Ray McCann knew he had no connection to the 2007 strangulation murder of 11-year-old Jodi Parrack in the small village of Constantin, Michigan, where he was a reserve police officer.
It took him 10 years to prove it. Named a suspect and jailed for 20 months on a plea deal after the prosecutor said he lied while under investigation, McCann last month saw his conviction vacated after the prosecutor agreed to drop the charge.
McCann’s victory — working with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School — clears a man whom authorities openly accused and jailed in the stated hope that he would crack and admit involvement.
“Whether he’s the one who did it or was there when it happened, we don’t know,” then Constantine Police Chief Jim Bedell told PEOPLE in 2014, after McCann’s arrest. “Maybe if he sits in jail for a while, he will cooperate.”
McCann now says he felt no choice but to serve his time, while maintaining his innocence as authorities continued to assume he was involved — even as another man eventually confessed to the crime.
“I was a hostage, not a prisoner, and that’s the way I felt,” McCann, 50, says. “It was a long process. That’s why I’m so thankful.”
“It shows that even somebody who’s trusted to protect and serve can be a suspect and it can lead to a wrongful conviction,” says one of his attorneys, Greg Swygert, a Northwestern law professor who works with the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
An Innocuous Suggestion Raises Suspicions
On the day Parrack went missing, McCann — who knew the victim and her family well — told at least four people that they should search the local cemetery, a suggestion also made by others. “If she wasn’t found there, we’d just continue to look,” he tells PEOPLE now. “I grew up in this town, and that was one of the places to look.”
When the girl’s body was found at the cemetery, authorities pointed fingers back in McCann’s direction. Police questioned him nearly two dozen times over five years. Although DNA evidence found on the victim did not match his, McCann eventually was arrested in April 2014. He lost his position as a reserve officer. His wife divorced him. Suspicion and accusation had raised doubts, and the town and McCann’s own family turned against him.
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But the only criminal charge that resulted was for perjury. McCann had said he’d briefly stopped that night to search at a trailhead near a ruin where kids often hung out, and then he was called away. But a detective claimed that surveillance video recorded from a nearby factory showed McCann was never there — though the video evidence was later discredited.
The perjury charge in a murder investigation carried a potential life sentence, equal to the penalty for murder itself. “That scared Ray to death,” Swygert says.
Says McCann: “The system already failed me. I wasn’t going to take the chance of going to trial and being charged with life.” Offered a deal that would lock him up for 20 months with credit for time already served, he accepted and pleaded no contest in March 2015. “I didn’t want to, but I had to,” he says. “I knew I’d get home sooner. The system failed, and I saw it. I felt like I was set up from day one.”
The Real Killer Confesses
Five months later, in August 2015, authorities identified another suspect, Daniel Furlong, after Furlong was arrested on suspicion of luring and assaulting a 10-year-old girl who escaped. Furlong later confessed, was charged and then sentenced as Parrack’s killer, reports MLive.com.
He told investigators he did not know McCann.
Following McCann’s arrest, Furlong said, “I thought I was in the clear,” according to a videotape of his confession obtained by WOODTV. He told authorities he saw Parrack riding her bike while he was cleaning his garage and asked her to help. He said he then grabbed her and put her in the back of a boat in his garage, where he sexually assaulted her after he zip-tied her hands behind her back.
“I put a bag over her head and killed her,” Furlong said in court in November 2015, when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He currently is serving a sentence of 30 to 60 years in prison.
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Yet even after Furlong’s confession, authorities still bore down on McCann in jail. “He expects them to say, ‘We’re sorry, we messed up,”” Swygert says. “They were still sure he was involved, despite everything saying otherwise.”
Says McCann: “They were so deep in it with me that they had to continue with it.”
Rebuilding a Life After Countless Moments Lost
He had been driving to the hospital for his grandson’s birth when he was arrested, and was not freed until his 20-month sentence was up in December 2015 — the month after Furlong pleaded guilty.
A reporter who followed the case, Ken Kolker of WOOD TV in Grand Rapids, helped bring McCann’s experience to the attention of the wrongful conviction programs at Northwestern and Michigan.
“I lost a lot,” says McCann, a father of two and grandfather of two who works at an aluminum factory. “I lost my family, I lost my son — I’ve only seen him three times since I got out.” He missed a grandchild’s birth, and his son’s high school graduation. “Even my sister turned against me at the time,” he says. “We’ve pretty much mended back. I lost a lot of friends.”
The office of St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough, which won and then abandoned the perjury conviction, declined PEOPLE’s request for comment.
“Ray has only stepped foot in this small town two or three times since being released,” says his attorney. “Stepping back into town, he feels really uncomfortable. The whole town suspected him of doing it, and it’s hard to reconcile that.”
McCann understands that some people may still hold the allegation against him. “They’ve got their own opinions; they’re going to think what they think,” he says.
At the same time, “there’s a lot of people who will stop me in the streets and say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, I crucified you before, and now I see what really happened,'” he says. “They’re truly sorry. You can see it in their eyes. I truly am thankful for that.”
He’s also thankful that the prosecutor and judge agreed to consider the motion for his exoneration that was prepared by the two legal defense clinics, and then agreed to void his conviction. “What they did to me was wrong, completely. I’ll never get an apology, I don’t think,” he says.
Now, the former volunteer youth athletics coach hopes his reputation rebounds enough that he can again work with kids. “I’d definitely like to get back into coaching,” he says. “I think now that my charges are reversed, I’ll have a better chance.”
“When I got out of prison, I went through a lot of depression wondering why this happened,” he says. “I have a lot of nightmares. It’s going to take a while to recover.” He and his new girlfriend “just want to get this behind me and live our lives. It’s been rough,” he says.
“I was in law enforcement, and if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” he says. “It’s scary. Who ever thought something like this could happen? But it did.”