SYCAMORE, Ill. (WLS) --The 76-year-old man serving a life sentence for the 1957 slaying of a Sycamore second-grader was freed Friday after a DeKalb County judge vacated his conviction.
Jack McCullough, who was convicted in 2012 in the killing of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, was freed after a prosecutor re-examined evidence and concluded that her former neighbor couldn't have committed the crime.
McCullough was released on recognizance bond. The case was one of the oldest unsolved cases to go to trial.
During a Friday hearing, defense lawyers argued that McCullough should be released. DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack agreed. He says old and new evidence proves McCullough was 35 miles away when Maria was abducted as she played in the snow in Sycamore.
Accompanied by his stepdaughter and friends, McCullough smiled as he left jail.
"It was emotion beyond what I could contain," said stepdaughter Janey O'Connor.
The court's decision appeared to surprise a handcuffed McCullough as family members seated behind him hugged and cried.
Members of Maria's family showed little emotion and did not comment as the hearing ended. They remain convinced McCullough is guilty and are seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Half a century after the 1957 mysterious abduction and killing of Maria, authorities found McCullough - a former neighbor of the child.
But according to the findings of a new public prosecutor, the case should stand as a warning on the perils of re-opening a decades-old investigation. A six-month review by Schmack found a parade of alleged missteps by investigators, former prosecutors, judges and witnesses trying to pull details out of the fog of years. And he uncovered evidence supporting McCullough's long-held alibi: that he was attempting to enlist with the U.S. Air Force at a military recruiting station in another city on the night Maria disappeared.
Here's a look at key findings in Schmack's review:
Dec. 3, 1957, saw the first snowfall of the season in Sycamore. That evening, Maria and a friend were playing outside when a young man approached, introduced himself as "Johnny" and offered piggyback rides. Maria's friend dashed home to grab mittens, and when she came back, the 7-year-old and "Johnny" had vanished. Maria's body was found several months later, but an FBI investigation failed to find her killer.
When exactly did Maria Ridulph disappear?
The 1957 FBI investigation concluded, based on interviews with 20 witnesses, that Maria disappeared between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m. Would McCullough have been able to kill Maria in Sycamore then drive the 35 miles to the Air Force recruiting station in Rockford by 6:57 p.m., when phone records show he placed a collect call from a pay phone there. If he did have time, then his Rockford alibi becomes irrelevant. If he did not, as the FBI concluded in 1957, then he can't be guilty.
However, when the case was re-opened in 2008, Illinois State Police investigator Brion Hanley told the grand jury that indicted McCullough that Maria had disappeared "a little bit after 6 p.m.," which rendered McCullough's professed alibi moot.
Schmack says that statement was the "capstone in an effort to obtain an indictment by almost systematic concealment of the truth."
Testimony from McCullough's sister, Katherine Tessier Caulfield, also veered from the timeframe established in 1957. She recalled returning home from a party at 7 p.m. to find the search for Maria in full swing.
But again, 1957 Sheriff's Department documents and FBI interviews with Maria's mother and Sycamore's police chief show the disappearance wasn't reported to authorities until 8:10 p.m., Schmack found.
Hanley was commended for his work on the case and named officer of the year in 2013.
OLD CASE FILES
The FBI pursued an exhaustive investigation in 1957, even providing daily updates to agency director J. Edgar Hoover. They produced thousands of pages of documents, including statements from Air Force recruiters supporting McCullough's Rockford alibi and the witness interviews establishing the time of Maria's disappearance.
But in a 2012 pre-trial hearing, Kane County Associate Judge James Hallock barred those documents from being presented as evidence.
Assistant state's attorney Julie Trevarthen argued that those reports amounted to hearsay because they contained no firsthand observations by law enforcement.
Trevarthen did not respond to questions from the AP about the case. Neither did former DeKalb County State's Attorney Clay Campbell. Both are now in private practice.
In a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper after his trial, McCullough said those documents proved his innocence.
"People of Sycamore: These documents are in the courthouse at 133 State St," he wrote. "They are public records. Go there, demand to see them and set me free."
THE ARREST WARRANT
McCullough had moved to Washington state, where he worked as a policeman and later a security guard, so in 2011, Illinois investigators had to persuade a police detective there to prepare an affidavit and secure an arrest warrant from a Seattle judge.
Schamck's review found the affidavit contained numerous incorrect or misleading statements.
Among them was one asserting the two girls "were last seen playing at about 6 p.m." Again, the decades-old FBI reports show the girl who went out to play with Maria, Kathy Sigman Chapman, had not even left her home by 6 p.m.
AN OLD PHOTO
In lieu of a line-up, Hanley of the State Police showed Chapman photos that included a headshot of McCullough. But Schmack called the presentation "suggestive in the extreme."
The images of five other people were all professional yearbook photos showing men in suit coats with light backgrounds. McCullough's image was a snapshot with a dark background, and he was not wearing a suit coat.
A DEATHBED REVELATION?
McCullough's mother, Eileen Tessier, was dying of cancer in 1994 when she uttered a statement that two of McCullough's half-sisters took to be a deathbed admission that she had known for decades that McCullough killed Maria.
But was it? A doctor testified that she was on morphine and even jotted down notes describing the patient as "pleasantly confused" and disoriented.
Judge Hallock allowed prosecutors to present the statement at trial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.