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Chicago — A 76-year-old man who a prosecutor says was wrongly convicted in the 1957 killing of an Illinois schoolgirl was released Friday shortly after a judge vacated his conviction, meaning one of the oldest cold cases to be tried in U.S. history has officially gone cold again.

Jack McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 in the death of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, about 70 miles west of Chicago. In a review of documents last year, a prosecutor found evidence that supported the former policeman’s long-held alibi that he had been 40 miles away in Rockford at the time of Maria’s disappearance.

Judge William P. Brady said Friday that Maria’s abduction and murder had haunted the small town of Sycamore for decades, and that he had also lost sleep over the case.

“I’m not blind to the importance of this proceeding to many people,” he said, minutes before ordering McCullough’s release.

McCullough, in handcuffs, appeared shaken by the decision, rocking back and forth, then taking a deep breath. Family members behind him hugged and cried. Moments later, McCullough, of Washington state, looked back, winked and smiled broadly.

On the other side of the room, Maria’s brother and sister displayed little emotion.

Maria’s brother, 70-year-old Charles Ridulph, said at the hearing that he would continue to push for a special prosecutor to take over the case. Brady will consider that motion at an April 22 hearing.

McCullough, who was living in the Seattle area when he was arrested, was released on a recognizance bond and isn’t allowed to leave Illinois until the state attorney announces a formal decision on a retrial.

Maria’s disappearance made headlines nationwide in the 1950s, when reports of child abductions were rare.

She had been playing outside in the snow with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, when a young man approached, introduced himself as “Johnny” and offered them piggyback rides. Maria’s friend dashed home to grab mittens, and when she came back, Maria and the man were gone.

Forest hikers found her remains five months later.

At his trial four years ago, prosecutors said McCullough was the man who called himself Johnny in 1957, noting that he went by the name John Tessier in his youth. They said McCullough, then 18, dragged Maria away, choked and stabbed her to death.

New phone records, Schmack said, helped to prove McCullough had made a collect call to his parents at 6:57 p.m. from a phone booth in downtown Rockford, which is 40 miles northwest of where Maria was abducted between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m.

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