SYCAMORE, Ill. – A former Washington state policeman convicted of kidnapping and murdering a young Illinois girl more than a half century ago was sentenced Monday to life in prison.
Jack McCullough, 73, was convicted in September in one of the oldest unsolved crimes in U.S. history to make it to trial. Life in prison was the maximum sentence he faced.
The sentencing took place in Sycamore, the small community where 7-year-old Maria Ridulph was abducted and killed in December 1957.
Like McCullough’s trial, it was expected to be emotional for members of Ridulph’s and McCullough’s families, as well as 63-year-old Kathy Chapman, a childhood friend of Ridulph’s who was with her until moments before she was abducted.
Judge James Hallock admonished an unrepentant McCullough for turning to face Ridulph’s family and friends as he spoke before sentencing. The judge ordered McCullough to face the bench, but McCullough kept pivoting toward the gallery.
“I did not, did not, kill Maria Ridulph,” said McCullough, who grew up in Sycamore. “It was a crime I did not, would not, could not have done.”
He pointed to a box that he said contained 4,000 pages of FBI documents. The defense argued during the trial that the material supported McCullough’s alibi that he was not in Sycamore the day of the crime, but Hallock ruled it inadmissible because the people in the documents were dead and could not be cross-examined.
McCullough’s attorney said that ruling likely will be part of an appeal.
Before the sentencing, a prosecutor, Victor Escarcida, said that McCullough had “left a lifetime of emotional wreckage in his wake.”
“Jack McCullough made Sycamore a scary place,” Escarcida said. “Now there was a true boogeyman living among them. He is the definition of evil.”
Prosecutors contended that on Dec. 3, 1957, a 17-year-old McCullough, known then as John Tessier, approached Ridulph and Chapman in front of Ridulph’s house and played with them for a while.
When Chapman ran home to get her mittens, prosecutors said, McCullough dragged Maria into an alley and choked her with a wire, then stabbed her in the throat and chest. Then, they said, he loaded her body into his car and drove more than 100 miles to where he disposed of her body in a wooded area.
Ridulph’s disappearance drew national attention during a massive, months-long search before her body was found the following April. Reportedly, President Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover asked for regular updates on the case.
McCullough was one of more than 100 people who were briefly suspects, but he had what seemed like a solid alibi. On the day the girl vanished, he told investigators, he’d been traveling to Chicago for a medical exam before joining the Air Force.
McCullough eventually settled in Seattle, working as a Washington state police officer.
Ultimately, members of his own family helped convict him. During the trial, Janet Tessier, McCullough’s half-sister, described McCullough’s mother making incriminating comments about McCullough on her deathbed in 1994. The mother acknowledged she had lied to police when she supported McCullough’s alibi.
Once a new investigation was launched, authorities went to Chapman, Ridulph’s childhood friend, and showed her an old photograph of McCullough. A half century later, she identified him as the teenager who came up to them that snowy day and introduced himself as “Johnny.”
McCullough did not testify.