O'Connor, 35, says she trusted McCullough with her own daughter, and he doted on the child. When police came to arrest Jack, the little girl was watching cartoons in his bedroom.
O'Connor has assumed the role of her stepfather's spokesman and champion. When she first met him, she says, she was a wild kid -- exactly the type of teenager he has been accused of preying upon. It would have been so easy for him to cross the line with her, she said. But he never did.
Instead, McCullough was patient. He became the father she never had. She believes now it is her turn to watch out for him.
O'Connor does not rant. She is logical in her arguments. She doesn't understand why the court didn't let her stepfather defend himself better.
She doubts how much Kathy Chapman can remember about that night long ago. It was dark, it was snowing, and Kathy was just 8.
O'Connor points out that Chapman picked out another man she said resembled the kidnapper at a lineup in Wisconsin back in 1957. It turned out he couldn't have been "Johnny;" he had an alibi.
The timeline bothers her, too. The time of the kidnapping has shifted from 7 p.m. back to about 6. It also troubles her that the defense couldn't present evidence of a collect phone call placed from Rockford to the Tessier family house at 6:57 p.m. -- or anything from the 1957 FBI reports that once cleared him as a suspect.
And she absolutely does not believe the stories told by the Tessier sisters. She wonders whether her stepfather, as the first-born in his family and his mother's clear favorite, wasn't targeted by the others out of some twisted sibling rivalry.
There's a blog now, where the family raises questions about the evidence used to convict McCullough. His stepdaughter hopes someone will notice and take up his cause, as others have done in famous controversial cases such as the West Memphis Three.
Sue McCullough also is standing by her man. She acts at times like this mess is all a big misunderstanding, and he'll come home soon.
She passes the time in a rickety chair in the bedroom of their small apartment in Seattle. There isn't much furniture, just a few chairs, a bed and a home computer. A large safe dominates the living room, her husband's Stetson hat resting on top.
She has visited him in prison, and says he seems frail. She treasures a letter he wrote a few months after his arrest. She had it laminated and keeps it close:
"Hang on because I'm going to not only apologize, I'm going to say I'm sorry. (My pen didn't want to write that but my heart did.) I do need to say I'm sorry for all the times I disappointed you, made you mad, made you sad, yelled at you or just pissed you off," the letter begins.
What is he apologizing for? Nothing specific, she says.
"He just wanted me to know he's going to treat me better when he comes home."
A perfect alibi?
A criminal trial is a journey to the truth, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Witnesses are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But the whole truth is rarely told at trials; they are more like well-scripted plays, edited in advance through a series of pretrial legal maneuvers and evidentiary rulings.
The prosecution's version of the truth was told last fall at McCullough's four-day murder trial. The defense consisted of an anemic attempt to poke a few holes in the prosecution's script.
"Based on the judge's pretrial rulings, it became a situation in which we sort of tried the case with our hands tied behind our back," said his lawyer, Public Defender Tom McCulloch.
The defense attorney could not show that the FBI had cleared his client decades ago. Without putting his client on the stand, he could not present an alibi defense. He could not tell Jack McCullough's version of the truth. Nor could he argue that Kathy Chapman had picked out someone else in the Wisconsin lineup back in 1957. Because she could not recall the lineup on the witness stand, he couldn't question her about it.
Had the crime been committed a year or two ago, there likely would have been DNA samples to test, along with credit card receipts, phone records and cellphone GPS pings to trace. There would have been little doubt where McCullough was -- and when. The key witnesses would be alive and their memories would be fresh.
But this 55-year-old kidnapping and murder suffered from weaknesses typical of cold cases: The physical evidence that had existed was lost, including the doll Maria was carrying and her killer handled. No murder weapon was found. Most of the witnesses were dead.
"When it came down to our case and the state's attorney's case," said defense investigator Crystal Harrolle, "the state had more people alive than we did."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys were left to reconstruct history with what little evidence they had. And that is why a decision to bar any surviving evidence -- even old police reports -- can be so significant in a cold case.
Judge James Hallock ruled before the trial that Eileen Tessier's dying statement implicating her son would be admitted, but the 1957 FBI reports would be barred. As a result, a mother was able to accuse her son from the grave, but his alibi was never heard.