Why it Will Be Hard to Prosecute Jack Daniel McCullough, Arrested for 1957 Murder of 7-Year-Old Girl

Investigators believe Jack Daniel McCullough, seen here in 1957, killed 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.
In 1965, seven years after Jack Daniel McCullough allegedly killed a young girl, murderers had a 10 percent chance of evading capture, according to the FBI.

Today, a killer has a 40 percent chance of escaping justice. More strangers commit murder now than in the past, experts say, making the cases more difficult to crack than those committed by perpetrators who knew their victim.

Last week, authorities arrested McCullough, a Seattle resident, in connection with the 1957 killing of Maria Ridulph, a 7-year-old Illinois girl. They say that McCullough, who changed his name from John Tessier, kidnapped and killed Ridulph. A young friend of the victim said a man named "Johnny" approached the girls and offered them piggyback rides. When the friend went to get some dolls, "Johnny" took Ridulph. Months later, mushroom foragers found her body in a wooded area.

But are "Johnny" and McCullough the same person?

Investigators think so, but they may have trouble proving it. They arrested McCullough after an old girlfriend found an unused train ticket from the day of the murder, supposedly ruling out his alibi that he was on a train to Chicago that day. But McCullough told the AP his stepfather gave him a ride to Chicago and the ticket is meaningless.

It's unclear if prosecutors have access to old physical evidence. Even if they do, it probably deteriorated over the years.

Mark Safarik, a former FBI profiler who now runs a consulting company in Virginia, said old, historical cases rarely go to trial because of the difficulty prosecutors have in proving their case so many years later. "You've got to have some kind of physical evidence as far as the prosecution is concerned that strongly ties the suspect to the scene," Safarik told Seattle Weekly. "Otherwise, I think it would be a problem to bring a case forward."

I know firsthand how frustrating it can be. In 2009, while working at a newspaper in North Carolina, a colleague and I spent four months looking into a 40-year-old cold-case murder.

We tracked down dozens of witnesses and used partial tips provided to us by law enforcement to fit together disparate pieces of the puzzle. In the end, we identified two men as likely culprits. One was dead. The other--who witnesses also said threw his pregnant girlfriend in front of a car, killing her, and burned down a house, killing another man--remains free. The reason? Decades later, authorities had no physical evidence. And when they brought the suspect in to take a lie-detector test, he walked out. With witnesses reluctant to testify and little else to go on, they faced an uphill battle.

It's part of the reason why, according the the FBI, there have been 200,000 unsolved murders since 1960. Unfortunately, because of faded memories and deteriorated or missing evidence, most of those murders will never be solved, and even fewer will be prosecuted.

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