SYCAMORE, Ill. – Friends and family who had all but given up on seeing anyone brought to justice for the murder of a young Illinois girl more than 50 years ago said they were at peace Monday after a former police officer was sentenced to life in prison.
Jack McCullough, 73, was convicted in September in one of the oldest unsolved crimes in American history to make it to trial. He was sentenced in a small town courtroom a few blocks from where Maria Ridulph played with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, before she was grabbed, choked and stabbed to death in an alley. The 7-year-old’s body was found months later in woods more than 100 miles away.
The girl’s friends and relatives didn’t utter a sound or betray the slightest emotion as a silver-haired Jack McCullough stood, turned to them and proclaimed his innocence.
“I did not, did not, kill Maria Ridulph,” said McCullough, who grew up in Sycamore and was 17 when Ridulph died. “It was a crime I did not, would not, could not have done.”
Judge James Hallock admonished McCullough to face him, not the spectators, and a sheriff’s deputy stood behind McCullough to block his view of Ridulph’s relatives and the childhood friend who was left behind.
“He can say all he wants to say,” Kathy Chapman, now 63, said afterward. “This finally puts this part of my life to a resting point.”
Chapman had been playing with Ridulph in the snow when she ran home to get her mittens, leaving her friend with a teenager who had been giving them piggyback rides. When she returned, both were gone.
“This is all we could expect,” Chapman added, referring to the life sentence. Illinois abolished the death penalty last year. “Now Maria is finally at peace.”
McCulllough spent years in the military, first in the Air Force and then in the Army. He eventually settled in Seattle, working as a police officer.
McCullough might have lived out his life quietly, but on her deathbed in 1994, his mother told McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, that she’d lied to police when she supported her son’s alibi.
Once a new investigation was launched, authorities went to Chapman, Ridulph’s childhood friend, and showed her an old photograph of McCullough. A half-century after Ridulph’s disappearance, Chapman identified him as the teenager who came up to them that snowy day and introduced himself as “Johnny.”
On Monday, McCullough’s attorney said there would be an appeal.
McCullough, who suffers from heart and blood pressure problems, also was sentenced to five years for kidnapping – the maximum sentence for that crime in 1957. He will be eligible for parole in 20 years, his attorney said.