Jack McCullough.Chicago Tribune

Jack Daniel McCullough, a Belfast native, 77, who was convicted of the murder of Maria Ridulph, a 7-year old who was abducted on Dec. 3, 1957 as she played near her home in Sycamore, Illinois, has been freed after new evidence was revealed.

The case was a sensation at the time with FBI Director J Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower getting involved. A massive manhunt seeking the killer ended empty handed.

The crime occurred as Ridulph and a friend were playing under a streetlight and were approached by a man the friend recalled as "Johnny," authorities said. 

The friend left the scene to get mittens, but Maria accepted a piggyback ride from the man. When Maria's friend returned, the two were gone, authorities said.

The child's body was found almost five months later in a wooded area about 120 miles northwest of Sycamore. She had been stabbed to death.

Maria Ridulph. Credit: Chicago Tribune

Maria Ridulph. Credit: Chicago Tribune

The case was never solved but in an extraordinary twist, the case was re-opened as a cold case in 2011 and McCullough who was living in Seattle was arrested. It was the oldest cold case murder ever investigated.

McCullough was born in Belfast in 1939 and came to America when he was 7 years old with his mother Eileen McCullough from Belfast. They came over on the Queen Mary and the family settled in the  Sycamore area. 

He was found guilty in the cold case trial 2012 and was down to serve life. The new evidence that freed him showed that McCullough had made a collect phone call home from Rockford, Illinois around the time of the murder and it would have been impossible for him to carry out the murder as Sycamore was 40 miles away.

Investigators at the time of the murder examined  McCullough, then a resident of the same Sycamore neighborhood as the Ridulphs. He was  then known as John Tessier his mother’s new marriage name. (he later took his Irish-born mother’s maiden name McCullough)

But police in 1957 believed he was in Rockford, Illinois  at the time of the abduction and would have been unable to travel between there and Sycamore to commit the crime.

However, the dead girl’s family continued to press the case and forced the re-opening and the 2012 conviction.But following the new evidence the 77-year-old McCullough, a night security guard at the Four Freedoms retirement community in Seattle where he lived, is now free and the case is expected to be dropped.

According to the Chicago Tribune, records show his history includes years of military service as well as allegations he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and was forced from a police job for dating a prostitute. Neither accusation ended in a conviction.

McCullough's stepdaughter, Janey O'Connor, drove him home from jail. His first request was a pizza dinner she said.

O'Connor said she'd been convinced of her stepfather's innocence from the start "Jack was just a normal person doing his grandpa thing, and this happened to him.” 

He told the Chicago Tribune he was innocent and that he wanted justice for Ridulph, who had lived a few blocks from his home.

McCullough, who was born in Belfast in 1939, said his original surname was Cherry.  His mother was a corporal in the Royal Air Force and met his stepfather at an air base. The same month of the girl's death, McCullough enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he remained until 1961. In 1962, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He changed his name to McCullough in 1994, records show.

McCullough's stepdaughter, Janey O'Connor, has been steadfast in her support, saying she'd been alone with him many times; that he's helped raise her children and never acted inappropriately.