Death of Maria Ridulph
|Born||Maria Elizabeth Ridulph
March 12, 1950
|Died||December 3, 1957 (aged 7)
Sycamore DeKalb Country, Illinois, U.S.
|Parents||Michael Ridulph (1905–1999)
Frances Ivy Ridulph (1913–2007)
Maria Ridulph was kidnapped on a street corner in Sycamore, Illinois, on December 3, 1957. She was 7 years old at the time. Her body was discovered in a field 5 months later. The case went cold for 55 years until Jack McCullough, formerly John Tessier, was arrested in July 2011. It is believed that the case involved the oldest unsolved murder resulting in an arrest and conviction in the United States.
Maria Elizabeth Ridulph was born on March 12, 1950 to Michael and Frances Ivy Ridulph in Sycamore, Illinois. She was the youngest of four children; two older sisters Patricia (born 1941) and Kay (born 1942) one older brother, Charles (born 1946). Although many residents lived or worked on farms in the area, her father, Michael, worked at one of the few factories in Sycamore and her mother, Frances, was a homemaker. At the time of abduction, Maria was a second grader with brown hair and brown eyes. She was 44 inches tall, weighed 53 pounds, was an honor student, and received awards for perfect attendance in Sunday school at Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John.
According to her mother, Maria was high-strung. "My daughter was a nervous girl and if she got in any trouble would become hysterical." Frances said in a 1957 interview shortly after Maria's abduction. "Someone would probably have to kill her to keep her quiet. I am the only one who could calm her down." Maria was also described as a "screamer" and afraid of the dark. Her best friend was Kathy Sigman, who lived on the same street as her.
On the evening of December 3, 1957, Maria, then 7-years-old, was playing out in the fresh snow with Kathy near her home when they were approached by man, whom Kathy later described to police as in his early 20s and tall with a slender chin, light hair, gap in the teeth, and wearing a colorful sweater, who asked if they liked dolls. Maria went back home and got a doll to show, and the man, who identified himself as "Johnny" gave her a piggyback ride. Kathy then left to go to her house get her mittens, and when she returned, Maria and the man were gone.
Kathy went to the Ridulph house to tell them she couldn't find Maria. The family initially thought that Maria was hiding, and sent 11-year-old Charles to look for her. After he was unable to find her, his parents called the police, and within an hour, police and armed civilians began scouring the town for the little girl and the kidnapper. The case received national attention, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower took an interest in the case. The FBI under the authority of J. Edgar Hoover arrived in Sycamore within two days after the crime to assist the local and state police in the search. Kathy was the only witness to the crime and was put into protective custody, as the police and FBI feared that the kidnapper would come back and harm her. The authorities repeatedly had her look at photos of convicted felons or suspects who bore a resemblance to Johnny, but came up with nothing. The actual culprit, John Tessier, was among the list of suspects, but the police failed to have Kathy identify him after he claimed to have an alibi for the night of the crime. The authorities took a close look as people with prior convictions of child molestation within DeKalb County, Illinois, but again, they came up with no leads. Three weeks into the investigation, Maria's parents pleaded on television for the kidnapper to release her unharmed and were praying for Maria to come home.
On April 26, 1958, in Galena, Illinois, Frank Sitar, a retired farmer, and his wife were searching for mushrooms when they discovered the skeleton remains of a small child under a partially fallen tree. The remains were identified as Maria Ridulph based on the clothes she was wearing when she disappeared. She was still wearing her shirt, undershirt, and socks, but her coat, pants, and shoes were never found. The body had been found more than 120 miles from Sycamore, and because the crime occurred within the state of Illinois, the FBI withdrew from the case and the Illinois State Police took over. No photographs were taken of the crime scene because the coroner, James Furlong, didn't want photos of the dead child's body leaked to the front pages of the newspapers. The coroner could not determine a cause of death due to the state of decomposition, but discovered injuries to bones in her chest and throat, indicating she was stabbed. The case remained unsolved for 54 years.
John Samuel Tessier was born as John Samuel Cherry in 1940 To Eileen Cherry Tessier, who married his stepfather when he was a toddler and had three half-sisters and one half-brother. The Tessier family lived in the same neighborhood as the Ridulph family, but they rarely associated with one another. According to family and friends, John had a troubled upbringing; his stepfather physically abused him and his mother reportedly did nothing to stop it, even though Tessier maintains he was close with his mother. Tessier was known in the neighborhood to have had an interest in younger girls and spoke of Maria in a sexualized manner, which Tessier later came to deny. Before his 2012 murder trial, Tessier's three sisters told the prosecutors of sexual abuse during their teenage years from their brother. One sister, Jeanne, told them how she was gang-raped by her brother and his friends when she was 14-years-old. Tessier dropped out of school by his senior year and made plans to join the Air Force. On the night of Maria's kidnapping, his parents told the FBI, who received a tip about Tessier being a potential suspect, that he was in Rockford, Illinois to enlist in the Air Force. The next day, Tessier was brought to the police station to take a lie detector test, which he passed. In 1957, authorities believed that suspects who were guilty could not pass lie detectors. Tessier was released, but remained a person of interest due to that he bore a strong resemblance to the kidnapper, but the police neglected to have Kathy view a photo of him, so nothing was done to investigate him further.
Tessier served in the military for thirteen years and risen up to Captain. After his retirement in 1970, he relocated to Seattle, Washington and became a police officer. In 1971, he took in a 14-year-old runaway, which was accepted by his boss as he was helping her find a more permanent shelter. However, within a couple of weeks of living with Tessier, the teenager reported that he had repeatedly fondled and forced her to have sex with him. Tessier was fired from his job, arrested, and charged with sexual assault, but he pled guilty to a misdemeanor of simple assault. Tessier married four times; his first three marriages ending in divorce after a few years. After his assault conviction, he legally changed his name to Jack Daniel McCullough, because he wanted to honor his late mother but the authorities later came to believe that this was due to him escaping from the suspicion many close to the case have towards him.
The case was reopened when Janet Tessier, McCullough's half sister, believing McCullough was involved, asked the Illinois State Police to look into it. Janet Tessier made the decision to come to the police after spending time as the caretaker to her and John's mother. Janet claims their mother confessed on her deathbed that her son, John Tessier, was the perpetrator. Janet's younger sister, Mary Pat, was in the room with her when their mother confessed that her son had committed the murder. It took nearly fifteen years for Janet to find an investigator willing to look into her mother's information. Two previous attempts to interest law enforcement led nowhere as the authorities said that her mother's deathbed confession would be inadmissible in court and there was no physical evidence for them to go on. In 2008, the Illinois State Police Cold Case Unit eventually took on the case, and did an extensive and lengthy investigation into Tessier/McCullough's background, life history, and his alibi. The Illinois State Police contacted a former girlfriend of Tessier's for a picture of him from 1957, and she later called them back to report that she found an unused train ticket for Rockford that was dated in December of 1957, meaning that Tessier had not taken the train as he claimed. The authorities began to establish a timeline of events from December 3, 1957, with the original FBI reports, and concluded that Tessier was in Sycamore on that date and kidnapped Maria earlier than assumed before. He would have enough time to kidnap Maria, kill her, drive her body to Galena, and drive back to Sycamore. To be certain they have found the real murderer, they located Kathy Sigman-Chapman in Sycamore and asked her to look at six photos of teenagers who lived in Sycamore in 1957; Tessier's photo was among them. She immediately identified Tessier as the man who called himself "Johnny". Afterwards, the Seattle Police Department and the Illinois State Police joined together in the investigation.
In July 2011, after a three year investigation, the Seattle Police Department brought McCullough in for questioning. McCullough was living at a retirement community where he worked as a security guard. Due to his experience as a former police officer, homicide detectives from the Seattle Police Department and investigators from the Illinois State Police brought a professional interrogator. During the initial interrogation, McCullough spoke calmly and cooperated with the investigators, but when they began asking him questions about the murder of Maria Ridulph and of his whereabouts on the night of the crime, he became evasive and aggressive. The investigators presented reports from childhood friends who had seen him in Sycamore on December 3, 1957, when he claimed to have been in Rockford and of how his mother implicated him before she died. After McCullough refused to answer any more questions, he was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph. Maria's body was exhumed that same month, but no new evidence was found.
News of the arrest in a 54 year old murder case drew national attention. Some worried how the prosecution would be able to sway a jury with only the eyewitness testimony of Kathy Sigman (now Kathy Chapman), who was only 8 at the time of the crime, and the deathbed confession of his mother which only two of his sisters witnessed in 1997. The lead prosecutor, Clay Campbell, was reluctant to take the case due to how old it was and his doubts that he could persuade a jury to find McCullough guilty with no physical evidence connecting him to the kidnapping and murder. But, after being persuaded by the Ridulph and Tessier families, who all believed that McCullough was guilty, he formally charged McCullough with the kidnapping and murder of Maria.
The prosecution, wary of the circumstantial evidence in the murder case, decided to charge McCullough with a more definitive case - the gang rape of his sister, Jeanne, from 1961 or 1962. In the spring of 2012, the trial began with Clay Campbell leading the prosecution in both trials. The prosecution presented the police reports from early in the investigation of McCullough's interest in young girls to about 7-years-old (Maria's age). Tessier's siblings and the 14-year-old girl from the 1971 assault case testified for the prosecution; Jeanne was the star witness. The defense argued that no one could corroborate Jeanne's story and there was no physical evidence to even suggest that any rape took place. The defense lawyers pointed out that Jeanne had not told anyone about being raped until McCullough was arrested for Maria's murder. McCullough did not testify, and after one day of deliberations, the judge acquitted him of the rape of his own sister, citing that the prosecution failed to prove that a rape had occurred and the victim waited too long to report what had happened.
In September 2012, the murder trial began. The prosecution argued that McCullough was attracted to Maria and decided to kidnap her, but instead ended up killing her. The prosecutors presented the original autopsy reports that suggested Maria was stabbed. The prosecutors suspected that McCullough may have molested Maria after abducting her, but were unable to prove it and never brought it up in court. The defense argued that the prosecutors and police were pressured by the Ridulph and Tessier families to solve the case and implicate McCullough after being persuaded by his sisters. They pointed out that there was no physical evidence, motive, and indication that McCullough was in the area when Maria was kidnapped. Many witnesses were called by the prosecution. Maria's older brother and sister, McCullough's siblings, the Seattle detectives, and Illinois state Police investigators testified for the prosecution. Another childhood friend of Maria's testified that she had also been offered a piggyback ride from "Johnny" and identified him as McCullough. Three inmates who were jailed with McCullough testified that McCullough talked about how he killed Maria. However, their stories were inconsistent; one said he strangled her with a wire and another said McCullough accidentally smothered her to stop her from screaming. Sigman-Chapman, the star witness, testified against McCullough. In her testimony, she said that a man, who called himself Johnny, had walked up to them and had given Ridulph a piggyback ride. Sigman-Chapman went home briefly to get mittens, and upon her return both Johnny and Maria were gone. Based on a 1957 photo, she identified McCullough as the man who had walked up to them. McCullough again never took the stand in his own defense because the defense lawyers were worried about the prosecutors cross-examining him about the incident from 1971.
On September 14, 2012, McCullough was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years. He was 73 at the time he received his sentence. Although his request for a new trial was denied at the time of sentencing, his appeal continues, as of 2014.
- Goode, Erica (December 10, 2012). "55 Years After Girl’s Death, Her Killer Gets a Life Term". New York Times. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Ward, Clifford (December 11, 2012). "Defiant ex-cop gets life for girl's 1957 murder". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- "Body of girl killed in 1957 exhumed". Telegraph Herald. July 28, 2011. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Moe, Doug (21 September 2012). "Tragedy leads to answers for family". Wisconsin State Journal. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- McCullough's lawyers make case in murder appeal Daily Chronicle. 3 December 2014. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
- "Timeline". CNN. August 2013. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- Taken: The coldest case ever solved, CNN Interactive Feature (August 2013).
- 48 hours documentary - Cold As Ice - Can a childhood memory of a friend's murder solve a 55-year-old cold case? "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty reports.
- Extra: Maria Ridulph remembered- Chuck Ridulph was just 11 when his little sister, Maria, 7, was kidnapped in December 1957 and found murdered five months later. More than 50 years later, her death and the investigation into the case still takes an emotional toll.
- Extra: Teen's diary offers account of 1957 murder investigation. Kay Ridulph was 15 when her 7-year-old sister, Maria, was abducted in December 1957. "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty reads from Kay's diary, which offers an in-the-moment account of the investigation into Maria's disappearance and murder.
- Extra: Jack McCullough: "I'm not a murderer"
- Maria Ridulph 50 Years Later Eric Sumberg blog, Ideography by Eric
- Innocence Lost: ‘She would have been something
- McCullough sentenced to life in prison
-  Northern Public Radio
-  Jack D. McCullough Trial - Northern Public Radio
-  Convicted Killer Faces Decision About Appeal
-  Convicted By His Own Words On All Charges - Maria Got Justice
- FBI Interview Report 1957- Frances and Michael Ridulph (parents)
- Maria Ridulph at Find a Grave
-  - Jack McCullough family page with FBI documents
-  WREX Rockford, Illinois, TV station referencing a book on Maria Ridulph murder case.