Death of Maria Ridulph

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Maria Ridulph
Born Maria Elizabeth Ridulph
March 12, 1950
Sycamore, Illinois
Disappeared December 3, 1957 (aged 7)
Sycamore, Illinois, U.S.
Body discovered April 26, 1958(1958-04-26)
Nora, Illinois
Parent(s) Michael Ridulph (1905–1999)
Frances Ivy Ridulph (1913–2007)

Maria Elizabeth Ridulph was an American girl who kidnapped on a street corner in Sycamore, Illinois, on December 3, 1957. She was seven years old at the time.[1] Her body was discovered in a field five months later.[1] The case went cold for 54 years until Jack McCullough, formerly John Tessier, was arrested in July 2011.[1] McCullough was charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and abduction of an infant. He was found guilty on all three counts, and is serving a life sentence at the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois. It is believed that the case involved the oldest unsolved murder resulting in an arrest and conviction in the United States.[1]


Maria 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 seven years old, begged to be allowed to go outside as it had started to snow. After finishing dinner, Maria and her friend Kathy Sigman were playing outside in the dark near Maria's house playing 'duck the cars' - running back and forth trying to avoid the headlights of oncoming cars. According to Kathy, they were approached by a man, whom Kathy later described to police as in his early 20s and tall with a slender chin, light hair, a gap in the teeth, and wearing a colorful sweater. The man, who said his name was 'Johnny', told the girls that he was 24 and not married. He asked if they liked dolls, and if they liked piggyback rides. Maria got a piggyback ride, then went back home and got a doll to show. After Maria came back, Kathy ran back home to get her mittens. When she returned, Maria and the man were gone. [2]

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 Federal Bureau of Investigation (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 had her look at photos of convicted felons or suspects who bore a resemblance to Johnny. On 22 December, 1957, Kathy drove with her father and the FBI to the Dane County Sheriff Office in Madison, Wisconsin, to see a lineup of possible suspects. She positively identified thirty-six-year-old Thomas Joseph Rivard, a 36-year old male described in FBI documents as having blue eyes, dark blond/wavy/bushy hair, yellowish gapped teeth 5’4" and about 156 lbs, with a ruddy complexion. Thomas Rivard, however, had an alibi - he was in prison at the time of the kidnapping; police suspected someone else in the lineup as the real culprit and Rivard was merely used to fill out the lineup. When asked about the 1957 lineup, Kathy claimed to not remember picking him out of the lineup.

John Tessier, later convicted of the crime some 50 years later, was among the list of suspects because he resembled the general description of the suspect, but the police failed to have Kathy identify him after he provided an alibi for the night of the crime. The authorities took a close look at 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 Nora, 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[2]

The initial autopsy did not determine a cause of death due to the state of decomposition. During a subsequent autopsy done 50 years later, a forensic anthropologist determined that Maria had been stabbed to death, pointing out nicks made by a sharp blade in Maria's sternum and neck vertebrae, consistent with 'at least three' slashes to Maria's throat.[3]


John Tessier was born John Cherry on Nov. 27, 1939, to Eileen McCullough Cherry. Jack's father was killed early in World War II. Eileen was serving during the war as one of the first female airplane spotters with England’s Royal Air Force when she met Ralph Tessier, who was serving with the 8th Army-Air Force in Bovington, England. Eileen married Ralph in November, 1944, and after the war, she and John followed Ralph to Sycamore; John was 7 at the time. [4]The Tessier home was just around the corner from the Ridulph home, less than two blocks away. John was kicked out of school in the 10th grade and made plans to join the Air Force. His parents told the FBI, who received a tip about Tessier being a potential suspect, that on the night of the kidnapping, Jack was in Rockford, Illinois, to enlist in the Air Force; this was later verified by officers at the recruiting station in Rockford that said they spoke with John from around 7:15pm that evening. In addition, a collect call was placed from Rockford to the Tessier home at 6:57pm on December 3, 1957, by someone that gave his name as 'John Tassier' as written down by the operator. John was brought to the police station to take a lie detector test, which he passed. Given his seemingly air-tight alibi and the lie detector test result, John was taken off the suspect list, and the FBI closed out his report on December 10, noting: "No further investigation is being conducted regarding the above suspect." At the time of the crime, the police never had Kathy view him in person or view a photo of him.[5] John left Sycamore shortly after, having joined the military.

Tessier served in the military for thirteen years and rose to the rank of captain. After leaving the army, he moved to Seattle, Washington, graduated from King County law enforcement academy in June 1974 and became a police officer in the town of Lacey, near Olympia. [5] His first marriage produced a son and a daughter but soon failed. His second marriage also ended after three years because, John says, "I cheated on her". [5]

In 1982, in Tacoma, Washington, he took in a 15-year-old runaway, Michelle Weinman, and her friend, who knew John, by this time a police officer in Milton. Michelle Weinman testified that within a couple of weeks of living with Tessier, John fondled her and then performed oral sex on her. John Tessier was charged with statutory rape. He denied the charges, but eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge (communication with a minor for immoral purposes), saying that he couldn't afford an attorney. He was placed on one year's probation but resigned from the Milton Police Department on March 10, 1982.[5]

Shortly after his assault conviction, he legally changed his name to Jack Daniel McCullough, saying that he wanted to honor his late mother.

Reopening of case[edit]

The case was reopened when Janet Tessier, McCullough's half-sister, believing McCullough was involved, asked the Illinois State Police to look into it.[6] 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, although Mary Pat's testimony conflicted with Janet's as to what they heard their mother say.

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, his 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 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 decided that it was possible for Tessier to be in Sycamore on that date and that he could have kidnapped Maria earlier than previously assumed, and that he could have had enough time to kidnap Maria, kill her, make the 5-6 hour round-trip drive to Galena to dump the body and drive back to Sycamore. They located Kathy Sigman-Chapman in Sycamore and asked her to look at six photos of teenagers that lived in Sycamore in 1957; Tessier's photo was among them, but was slightly different from the other pictures: five of the photos were taken from the Sycamore High School yearbook, but since John had been kicked out of school in the 10th grade, his photo was not in the yearbook. Instead, investigators used a photo of him from 1957 that a former girlfriend happened to have. The five pictures from the yearbook all had light backgrounds, the subjects are all wearing suit jackets with closed collars, and the subjects are all turned slightly to the left (from the POV of the person looking at the picture). John's picture, on the other hand, is the only one with a dark background, he has an open collar, and he is the only one looking directly at the camera. [7]

Kathy was able to quickly eliminate several of the photos right away, but spent several minutes - according to the investigator, 'an eternity' - going back and forth between photos No. 1 and No. 4, before identifying picture number 4, John Tessier's photo, as the attacker. [8]

Afterwards, the Seattle Police Department and the Illinois State Police joined together in the investigation.[6] 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.[1] 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. Ridulph's body was exhumed that same month, and for the first time investigators were able to give the probable cause of death: Maria had been stabbed to death in the throat at least three times by a long, sharp blade.[9]

News of the arrest in a 54-year-old murder case drew national attention. Some[who?] 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 eight at the time of the crime, and the deathbed confession of his mother in 1997, which was only overheard by two of his sisters who gave conflicting testimony on what they heard. 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.[10]

First trial[edit]

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 of about seven 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.

Second trial[edit]

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 new 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, or 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 both inconsistent and failed to match the evidence; one said he strangled her with a wire and another said McCullough accidentally smothered her to stop her from screaming, but the new autopsy reports had indicated that Maria had been stabbed to death. Sigman-Chapman, the star witness, testified against McCullough.[6] In her testimony, she said that a man, who called himself Johnny, had walked up to them and had given Ridulph a piggyback ride.[6] Sigman-Chapman went home briefly to get mittens, and upon her return both Johnny and Maria were gone.[6] Based on a 1957 photo, she identified McCullough as the man who had walked up to them 50 years prior.[6] 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 1982.[citation needed]

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.[1] He was 73 at the time he received his sentence.[1] His request for a new trial was denied at the time of sentencing.


On February 13, 2015, the Second District Appellate Court of Illinois issued their response to Jack Daniel McCullough's appeal of the murder conviction. The court upheld the 2012 murder conviction, but vacated the kidnapping and abduction of an infant charges.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Goode, Erica (December 10, 2012). "55 Years After Girl’s Death, Her Killer Gets a Life Term". New York Times. Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Taken". CNN. August 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  3. ^ "The Whole Truth?". CNN. August 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  4. ^ "Piecing together John Tessier puzzle". March 2015. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d "The Suspect". CNN. August 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Ward, Clifford (December 11, 2012). "Defiant ex-cop gets life for girl's 1957 murder". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
  7. ^ "The Evidence". CNN. August 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  8. ^ "'That's Him'". CNN. August 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  9. ^ "Body of girl killed in 1957 exhumed". Telegraph Herald. July 28, 2011. Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
  10. ^ Moe, Doug (21 September 2012). "Tragedy leads to answers for family". Wisconsin State Journal. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  11. ^ The full appellate ruling can be read here:

External links[edit]

Footsteps In The Snow documentary Movie LMN Film and Footsteps in the Snow Book by Charles Lachman