SYCAMORE, ILLINOIS – A 72-year-old man was convicted Friday in the 1957 murder of a 7-year-old girl, with spectators letting out a deafening cheer as the verdict was announced in one of the oldest unsolved crimes to eventually get to court in the United States.
The sound of sobbing overtook the room as the cheers and applause faded after Judge James Hallock pronounced Jack McCullough guilty of murder, kidnapping and abduction in Maria Ridulph’s death.
McCullough was about 17 years old on the snowy night in December 1957 when the second-grader went missing in Sycamore, about 60 miles west of Chicago. McCullough later enlisted in the military, and ultimately settled in Seattle where he worked as a police officer in the state of Washington.
Maria’s playmate the night she disappeared, Kathy Chapman, was a star witness in the case. She testified that McCullough was the young man who approached the girls as they played, asking whether they liked dolls and whether they wanted piggyback rides.
“A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Chapman, 63, said outside on the courthouse steps. “Maria finally has the justice she deserves.”
It all happened in an era when child abductions, if not unheard of, rarely made headlines.
This one did.
President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover asked to be kept apprised of the search for the girl, which lasted five months and ended when her decomposed body was found in a forest 120 miles from her hometown.
McCullough’s half sister told the court that their mother, Eileen Tessier, said on her death bed in 1994 that McCullough — whose name was then John Tessier — had killed Maria.
“She grabbed my wrist and said, ‘Those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it,'” Janet Tessier said.
Chapman said she was playing on a street corner with Maria on Dec. 3, 1957, when a young man calling himself “Johnny” approached and talked to them. Maria ran home to get a doll; Chapman went to get mittens. When Chapman returned, her friend and the man were gone.
She never saw Maria again.
A prosecutor laid out black-and-white photographs of similar-looking men, and Chapman pointed to one of McCullough, saying she was sure he was the man who called himself “Johnny.”
Irene Lau, a Seattle investigator who interviewed McCullough last year, said McCullough remembered Maria, calling her ‘stunningly beautiful.” But he maintained he had nothing to do with her disappearance or death.
McCullough was on a list of suspects in 1957. But he had an alibi, saying that he had traveled to Chicago that day to get a medical exam before enlisting in the Air Force.
The case was reopened after his old girlfriend contacted police with evidence calling his alibi into question — she had found his unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago on the day Maria disappeared. He was arrested on July 1, 2011, in Washington state at a retirement home where he worked as a security guard.
McCullough waived his right for a jury trial and opted for a bench trial.