investigator at the time of the 2012 conviction was named “officer of the year” by state police.

In his first interview after being released, McCullough told CBS News he was “absolutely not” the Johnny believed to have abducted Maria.

‘Too juvenile’

“I was called Johnny when I was young and I quit using the name Johnny when I was 12 because Mom and I had a talk and she said that sounds too juvenile, so I just became John,” said McCullough, who was known as John Tessier in 1957. He later changed his name to Jack McCullough, taking his mother’s maiden name after she died.

McCullough, who was a neighbour of the Ridulph family, said the last time he remembered seeing Maria was when she was three years old. He denied being a suspect in her disappearance in 1957.

“I passed an FBI polygraph the next day. I was a neighbour and my name was Johnny. They looked at 1,800 people, everybody was a suspect,” he said. “I’m not a murderer, I never hurt anybody ever.”

McCullough – who was born John Samuel Cherry in Belfast in November 1939 – was the son of a British sergeant named Samuel Cherry who was killed in 1942 in a German bombing raid on London.

In his book Footsteps in the Snow, which examines the case surrounding the 1957 disappearance of Maria Ridulph, Charles Lachman writes that for safety reasons, the young McCullough spent the war years with an elderly farmer and his wife on a farm northwest of London.

After his father was killed, McCullough’s mother Eileen met Ralph Tessier, who was posted in Britain with the US army. After the war they moved to Sycamore.

McCullough had been charged with statutory rape and accused of assaulting a 14-year-old girl in the 1980s but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Reliable evidence

He says he plans to sue the state of Illinois over his wrongful conviction in 2012, adding that his imprisonment did not just punish him but his whole family.

Schmack said last week he wished the crime had been solved in 2012 and that Maria’s “true killer” had been “incarcerated for life”.

“When I began this lengthy review, I had expected to find some reliable evidence that the right man had been convicted,” Schmack said. “No such evidence could be discovered.”

Maria’s family say they feel let down by the decision.