Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Better Late Than Never: Man Sentenced for 1957 Murder

Maria Riidulph

Maria Ridulph

On the evening of December 3, 1957, Maria Ridulph, 7, was out playing in the fresh snow with friends near her home in Sycamore, Illinois. She was snatched off a street corner and and the subsequent search made national headlines until her body was found a few months later in a field 120 miles away. More than five decades later, justice finally came for the man convicted of her killing.

The last known person to see Maria alive Kathy Sigman Chapman (now 63) told authorities that she had been playing in the snow with Ridulph when a teenage boy who identified himself as “Johnny” approached them. He asked the girls whether they liked dolls and if they would like to take a ride. Kathy recalled Maria ran back to get a doll. When she returned, Kathy left to get her mittens. She never saw either of them again.

John Tessier, 1957

John Tessier, 1957

The ensuing manhunt focused on over a hundred suspects at one time or another, including John Tessier, 17, a high school dropout who lived just a few blocks from the girls. When police came to his door, Tessier had a rock-solid alibi: he and his parents said he was in a nearby town enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.

A few days after Ridulph vanished, Tessier left for the military. He served in Vietnam and was awarded a bronze star for bravery. Tessier would change his name to Jack McCullough, and eventually move to Seattle where he worked as a state police officer.

Back in Sycamore, though a monument in memory of Maria Ridulph was erected by the police station on the 40th anniversary of her kidnapping, there were no fresh leads until a stunning deathbed confession came to light in 2008. Janet Tessier, just an infant at the time of the Ridulph’s death, called Illinois authorities with a shocking revelation. Her mother had confessed that Janet’s older brother had committed the crime that rocked their small town five decades earlier. “John did it,” the near-death woman had uttered, “John did it and you have to tell someone.”

Police obtained a 1957 photo of McCullough, then Tessier, (shown above, left) from one of his old girlfriends. Inside the photo’s frame was the bus ticket McCullough would have used to go to his enlistment interview. It was unused. They then went back to Janet Chapman with the photo of the suspected teenager, whom she positively identified as “Johnny.” Authorities arrested McCullough in 2011 and brought him back to Illinois to stand trial.

Jack Daniel McCullough, aka John Tessier

Jack Daniel McCullough, aka John Tessier

Despite the intervening years, the testimony of Chapman, Janet Tessier and others was enough to convince a jury to return a guilty verdict in McCullough’s September 2012 trial. McCullough did not take the stand in his own defense — his attorneys argued unsuccessfully that McCullough was not in Sycamore on the day of the crime. They maintained that the truth could be found in the 4,000 pages of FBI documents from the original investigation, but Judge James Hallock ruled the evidence inadmissible because the agents who could authenticate the information has long since died.

Last week, Jack McCullough, 73, was finally sentenced on the kidnapping and murder charges arising from the crime he committed at age 17. Before receiving the sentence of natural life in prison, ensuring he would die behind bars, McCullough addressed the court. “I did not, did not, kill Maria Ridulph,” he lectured the judge referring to the FBI documents, “In the name of justice and fairness, open the box and view the truth.”

Investigators believe they’ve got the truth, and that what may be the oldest cold case to ever come to trial and conviction has reached its proper conclusion. And while the town of Sycamore was forever changed by the killing of Maria Ridulph, some residents can put the tragedy behind them at long last. “This finally puts this part of my life to a resting point,” Chapman told reporters after the sentencing that sealed the fate of Ridulph’s killer.

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