Mistakes made at cold case trial, but murder verdict sticks

Story highlights

  • Kathy Sigman was the only person who saw a stranger snatch her friend, Maria Ridulph, in 1957
  • Decades later, her eyewitness testimony sent Jack Daniel McCullough to prison for murder
  • An appeals court upholds the verdict; CNN documented the case in "Taken: The Coldest Case Ever Solved"

(CNN)The news came as she rode home from making arrangements for her brother's funeral.

The appeals court believed her.
"Johnny's" conviction would stick.
    For the eyewitness whose long memory and compelling testimony solved a 1957 murder -- the oldest cold case to go to trial in America -- it felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted. For a few moments at least, Kathy Sigman Chapman could set aside her grief over losing her brother and rejoice in seeing justice done for a long-lost childhood friend.
    Kathy was 8 when FBI agents escorted her to the funeral of Maria Ridulph. Kathy was the only person who saw the stranger who snatched 7-year-old Maria, her best friend, from the street where they lived. He had weird teeth, a flip in his hair and introduced himself as "Johnny."
    Kathy would carry the burden of what she saw for the rest of her life.
    She visited Maria's grave after her she finally identified the killer more than half a century later, and again after her testimony in court helped convict him and send him to prison. She, too, had been looking for "Johnny" for all those years.
    In its ruling last week, an Illinois appeals court took special note of both her adult testimony and childhood descriptions of Johnny in upholding the murder conviction of Jack Daniel McCullough.
    The court said it was not bothered by the small discrepancies in the descriptions Kathy gave under prodding by adults. She saw him as older, and that could mean 18, or 25, or 30 to "her 8-year-old self," the court said. She, more than anyone, knew the face of Maria's killer.

    'An excellent reason to remember'

    "Chapman not only had the ability to observe defendant on December 3, 1957, she had an excellent reason to remember him for all the years afterward," the court said. "She was a witness to an event that horrified the community and caused her to be the object of law enforcement and news media attention. For a time, the police even accompanied her to Sunday school, making their presence in her life onerous."
    Chapman is in her mid-60s now and losing others close to her. Heading home in the car after making arrangements for her brother's funeral, she was so sad, her husband recalled, but her voice grew lighter as she read in a text message of the court's decision.
    Her mother had told her to remember Johnny's face. And she had.
    Kathy Sigman Chapman reacts at the sentencing of Jack McCullough -- the bogeyman who stole her friend and haunted her childhood. An appeals court has upheld his conviction.
    CNN chronicled the case in a five-part series, "Taken: The Coldest Case Ever Solved." The crime shattered the innocence of Sycamore, Illinois, a farming community. FBI agents swarmed the town, filing daily updates to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who shared them with President Dwight Eisenhower.
    And then the case went cold until the Illinois State Police received a tip and reopened the investigation in 2008. It led them four years later to McCullough, a disgraced cop with a checkered past who was working as a security guard at a retirement community in Seattle.
    In 1957, he lived in Sycamore, just around the corner from Maria and Kathy. He was known as John Tessier then and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force a few days after being questioned and cleared by FBI agents investigating Maria's disappearance. He looked a lot like the man Kathy described.
    But she didn't lead the FBI to a suspect back in 1957. She says she's still baffled that not one of the dozens of agents who came to Sycamore showed her the right picture back then. She'd seen hundreds, maybe even thousands, over the years.
    But she never saw "Johnny." That changed in September 2010 when Brion Hanley, a special agent with the Illinois State Police, laid down a six-pack of yearbook photos on the coffee table in her living room.
    Chapman eliminated several right away, wavered a moment, sighed, and then pointed to a photo of McCullough, given to police by his high school flame.
    "That's him," she said.
    And now, she's had the last word.

    'Heinous crimes ... can and will be solved'

    "We know some people questioned her memory, but not the judges and not me," said her husband, Mike Chapman. "We are both so grateful that this day finally arrived. Kathy can put the past behind her. It was an act of horror that changed all of our childhoods."
    Hanley, and his investigative partner, Larry Kot, said they were gratified that their work on a difficult case has now passed muster with two judges.
    The court's ruling makes it nearly certain that McCullough, who is 76, will die in prison. "He's right where he should be," Kot said.
    And Hanley quickly added, "No matter how much time has passed, heinous crimes like this one can and will be solved."
    The reaction was different from McCullough's stepdaughter and her husband, who have remained loyal and believe police have the wrong man. They say they are "disgusted" by the failure of the legal system. They believe the investigation was flawed and the conviction was based on the unreliable statements of spiteful family members and shifty inmates.
    The Maria Ridulph murder case wasn't just the oldest cold case ever tried. It was a controversial prosecution built on circumstantial evidence. It dug up a small town's long-buried ghosts, and the political fallout cost three prosecutors their jobs.
    But Hanley and Kot say those prosecutors -- Clay Campbell, Julie Trevarthen and Victor Escarcida -- showed true courage by pursuing a case that wasn't popular with the public. Campbell, who was seeking re-election, took time off from his campaign and was unseated by an opponent who portrayed him as a grandstander.
    While Kathy Chapman's memory helped convict McCullough, the appeals court found that his own words to investigators in Seattle and fellow inmates in Sycamore also sealed his fate.
    The appeals court ruling makes it nearly certain that Jack McCullough, 76, will die in prison.
    The court noted that McCullough lied in Sycamore in 1957 and again in Seattle in 2011 about details of his whereabouts on the night Maria disappeared.
    And he told jailhouse informants how he killed Maria, offering varying accounts in yet another attempt at deception, the court found. He made other admissions to them about "how he killed Maria and disposed of her body in an area with which he was familiar."
    Seattle cold case detective Mike Ciesynski, who grilled McCullough and saw telltale signs of deception in his responses, happened to be driving by Sycamore on his way to Chicago when he received news of the appeals court ruling.
    "Made for a very pleasant overnight stay in Chicago," he wrote in an email.
    A bedside vigil brought this cold case back to life. McCullough's mother, Eileen Tessier, who lay dying of cancer in 1994, pulled a daughter, Janet, close and said: "Those two little girls, and the one that disappeared, John did it. John did it, and you have to tell someone."
    Janet Tessier testified that she tried for years afterward to reach out to Sycamore police. But an investigator there had his sights on another suspect.

    An exhausting, painful effort

    Finally, in 2008, she gave it one last try, sending an email to an Illinois State police tip line. She named her half brother as the killer.
    "This is the last time I mention this to anyone," she wrote. "What information I do have makes Tessier/McCullough a viable suspect, and worth looking into. I'm not going to keep doing this over and over. It's exhausting and it dredges up painful, horrible memories."
    Tony Rapacz, a state police commander who is now retired, flagged the email and asked agents Larry Kot and Brion Hanley to look into it.
    Rapacz said in an email that he was proud of work the investigators and prosecutors did to crack the case, but struck a somber note.
    "Even though justice has been served," he said, "we need to remember the loss suffered by the Ridulph family."
     Tony Rapacz, an Illinois state police commander, got the tip that helped crack the case. He sicked his "bulldog" investigators on it.
    In an emailed statement to CNN, Kathy and Mike Chapman said Illinois state police investigators Hanley and Kot "put their hearts and souls" into solving the case. They also acknowledged the toll the case took on the Ridulphs and Tessiers, "who have become family to us."
    Although McCullough's murder trial was relatively brief -- just four days of testimony before Judge James Hallock -- it forged a bond between the families. They shared the news Friday that McCullough's conviction had been upheld.
    The Tessier family, especially, was "deeply torn apart by their half-brother's past," the Chapmans said. "We can't imagine the pain of thinking that your brother did this terrible crime. Jan was herself the 'bulldog' that made the police finally listen. None of this would have been possible if not for their willingness to expose their past."

    Mistakes were no match for eyewitness testimony

    The appeals court ruled that Hallock, who decided the case without a jury, made several mistakes during trial. But the court found the errors were "harmless" and did not affect the outcome.
    The court tossed out the conviction and sentence for the 1957 crime "abduction of an infant," saying the statute of limitations had expired decades ago.
    And, the court ruled that Eileen Tessier's deathbed statement was improperly allowed at the trial under a flawed legal theory. She didn't offer it as confession of a cover-up, the court found; instead, it was more of an accusation. "John did it."
    Still, the court said, the errors and inconsistencies inherent in a decades-old murder case were no match for Kathy Chapman's compelling eyewitness testimony and courtroom identification of McCullough as "Johnny," the stranger who offered two little girls piggyback rides as they played in the snow.
    "The essence of the state's case was the totality of the circumstances," the court said.
    McCullough argued in his appeal that Hallock's rulings hampered him from presenting a defense based on an alibi, as well as old police and FBI reports. At his sentencing, he pointed to a box of files on the defense table and asserted, "The truth is in the box."
    But the court ruled that the box contained little more than contradictory FBI reports from long ago. "The FBI reports do not tend to support an alibi defense, because they are inconsistent and inconclusive," the court said.
    McCullough's alibi was based on what he and his parents told others including people, long deceased, who had spoken with him as he attempted to enlist in the Air Force.
    "The reports were authored by FBI agents who had no personal knowledge of the substance of the underlying assertions," the court found. Courts generally consider hearsay statements unreliable because they can be twisted and misinterpreted in the retelling.
    McCullough and his parents had a powerful motive to deceive in 1957, and his motive continues to this day, the court found.
    The DeKalb County States Attorneys office in Sycamore thanked the appeals court on its web site for "moving the Maria Ridulph case one step further towards final resolution."
    The prosecutor's office said the court's "lengthy and well-reasoned" ruling showed it "gave thoughtful and sober consideration to the entire record."
    Kathy Chapman provided a key part of that record, even though she is a retiring person and the thought of testifying in front of Maria's killer had terrified her. But she looked him in the eye, pointed a finger and let him know she wasn't that frightened 8-year-old anymore.
    "Jack is where he should have been since the day he murdered Maria," the Chapmans said. "You should never to able to outlive justice when you take someone's life.
    "There is justice for Maria," says her friend.
    "There is justice for Maria."
    And finally, for Kathy, a measure of peace.