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Jack McCullough

Other Illinois Exonerations with Jailhouse Informants
(Photo by Danielle Guerra/Daily Chronicle)
On December 3, 1957, between 6:45 p.m. and 7 p.m., seven-year-old Maria Ridulph disappeared from a street corner near her home in Sycamore, Illinois. A friend who had been playing with Maria, Kathy Sigman, told family members and police that a man who said his name was “Johnny” had approached them and gave Maria a piggyback ride. At that point, Kathy went home to get mittens because her hands were cold and when she returned, Maria was gone.

Despite an intensive search and the involvement of the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover was apprised daily of the investigation), Maria was not found until April 26, 1958 when mushroom hunters found her skeletal remains in woods about 20 miles east of Galena, Illinois.

More than 200 people were interviewed, including 18-year John Tessier, who lived nearby. At the time, Tessier said that on the day Maria disappeared, he had traveled by train to Chicago to for medical examinations prior to enlisting in the U.S. Air Force and that at the end of the day he had called home for a ride from Rockford, Illinois.

In fact, a report prepared by the FBI at the time confirmed Tessier’s alibi. The report said that an Air Force staff sergeant had confirmed that Tessier went to Chicago on December 2, 1957, for a physical examination and was rejected because of a spot on his lung. According to the report, Tessier stayed over in Chicago and was re-examined on the morning of December 3, 1957. He was again rejected and was given a train ticket to Rockford.

Tessier told the FBI that he placed a collect telephone call to his stepfather from Rockford at about 7 p.m. and his stepfather drove to Rockford and gave him and ride home.

The murder went unsolved for more than 50 years until 2008 when a former girlfriend of Tessier’s found an unused train ticket tucked behind a photograph of herself and Tessier. The ticket was dated the day Maria disappeared and she concluded that because it was unused, Tessier had lied about his whereabouts that day.

The Illinois State Police began re-investigating and showed a photographic lineup to Maria’s friend, Kathy Sigman Chapman, who had been on the street with her on the day she disappeared. Chapman identified a photograph of Tessier as the person who gave Maria a piggy back ride on the night Maria disappeared.

On July 1, 2011, Tessier—who had subsequently changed his name to Jack McCullough and was by then a retired police officer—was arrested at his home in Seattle, Washington, and charged with Maria’s abduction and murder.

Prior to trial, McCullough’s defense attorney filed a motion requesting that FBI reports created during the 1957 investigation be admitted as evidence because they contained information that contradicted the prosecution’s evidence and supported McCullough’s claim of innocence. The reports showed that Maria’s friend had viewed a lineup in Madison, Wisconsin and identified a man other than McCullough as “Johnny,” who was in fact in jail on the day Maria disappeared. The defense motion was denied by the judge as inadmissible hearsay.

On September 14, 2012, after a weeklong trial before DeKalb County Circuit Judge James Hallock, who heard the case without a jury, McCullough was convicted of murder, infant abduction and kidnapping. The conviction was based largely on the photographic identification as well as testimony from McCullough’s sisters, from whom he had become estranged, about a deathbed statement made by their mother that “John did it.” There were conflicting statements about what “it” was. And McCullough’s mother, who was dying of cancer, was heavily sedated with morphine.

The prosecution also called a witness whose identity was not disclosed at trial and testified under the name “John Doe.” The man testified that he had been in the DeKalb County jail with McCullough and that McCullough admitted committing the crime. The witness denied he had gotten any favorable treatment from the prosecution in return for his testimony.

McCullough was sentenced to life in prison. In February 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld McCullough’s murder conviction and sentence, but vacated his child abduction and kidnapping convictions as barred by the statute of limitations.

Two months after McCullough was convicted, Richard Schmack was elected State’s Attorney of DeKalb County, defeating Clay Campbell, the elected state’s attorney at the time McCullough was prosecuted.

In 2015, Schmack commissioned a six-month review of the evidence in the case and in March 2016, announced that he agreed with McCullough’s pending petition to vacate the conviction because of “clear and convincing evidence” that McCullough was innocent.

Schmack said that the FBI’s conclusion in 1957 that McCullough was not involved in the crime was correct. His re-investigation determined that in fact McCullough had made a collect call from Rockford at about 7 p.m.—at about the same time Maria disappeared.

The re-investigation concluded that the warrant to search McCullough’s home in Seattle was based on “materially incorrect and misleading statements” by police. Schmack also determined that police investigating McCullough had actually obtained the number from which McCullough made the collect call, but failed to file a report about it and failed to report that information to the prosecution.

In addition, the prosecution’s presentation to the grand jury “included considerable testimony that was clearly erroneous and misleading and excluded a significant amount of clearly exculpatory evidence.” Schmack was critical not only of the prosecution, but of McCullough’s defense, saying, “The failure of the Public Defender’s Office to at least pursue dismissal of the indictment based on the manner in which the grand jury proceeding was conducted cannot be described as anything but ineffective under any rational standard. The same can and should be said about the appellate defender.”

Schmack determined that some of the prosecution witnesses gave testimony at the trial that directly contradicted their statements to the FBI in 1957. For example, testimony by McCullough’s sister, Katherine Tessier Caulfield, about when the search for Maria began was false and “the prosecutors knew or should have known it was false…and were ethically obligated to correct her testimony,” Schmack said.

Schmack also concluded that the photo lineup shown to Kathy Sigman Chapman was improperly suggestive because McCullough’s photograph had a white background and the five others in the lineup had black backgrounds. In addition, the other five were posed high school yearbook photos in which they were wearing suit coats and McCullough was not wearing a jacket.

“Presumably Ms. Chapman earnestly believes that she identified Maria’s killer, as opposed to the only neighbor in the array,” Schmack noted. “However, when she viewed this array, the investigators possessed a substantial volume of Federal Bureau of Investigation, Illinois State Police and Sycamore Police Department reports, predating the re-opening of the more recent investigation, totaling at least 2,794 pages. These reports contain no support that (McCullough) was ever a viable suspect or that Ms. Chapman should ever have been shown (McCullough’s) picture.”

Schmack also determined that the jailhouse informant “has since filed pleadings, some under oath, which imply that he committed perjury in the trial, and that prosecutors knew and encouraged this.”

Schmack said that despite having all the reports from 1957 that showed Maria was abducted sometime between 6:45 and 7 p.m., “investigators assigned in 2008 apparently settled on a hypothesis which they believed made it possible for (McCullough) to have been involved. This hypothesis was never presented in open court.” Ultimately, Schmack concluded, the hypothesis was flat wrong.

In April 15, 2016, McCullough’s conviction was vacated and he was released from prison. On April 22, 2016, Schmack dismissed the charge. In April 2017, Judge William Brady granted McCullough a certificate of innocence. That same month, Mc Cullough filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages for his wrongful conviction. The city of Sycamore settled in 2017 for $350,000. In 2020, the city of Seattle settled for $300,000. In July 2020, the state of Illinois settled for $3,975,000. MCullough also was awarded $95,000 in compensation from the state of Illinois.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/2/2016
Last Updated: 7/24/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1957
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No