SYCAMORE, Ill. – 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 U.S.
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. Family and friends of the girl fell into each other’s arms; others walked up to hug and kiss prosecutors.
McCullough was 17 years old on the snowy night in December 1957 when the second-grader went missing in Sycamore, about 60 miles west of Chicago. He later enlisted in the military and ultimately settled in Seattle where he was a Washington state police officer.
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 if they liked dolls and if they wanted piggyback rides.
A weight has been lifted off my shoulders, said Chapman, now 63. Maria finally has the justice she deserves.
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.
After the verdict, Janet Tessier’s eyes were red with tears.
He is as evil as prosecutors painted – and some, she said.
Chapman said she was playing with Maria on Dec. 3, 1957, when a young man calling himself Johnny approached 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 alive 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.
A Seattle investigator who interviewed McCullough last year, Irene Lau, said McCullough remembered Maria, calling her stunningly beautiful. But he maintained he had nothing to do with her death.
McCullough was on an early list of suspects in 1957. But he had an alibi, saying that on the day, he had traveled to Chicago 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.