SYCAMORE – After a judge's order Friday, Jack McCullough will return to his Seattle home for the first time since being arrested in 2011.
For the family members of Maria Ridulph, the closure they once thought they had in knowing who killed her on Dec. 3, 1957, has evaporated.
Judge William Brady agreed with DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack's request to dismiss murder charges against McCullough, 76, who had been free on bond since April 15. Brady also allowed Maria's brother, Charles Ridulph, more time to amend his petition for a special prosecutor.
The charges were dismissed without prejudice, leaving open the possibility that they could be reinstated in the future. But if that is to happen, it will require a different prosecutor.
The case will reconvene June 23 for a hearing to determine whether State's Attorney Richard Schmack has a conflict of interest as prosecutor on the post-conviction case. The state's attorney has refuted allegations from Ridulph and others that he approached the case with a pre-determined belief that McCullough was innocent.
Schmack said Ridulph was merely unhappy with the judge's decision, not Schmack's behavior.
"It is a conflict of conclusion, and not conflict of interest," Schmack said in court.
Ridulph's attorney, Bruce Brandwein, told Brady he has documentation of meetings between Schmack and the Ridulph family that would prove the state's attorney's conflict of interest. On Thursday, Brandwein submitted a 20-page petition with signatures from community members who supported the appointment of a special prosecutor.
"It is their understanding that the defendant has been tried and convicted, and the appellate court has affirmed that conviction, that the evidence supported that conviction, and now that we have a state’s attorney who indicates he’s reviewed this ... there’s no conclusive evidence that I can find that, in fact, would support an innocence," Brandwein said in court Friday.
In his amended petition, Brandwein said the "confidence in the impartiality and integrity of the criminal justice system" would be lost if the request were not granted.
"I'm not asking the court anything other than to give us a fair shot," Brandwein said.
If a special prosecutor were appointed and chose to reopen the case, McCullough could be retried again, since his murder charges were dismissed without prejudice. A future DeKalb County state's attorney would also have the same authority to open the case again, Schmack has said.
Richard Amato, a Sycamore lawyer and Republican candidate for state's attorney, declined to comment.
McCullough was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2012, and Illinois' Second District Appellate Court upheld that conviction in a 2015 decision. But FBI investigators' reports that were excluded from his 2012 trial – and found to have been properly excluded by the appellate judges – proved to be the key to his exoneration. A court order Friday showed McCullough is no longer barred from leaving Illinois, and the judge has waived his appearance for June 23.
Brady ruled April 15 to vacate McCullough's conviction, and released him from prison on his own recognizance. Now officially a free man with no charges pending against him, McCullough has plans to return to his home in Seattle on Sunday, and likely won't be back for the hearing in June, his stepdaughter Janey O'Connor said.
"Jack’s plan is to live life to the fullest," O'Connor said. "He’s missed his family. He’s missed his grandkids."
Meanwhile, the dismissal of McCullough's charges means no one is being held accountable for the death of Sycamore girl, Maria Ridulph, who went missing nearly 60 years ago.
"I guess more than anything, I just feel really bad for the Ridulph family," O'Connor said. "I really wish that between now and the 23rd when they’re in front of the court again, that Charles takes this time to review the FBI files himself."
Throughout the court proceedings, the people of Sycamore have offered the Ridulph family unwavering support in maintaining McCullough's conviction and seeking justice for Maria, Ridulph said.
"The people of Sycamore have been so supportive from the very beginning," he said, choking back tears. "Their support and the hundreds of signatures joining in my petitions collected over a matter of hours – literally hours – speaks volumes of the love in this community of Sycamore."