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Life sentence closes oldest cold case

By Ann O'Neill, CNN
updated 1:01 PM EST, Tue December 11, 2012
Maria Ridulph of Sycamore, Illinois, in a photo possibly taken at age 5.
Maria Ridulph of Sycamore, Illinois, in a photo possibly taken at age 5.
  • Man sentenced to life in 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old girl
  • Case is believed to be the oldest cold case to go to trial and result in a conviction
  • Jack Daniel McCullough, now 73, continues to assert his innocence
  • Victim's brother: "This has been a nightmare"

Sycamore, Illinois (CNN) -- Fifty-five years after Maria Ridulph vanished from a small-town street corner while playing in the snow, a former neighbor was sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and killing the brown-eyed second-grader.

Jack Daniel McCullough, who was 17 and known as John Tessier back in 1957, was finally identified two years ago by Maria's childhood companion as "Johnny," the blond man with the ducktail haircut who offered the girls piggyback rides and carried Maria off into oblivion.

McCullough, who worked as a police officer for a time in Washington state, was convicted of child abduction and murder after a two-week trial in September. He continues to assert his innocence.

Jack Daniel McCullough was charged with Maria Ridulph\'s murder 55 years after her death.
Jack Daniel McCullough was charged with Maria Ridulph's murder 55 years after her death.

In court Monday, McCullough claimed he was framed by corrupt police and prosecutors. He pointed at a white box on the defense table that he said contained 4,000 pages of FBI reports from 1957. He said agents interviewed 1,800 people and cleared him.

And then, his hand still resting on the box, he urged the judge, "Your honor, in the name of justice and fairness, open the box and view the truth."

Judge James Hallock had ruled the documents inadmissible at McCullough's trial.

The case is believed by investigators to be the oldest cold case to go to trial and result in a conviction. McCullough was sentenced under laws that were in effect in 1957.

Suspect in 1957 cold case charged as fugitive

After the 90-minute hearing, snowflakes fell on Ridulph's brother, Charles, and sister, Patricia Quinn, as they stood on the courthouse steps and said they were relieved Maria had finally received justice.

"This has been a nightmare for our family," Charles Ridulph said. Quinn added that the crime "changed Sycamore. People were afraid."

McCullough, now 73, was questioned during the first days of the investigation but was never considered a suspect because he seemed to have the perfect alibi: He and his parents said he was miles away in Rockford, enlisting in the Air Force and taking a physical. He left Sycamore days after Maria's disappearance and served in the Air Force and then the Army. He was stationed for a time in Vietnam, rose to the rank of captain and was awarded the Bronze star for bravery in combat, his lawyer said.

The murder case went cold, but Sycamore never forgot about Maria Ridulph. On the 40th anniversary of her disappearance, a monument was erected outside Sycamore's police station. It says, in part: "This is in memory of Maria Ridulph who on December 3, 1957, was kidnapped while playing near her home. She was found murdered in the spring of 1958. This also is in honor of the great people in our community that reached out in love and compassion."

McCullough's youngest sister, a baby at the time of the crime, contacted an Illinois State Police tip line in 2008 and told investigators that her dying mother had pulled her close in her hospital room years earlier and, referring to Ridulph's murder, said, "John did it. John did it, and you have to tell someone."

Janet Tessier added that her mother was agitated and emotional at the time and "expressed a great deal of guilt," according to a transcript obtained by CNN.

After state police reopened the case, they interviewed a former girlfriend in Florida and eventually poked holes in McCullough's alibi. A government-issued train ticket fell out of the back of a photograph the woman mailed to police, and an expert authenticated the ticket and said it had not been used.

Kathy Sigman Chapman, who was playing with Maria the night she was abducted, picked that photo of McCullough out of a police lineup in September 2010. Although she had viewed hundreds, if not thousands, of photos before, it was the first time she'd been able to identify "Johnny."

She testified that she was certain she had identified the right man.

Illinois girl's body exhumed in 1957 slaying

The girls had been excited as the first snowflakes of the season fell on the evening of December 3, 1957, Chapman recalled. They asked to go back outside after dinner.

The Tessier family lived around the corner and two blocks down Center Cross Street from Archie Place, where the girls' families lived. Because he was older, Maria and Kathy did not know John Tessier, a high school dropout.

"Johnny" asked the girls if they liked dolls and if they'd like to ride in a truck, bus or train. Maria ran home and returned with a favorite doll. Then Chapman left Maria alone with Johnny and went home to fetch her mittens. When she came back, they were both gone.

She alerted Maria's brother, Charles. A massive search began, which continued throughout December. Maria's doll was found by a neighbor's garage.

The missing child case drew dozens of FBI agents to this small farming community about 60 miles west of Chicago. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover demanded daily updates, which were shared with President Dwight Eisenhower.

The disappearance of the 7-year-old with the perfect Sunday school attendance was national news for a while as 1,000 volunteers scoured fields of corn stubble for clues. Maria's remains were found in the spring by a retired couple looking for mushrooms under the melting snow. She was 120 miles from home, in a field near the town of Galena and not far from a river campground where the Tessier family spent vacations.

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