February 7, 2017 (Fault Lines) – When Maria Ridulph was kidnapped in Sycamore, Illinois in 1957, no one knew the case would grow far beyond an abduction and murder. The nation’s oldest and coldest murder case would cost an innocent man his freedom and an honest prosecutor his office.
It looks like the fall out isn’t over and maybe someone deserving will now pay the price, too.
Ridulph was kidnapped back in 1957. Her body was found a few months later. The case would remain unsolved for over half a century, until Jack McCullough was tried and convicted for the crime. The story is fascinating, and disheartening.
McCullough was originally a suspect back in the 50s, but had an alibi. He had been miles away in another town when the kidnapping occurred. Both local investigators and the FBI found his alibi checked out and moved on to other suspects.
In 2008, McCullough’s half-sister convinced Illinois State Police to reopen the investigation. As an alibi will tend to do over a half-century, McCullough’s had weakened and Illinois moved forward with his prosecution.
At a bench trial, a judge ruled the old investigative reports clearing McCullough were too old to be considered. The evidence that cleared McCullough around the time of the crime was no longer going to help him, because now it wasn’t reliable. To the delight of former Dekalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, McCullough was convicted.
Politics, which typically run amok all over the criminal justice system, actually came to the rescue in this case. Voters ousted Campbell and elected Richard Schmack. Schmack took it upon himself to review the entire case file and determined McCullough was innocent.
Schmack did the right thing. Like most right things, it was also the unpopular thing. He consented to McCullough’s petition for relief from the conviction, effectively springing the wrongfully convicted man.
Seems like that would be that. A happy ending so rarely found in the criminal justice system.
But Schmack fell victim to the same voters who voted him in and allowed him to save McCullough.
Schmack was defeated at the polls in November after he determined McCullough was innocent and took steps to reverse his conviction and set him free.
The new State’s Attorney, Rick Amato, ran on the tried and true tough-guy platform.
During the campaign, Amato touted law enforcement endorsements and outlined his vision of being tough of crime.
Schmack, on the other hand, knew his integrity would not be well-received by voters.
Schmack cited his actions in the Jack McCullough case as the reason for his loss.
Schmack says after he made his decision in the McCullough case, he thought he would lose his bid for re-election.
That’s probably a pretty good summary of the frustration with the American justice system. The presumption of innocence is a cute little saying. But people obviously would rather keep an innocent man in jail than run the risk a murderer gets out.
Detective Irene Lau testified in 2012 that McCullough spoke of the 7-year-old victim as if he were “deeply, deeply in love with her” as she prepped him for a polygraph examination. Lau said his voice grew soft and he seemed wistful as he recalled her as “stunningly beautiful” with big, brown eyes. He said she was “lovely, lovely, lovely,” the detective testified.
See what just happened there? That testimony takes things from a cold case to a creepy cold case. And the creep always gets locked up. Because the lawmen can read your mind.
McCullough vehemently denied killing the child, but police and prosecutors viewed his demeanor during questioning as convincing evidence of his guilt.
There isn’t some textbook way to react when the police are sweating you. But for the hell of it, let’s admit it would be kind of creepy if McCullough was wistfully reminiscing about a dead little girl from his teenage years. If only there was a video so we could see what he actually said.
Questions also have surfaced over whether police and prosecutors deliberately concealed a 78-minute videotape that contradicted her version of what McCullough said under questioning…
…Lau didn’t seem to make any effort to conceal the video’s existence, writing in the second paragraph of a June 29, 2011 report summarizing her questioning of McCullough: “I advised him that this was a government building and that our interview was being audio and video recorded.”
There was a video, it was just hidden by law enforcement. Of course. But not just hidden. It was actively concealed from the trial judge.
But a year later, Julie Trevarthen, a prosecutor in Sycamore, Illinois, appeared to deny to the court that a video of the June 29 interview existed, saying that McCullough “just happens to be in another room and a tape is not running.”
No video was included in the voluminous court file or turned over to the defense, as required by court and ethical rules, according to court documents seeking the special prosecutor’s appointment.
The newly discovered video tells a different tale.
The video tells a different story about what was said during that interview.
McCullough is never heard describing Maria as “lovely, lovely, lovely.” About nine minutes into the video, he does describe her as “a loved little girl,” mumbling a bit. He also calls her “an adorable little girl” with “great big brown eyes” and says she was loved by everybody in the neighborhood.
He vehemently denies having anything to do with her abduction and murder: “I loved that little girl, like the whole neighborhood loved that little girl.”
That’s a little different. In fact, that is exactly the kind of demeanor an innocent person might exhibit under interrogation. So for God’s sake don’t let the fact finder see it.
Now a special prosecutor is going to investigate whether the detective perjured herself when she testified to one thing but video evidence reveals something else.*
If she did lie on the stand and conceal evidence, she should lose more than her job. Richard Schmack did the right thing and lost his job. So let’s hope Detective Lau faces something more serious for doing the wrong thing.
* Of course, she is innocent until proven guilty. How ironic.