Just about 55 years passed since seven year old Maria Rudolph vanished from her Illinois street while playing with a friend. And now, former police officer, 72 year old Jack McCullough A/K/A Jack Tessier stands convicted of it.
In all of the cold cases I've seen or been a part of, there is a pattern. First the police investigate the case and develop a list of suspects. No one can identify the killer or there's simply not enough to charge the person, but the police still have their suspicions. The police collect physical evidence from the crime scene and bring it to a lab, where it sits. It waits for the advent of DNA technology and then for DNA technology to improve. Then, it waits for a government grant to fund the testing of all those old cold case materials. Then, it waits for an interested cop or a determined victim's family to push the re-opening of the investigation.
The items of evidence are tested and a DNA sample is found on sheets, underwear, or a murder weapon. The sample is sent to a statewide and national databank of convicted offender's DNA. A match is uncovered and now the police have their suspect. Sometimes it confirms their earlier suspicions and sometimes it turns the investigation in a completely new direction.
The police then interview the new suspect. The interview runs in three stages:
1) The police ask the defendant if he was ever at the address where his DNA was found or if he knew the victim. The suspect denies being there or knowing the victim. The police show a picture of the item with his DNA on it and the suspect denies any knowledge of it.
2) The police pull out the DNA report and show it to the suspect. The suspect then says he forgot. He was at the house before. Or that he knew the victim. He just forgot. But no, he never killed her and if they had sex it was consensual.
3) The police begin going through the incriminating DNA evidence piece by piece and the suspect's story changes each time he learns about a new piece of evidence. It changes to make everything appear innocent.
Then, he's arrested and charged with murder. As a prosecutor, I use his DNA, the crime scene photos, and his ever-changing statements to prove my case. That's how they most typically work.
Which is what surprised me about the Maria Rudolph case. There was no DNA evidence. It was based on an identification from 50 years ago and two people calling McCullough's alibi into question. One of them was his mother, who died eight years ago.
Here is the reported proof: Maria Rudolph and her friend were approached by a man her friend identified as "Johnny". The friend left the two alone to grab a doll and when she came back Maria was missing. The friend identified McCullough as the "Johnny" that approached them. She identified him over 50 years later. At the time, McCullough, going by Jack Tessier then, was a suspect. But his mother provided an alibi. Mom on her deathbed in 1994 claimed that she knew McCullough killed the girl. Lastly, McCulllough's girlfriend at the time found an unused train ticket in his pants. It was the train he supposedly was on that gave him his alibi.
All compelling and incriminating evidence. But enough to sustain a murder conviction? Especially since his mother was no longer around to tell us what she really knew? It was enough for this Illinois judge who found then 17-year-old McCullough guilty of murdering and kidnapping Maria Rudolph whose body was missing for five months in 1955. McCullough waived his right to a jury trial and allowed a judge to decide the case. I wonder if the result would have been different with a jury.
For more on the case, check here, here, and here.
Cold cases are extremely difficult to try. Witnesses memories fade. Witnesses disappear or have died. Evidence is lost over time. Police procedure switches. Any cold case conviction is the result of exceptional work by the police and prosecutors. There is no better feeling than telling a grieving family, who has waited decades for answers, that the killer has been caught. Well, maybe the better feeling is when the killer is convicted.