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1957 cold case police and prosecutors sued for ‘pervasive misconduct’

Jack McCullough, right, with his attorney Russell Ainsworth; McCullough accuses officials of fabricating and hiding evidence and conspiring to convict him.

Two days after clearing his name, the accused became the accuser.

Jack Daniel McCullough filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit Friday in federal court in Rockford, Illinois, accusing police and prosecutors of engaging in “pervasive misconduct” to frame him for an infamous cold case murder.

He alleges they fabricated evidence, manipulated witnesses and conspired to win his conviction at any cost. He also alleges they deliberately buried evidence that pointed to his innocence.

McCullough further contends that police from three jurisdictions — the state of Illinois, Sycamore and Seattle — conspired with then-DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell and his assistants to gain fame and bolster their careers by winning the coldest murder case ever tried.

Judge William Brady overturned McCullough’s conviction and freed him last year. Wednesday, Brady also granted McCullough a certificate of innocence, clearing him for good of any involvement in the 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.

Now, McCullough and his lawyers are seeking accountability from those responsible for his false conviction.

Among the official misconduct alleged:

• Fabricating evidence, including writing false police reports

• Arbitrarily creating a false timeline unsupported by any evidence

• Creating and conducting a biased and unreliable photo lineup leading to a false identification

• Withholding or concealing evidence of McCullough’s innocence

• Soliciting false testimony from jailhouse informants by promising them favors and instructing them to lie about any promises

“After four years of incarceration, and over seven years of struggles and difficulties as a result of defendants’ misconduct, plaintiff has been made free — as a formal matter — from his wrongful conviction,” the suit states. “Although exonerated, Mr. McCullough must now attempt to resume his life despite the horrors he endured while imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.”

Those horrors included being stabbed in the eye by a cellmate as he slept.

Named as defendants were key players in bringing the case against McCullough, as well as others who played supporting roles: Lead investigator Brion Hanley and civilian analyst Larry Kot of the Illinois State Police; Seattle Police detectives Cloyd Steiger, Michael Ciesynski and Irene Lau; and former State’s Attorney Campbell and his assistants, Julie Trevarthen and Victor Escarcida.

McCullough seeks compensatory and punitive damages from each of the government agencies, and individual officers and lawyers. Having been falsely convicted by a judge, he is demanding a jury trial.

The Illinois State Police said Friday that they can’t comment on matters in litigation. Campbell also has said he would have no comment. And there was no immediate comment from the police departments in Seattle and Sycamore.

The filing of a federal civil lawsuit moves the long-running legal saga away from McCullough’s hometown, Sycamore, where Maria’s kidnapping and murder continue to cast a long shadow. Some of Sycamore’s older residents, who were alive when the child was taken and killed, remain convinced of McCullough’s guilt and believe he got away with murder.

Maria vanished from a Sycamore street corner while playing with a friend in the snow after dinner on December 3, 1957. FBI agents who swarmed Sycamore after the kidnapping checked out McCullough’s alibi and cleared him eight days later. He said he was in Chicago and Rockford that day, trying to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

His story was verified by records of a collect call he placed to his home. Three recruiters also told the FBI about their interactions with him on the evening of December 3 and the following morning.

The Illinois State Police re-opened the investigation, targeting McCullough, after one of his sisters, Janet Tessier, called a tip line in 2008 and said their mother had accused him on her death bed. The lawsuit described the tip as a “salacious allegation.”

State police investigators obtained the full archive of the FBI reports in June 2010, and it should have given them pause, the lawsuit asserts. But, just three months later, the surviving eyewitness selected McCullough’s image from a photo lineup.

McCullough was arrested in June 2011; the lawsuit alleges there wouldn’t have been probable cause to arrest him if not for fabricated evidence.

He was convicted following a four-day trial September 2012 — a verdict met by cheers from courtroom spectators. An Illinois appeals court upheld the conviction in early 2015; the court acknowledged that errors were made during the trial but dismissed them as “harmless.”

That left McCullough with one last chance — a post-conviction appeal citing new evidence. By then Richard Schmack had defeated Campbell at the polls, and he took a second look. Schmack concluded that McCullough’s alibi checked out and he was, in fact, innocent.

Brady granted the certificate of innocence this week after McCullough’s attorney, Russell Ainsworth, called three witnesses to dispute three points that had supported McCullough’s conviction. Ainsworth was able to demonstrate that the timeline prosecutors used was faulty, that McCullough’s alibi was supported by other facts, and that the photo lineup was so suggestive that the results were unreliable.

Shortly before McCullough’s conviction was overturned last year, prosecutors received an anonymous letter naming another suspect. That investigation appears to be ongoing.