Mimesis Law
19 September 2021

Richard Schmack & The Maria Ridulph Case: When A Prosecutor Gets It

Mar. 29, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — On a snowy night in 1957, Maria Ridulph disappeared from a street near her house in the small town of Sycamore, Illinois. Her body was found a few months later. Over the next half-century, the case would travel from unsolved mystery to the oldest cold case conviction in the country to the epitome of a wrongful conviction.

Jack McCullough was ultimately convicted of Ridolph’s murder. In a hearing scheduled for today, a judge is expected to overturn that conviction. The journey from that snowy night to this hearing has involved about every issue in the criminal justice system, from “noble cause corruption” to suggestive identification. But the most important issue in the case has been the behavior of DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack.

The hysteria of a high-profile criminal case and public sentiment against the defendant is enough to make an elected prosecutor run for the hills. Had Schmack done that, McCullough would have likely served the rest of his life sentence and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, Schmack put the ethics of being a prosecutor ahead of the politics of prosecuting and scored a win for the criminal justice system.

Maria Ridulph was 7 years old when she disappeared. She was playing in the snow with a friend near her house. A man approached them and gave Maria a piggyback ride up and down the street. Maria’s friend, Kathy Sigman, ran back to her house to get her mittens, leaving Maria and the man alone. By the time she returned, they were both gone. Maria would never be seen alive again.

When Kathy alerted Maria’s family to her disappearance, the town mobilized to search for her. Police combed the streets and searched house to house for Maria. They never found her. Months later, the young girl’s body was found in a small town near the Iowa state line.

The kidnapping and murder would remain a mystery for over 50 years. Immediately after Maria’s disappearance, McCullough was a suspect. His appearance matched the general description of the man last seen with Maria. However, McCullough had an alibi that quickly cleared him.

McCullough claimed he could not have been involved in the crime because he was miles away in another town at the time of the crime. Apparently his alibi checked out and he was cleared by both the FBI and state investigators. With no other evidence, the case would lay dormant for another 50 years.

The case was reopened around 2008 when McCullough’s half-sister asked the Illinois State Police to take a second look at his involvement in the disappearance. As the police reinvestigated McCullough’s alibi, they felt it was not as strong as initially thought. Of course, 50 years later nothing is as strong as it was originally.

Illinois investigators found an unused ticket McCullough supposedly used to get to the other town. Combined with a photo lineup conducted all these years later, McCullough was back to being a suspect in the crime. He wouldn’t be cleared this time, at least not before a conviction and life sentence.

McCullough had moved to Seattle, Washington where he was arrested. The now 75-year old McCullough insisted the same travel details and timeline from the first investigation would clear him. But time would work against him.

The State’s Attorney at the time, Clay Campbell, piled the charges on McCullough. McCullough’s sister, who pushed to reopen the investigation, accused him of raping her back in 1962. He was tried on that case before he was tried for Maria’s murder. He was acquitted at a bench trial.

The acquittal was not well-received. Neither the victims nor Campbell were happy with the decision.

The verdict also visibly angered Tessier’s supporters. Katheran Caulfield, who is a sister of Tessier’s and half sister of McCullough’s and who also was a prosecution witness, broke down in tears when the verdict was read.

Clay Campbell, the State’s Attorney, called the decision a travesty. With one cold case down, McCullough was about to find out that in a criminal case, time was not on his side.

He went to trial on Maria’s murder, electing a bench trial. The case proceeded in front of a different judge from the one who found him not guilty on the rape. But his alibi and timeline would not be considered in this case. Before finding him guilty, Judge James Hallock refused to consider the original case file, which had cleared McCullough as a suspect in Maria’s disappearance.

But Hallock, in pretrial hearings, had barred the reports as inadmissible because the agents who compiled them a half-century ago are no longer available to testify to their accuracy, either because of death or advanced age.

The investigation that had initially cleared McCullough was not considered the second time around, because the records were too old. Old records are to be expected when a murder is prosecuted over fifty years later. But prosecutor Clay Campbell was never impressed with those old documents, apparently.

Former DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, who won the case but lost a re-election bid last month, called McCullough’s assertions “self-serving nonsense.”

That election would turn out to be the key to McCullough’s freedom. Schmack, who was elected as the DeKalb County State’s Attorney in between McCullough’s conviction and life sentence, also heard McCullough’s alibi claim. He would treat it very differently and, in turn, come to a very different conclusion.

Court records verified that Ridulph was abducted in Sycamore between 6:45 and 7 p.m. on December 3rd, 1957. Schmack says McCullough couldn’t have kidnapped her because McCullough made a collect call from a Rockford pay phone at 6:57 p.m. that lasted for two minutes. Schmack says that’s according to Illinois Bell records.

Schmack wrote, “I know that there are people who will never believe that he is not responsible for the crime.” But he says he can’t let that get in the way of seeking justice and “not merely to convict.”

Schmack’s extensive review of the evidence revealed that, while there was no rush to prosecute McCullough, there was certainly a rush to convict him. In consenting to McCullough’s petition for relief, Schmack made a difficult and unpopular decision. Maria’s family was expectedly unhappy with the decision.

“He’s thrown out all of the evidence that’s been presented in court,” Mr. Ridulph said of the prosecutor. “It’s been a very trying day, and we feel helpless because we have no one representing the victim or us as victims in these proceedings because Richard Schmack, as the state’s attorney, is acting as the defense counsel.”

And that statement says everything you need to know about Schmack. He was not representing the victims. Of course, he wasn’t representing McCullough either. He was representing the system he was elected to represent. Schmack takes this seriously, despite the fact he is going to suffer some blowback for making this decision.

This is the opposite of noble cause corruption. Wrongful convictions, along with many of the other perceived cracks in the justice system, occur when prosecutors and law enforcement blindly pursue a result at the expense of the process. Schmack did the opposite.

Instead of allowing public pressure and bias to force a result, Schlack reviewed McCullough’s conviction for the truth. He made a very unpopular decision. In today’s world, he may very well have ended his career as the elected State’s Attorney. This is unfortunate. A prosecutor like Schmack sets the bar high, which is where it should be.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • JoAnne Musick
    29 March 2016 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Great post. I’m always amazed at the backlash when a dutiful prosecutor takes an unpopular path. The public would rather have a wrongful conviction than an unresolved case. To the public, unresolved equates to a lack of justice for the victim and family.

  • JoAnne Musick
    29 March 2016 at 9:38 am - Reply

    Of course I always wonder whether the next election cycle might result in a new prosecution to remedy the vacated conviction (‘remedy’ of course being a relative term)

  • Pray4Peace
    30 March 2016 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    Thank you to Mr. Schmack. We have sympathy for the victim’s family who surely wants a guilty person to suffer. But, convicting a man without undeniable proof that he committed the crime is wrong. We must return to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”. Many prisoners are being exonerated, even from death row, when DNA or other evidence proves they are not guilty.

    It is better to allow a guilty person to go free than to convict an innocent one–not only for moral reasons, but because once someone is convicted, law enforcement stops looking for the actual criminal who is free to commit new crime with new victims.