A judge on Thursday found a Seattle man not guilty of raping an Illinois teenager 50 years ago, setting the stage for what could be an even tougher challenge for prosecutors: proving the man abducted and murdered a 7-year-old girl five years earlier in the same small community.
Judge Robbin Stuckert delivered a blistering rebuke to prosecutors for failing to ask basic questions of the accuser, a 64-year-old woman who came forward to testify against her half-brother, Jack McCullough, more than four decades later. Stuckert talked about fading memories and the doubt created by the woman's description of a car driven by McCullough that nobody else who testified recalled ever seeing.
"The state has failed to meet their burden," she said.
A visibly angry DeKalb State's Attorney Clay Campbell would not discuss what problems McCullough's acquittal of might create when the 72-year-old stands trial in the 1957 kidnapping and slaying of Maria Ridulph, a case that stirred the nation half a century ago.
McCullough's public defender, Regina Harris, said the slaying case against her client might have been that much stronger had he been convicted of rape.
"It takes a factor away from them they would have had," she said.
McCullough's acquittal in the rape case after a two-day bench trial before the judge also raises questions about whether prosecutors will push to have another judge for the murder trial, or whether Harris would again insist that a judge and not a jury decide her client's fate.
Both attorneys declined to discuss strategy for the next trial.
McCullough showed no emotion in court when Thursday's verdict was announced, but Harris said he cried afterward.
"He's relieved to tears," she said.
McCullough had been charged with rape and indecent liberties with a child in Sycamore in 1962.
The accuser, McCullough's half-sister Jeanne Tessier, testified she was 14 when McCullough picked her up in a convertible and drove her to an unfamiliar house, where he assaulted her in a dark room before two other men also raped her.
The Associated Press generally does not name victims in rape cases, but Tessier gave reporters permission to use her name and talked openly about the alleged incident in an article published online in 2010.
Prosecutors argued McCullough took advantage of the teen while he held a position of authority and trust. Defense attorneys said no one could corroborate Tessier's story and that there was no physical evidence.
Another woman testified that she was sexually assaulted by McCullough in 1982 when he was a police officer in Milton, Wash., and she was a 15-year-old runaway. McCullough originally was charged with statutory rape, eventually pleaded guilty to unlawful communication with a minor and was fired from his job.
Stuckert criticized prosecutors for their failure to ask Tessier during trial why she did not come forward until a few years ago. The judge said they also failed to present evidence that might have supported her allegations, such as a change in her behavior, grades or appearance that one might expect after such a traumatic experience.
"The state simply did not ask," she said.
Campbell was livid at the suggestion, saying the judge had prohibited him from presenting certain evidence, including allegations of other sexual incidents.
"The judge barred us from going into that information," he said.
Tessier, of Kentucky, was not in court when the verdicts were read, but other family members were. Even a half hour after the verdict was announced, they remained visibly upset, squeezing each other's hands, with Tessier's brother, Bob, hugging a sheriff's deputy on the way out the door, saying, "We'll get the bastard the next time."
Maria Ridulph's older brother, Chuck, also was emotional.
"He will have to answer one day to God," he said.
McCullough is being held on more than $3 million bond in the DeKalb County Jail, about 65 miles west of Chicago.
A grand jury indicted McCullough on the rape charges last September, a month after he was arrested in Seattle and indicted on kidnapping and murder charges in Maria Ridulph's death. He has pleaded not guilty, and a trial has not yet been scheduled in that case.
Tessier came forward after McCullough was arrested in Maria's death, one of the oldest slaying cases in the nation to be reopened.
Maria was abducted as she played outside her home in December 1957. Her body was found the following spring in a wooded area about 120 miles away.
McCullough, who was 18 and went by the name John Tessier at the time, lived less than two blocks from her home. He was an initial suspect but had an alibi: He said he had traveled to Chicago that day for military medical exams before enlisting in the Air Force.