SYCAMORE, Ill. – Fifty-five years after 7-year-old Maria Ridulph vanished, her friends and family let out a deafening cheer Friday as a judge pronounced a former neighborhood teen – now a 72-year-old man – guilty of the girl’s kidnapping and murder.
It is one of the oldest unsolved crimes in the U.S. to make it to trial.
The roar of approval soon gave way to loud sobs from those who knew the Illinois girl, whose body was found after a five-month search that drew national media attention. Jack McCullough, who was 17-year-old John Tessier at the time, showed no hint of emotion.
“A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Kathy Chapman, 63, who was playing with Ridulph in the snow on the night of Dec. 3, 1957, before she vanished. “Maria finally has the justice she deserves.”
McCullough won Maria’s trust by talking about dolls and giving her piggyback rides, Chapman testified. At some point, authorities say, he dragged her into an alley, choked her with a wire, then stabbed her in her throat and chest.
McCullough was briefly a suspect, as were more than 100 others, in the 1950s, but he had an alibi. He told investigators he had been traveling to Chicago to get a medical exam before joining the Air Force. He settled in Seattle, working as a Washington state police officer.
As the months became years, many Sycamore residents assumed the killer must have been a transient.
A deathbed accusation by his mother in 1994 – passed on to police by his half-sister in 2008 – led to a chain of events that brought about McCullough’s conviction.
His mother, Eileen Tessier, had lied to police canvassing the neighborhood in 1957 about her son’s whereabouts, buttressing his alibi, prosecutor Julie Trevartchen said Friday.
“She knew what she did and she didn’t want to die with that on her conscience,” she said.
McCullough’s girlfriend in the 1950s also contacted police with evidence that called his alibi into question. She had found his unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago for the day Ridulph disappeared.
McCullough was arrested July 1, 2011, at a Washington retirement home where he worked as a security guard.
One reason authorities felt confident they had the right suspect was that Ridulph’s friend, Chapman, picked out McCullough as the teen who identified himself as “Johnny” while the girls were playing. Chapman last saw Ridulph with that man before the girl vanished.
For decades, that day was never far from Chapman’s, she said. She would scan faces everywhere to see if any of them looked like that man.
“I never stopped looking for Johnny’s face,” Chapman said Friday.
During closing arguments, public defender Tom McCulloch said no physical evidence tied his client to the crime, and he raised doubts about Chapman’s memory.
But Trevartchen said it wasn’t surprising she recalled that night with such clarity.
“Little kids remember the really good things that happen and the really bad things,” she told the court. “And they remember the face of the man who took their little friend.”
The half dozen relatives of McCullough at the trial all said they wanted a guilty verdict.
One of his half-sisters, Janet Tessier, who told police about her mother’s deathbed comments, spoke with her eyes still red from tears.
“He is as evil as prosecutors painted – and some,” she said minutes after the verdict.
At a news conference later where Maria’s brother and sister spoke, Tessier asked if she could step up and say something to them – to apologize her brother wasn’t caught decades earlier.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice cracking as she looked at the Ridulphs. “I’m so sorry it took so long.”