The coldest case ever solved
SYCAMORE, Illinois (CNN) — Chapter 1: A child is taken
Maria was the pretty one, slight and graceful at 7 with big brown eyes that shined with warmth and intelligence. Everyone said the second-grader was special and Kathy, who was a year older, felt honored to be her friend.
They lived a few doors away from each other on a side street called Archie Place. It was their whole world in 1957, a time when children played hide-and-seek outside instead of watching television. People didn’t lock their doors in this Midwestern farm town because everyone knew everybody else.
Sycamore and its 7,000 souls felt safe on the morning of December 3, 1957, but the feeling wouldn’t last.
That first Tuesday in December started like any other for Maria Ridulph and Kathy Sigman, with a short walk across the street to West Elementary School. It was cold, with a promise of snow in the air. After school, they went to Maria’s house to cut out paper snowflakes.
A few blocks away, a man in an overcoat spotted two other girls walking along State Street by the public library and tried to strike up a conversation. It was 4:15 p.m. The girls felt uneasy, so they ducked into a restaurant. When they emerged, the man was gone — but he’d left something disturbing behind. Scattered on the sidewalk were half a dozen photographs of nude women.
That wasn’t Sycamore’s only peculiar hint of the dirty and forbidden. Since Halloween, someone had been scrawling obscenities in chalk on a tree and stop sign at the intersection of Center Cross Street and Archie Place. Maria and Kathy made plans to play there after dinner. It was a favorite spot they hadn’t been to since summer.
At 5 p.m. sharp, Kathy went home. Maria’s family gathered around the table for her favorite supper: rabbit, carrots, potatoes and milk. She finished off two rabbit legs, but barely touched her vegetables. She pleaded to go back outside as the first flurries of the season started to swirl in the night sky.
Excited, she called Kathy on the phone: I can go outside tonight, can you?
Kathy lived in a white cottage at the end of a long driveway, and her family was the first on the block to own a clothes dryer. Her freshly laundered jeans still felt warm as she met Maria at mid-block and they raced in the dark to the massive elm tree on the corner. They were playing “duck the cars” — scurrying back and forth between the tree and a street pole, trying to avoid the headlights from oncoming cars — when a good-looking young man approached. He wore his blond hair swept back in a ducktail. Kathy remembers his narrow face, big teeth and high, thin voice. She’d never seen him before.
Hello, little girls, he said. Are you having fun?
He asked whether they wanted piggyback rides and gave his name as “Johnny.” He told Kathy and Maria that he was 24 and wasn’t married.
Do you like dollies?
The girls nodded.
By the time these events were recalled in a Sycamore courtroom 55 years later, memories had faded and many details noted in police and FBI reports were lost to time.
But nobody could forget the piggyback ride. That was how Johnny won Maria over.
Down he trotted, 20 feet to the south along Center Cross Street and back again, Maria giggling with glee on his shoulders. When it was over, she ran to her house, three doors away at 616 Archie Place, to fetch a doll for the next piggyback ride.
Kathy waited on the sidewalk with Johnny. He asked whether she wanted to take a walk around the block or go on a trip in a truck, car or bus. No, she told him. He told her she was pretty, but she sensed it was Maria he liked more.
Maria burst into her house to find her father, Michael, in the living room watching a Western. Her mother, Frances, was reading a newspaper. Maria picked out a favorite doll from the toys piled by the door, but her mother suggested she take an older rubber doll out into the snow instead.
Kathy felt a chill as Maria joined them on the sidewalk. Now it was Kathy’s turn to run home, to fetch her mittens. She asked Maria to come along, but she didn’t want to go.
When Kathy returned a few minutes later, Maria and Johnny were gone.
The trouble with cold cases
The kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph is the nation’s oldest cold case to go to trial. It required family members to turn against one of their own and haunted a small town for 55 years. Even now, the case may not be over.
Maria was taken in a more innocent time — decades before Amber Alerts and photos of missing children on milk cartons became part of our cultural landscape. In 1957, the kidnapping of a little girl shattered everyone’s sense of safety. It was huge news.
Reporters flocked to Sycamore from the big city papers in Chicago and New York and from the fledgling television networks. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover demanded daily updates from his men and sent teletypes with detailed instructions. President Dwight D. Eisenhower followed the case. But the weeks of urgent activity were followed by half a century of silence.
Secrets often lie at the heart of crimes that remain unsolved so long they are said to go “cold.” Most are cracked by advances in science, or by someone’s need to come clean.
In the Ridulph case, there was no DNA, no confession by the killer. This mystery was solved by circumstantial evidence amassed over four years by bulldog cops and other outsiders who came to Sycamore to stand up for a little girl whose life was stolen.
But it is difficult to reconstruct the past in a courtroom. People die, memories fade and facts can become distorted by the passage of time or shaded by personal grudges and agendas.
As tough as it is to build a cold case, it may be even harder to defend one. Imagine trying to explain what you were doing a year ago. Now imagine trying to explain what you were doing a lifetime ago.
The man convicted last September of kidnapping and murdering Maria Ridulph maintains his innocence. His wife of nearly 20 years and his stepdaughter say he was sacrificed to bring peace of mind to Sycamore. An appeal has been filed and likely will take two years or more to be heard.
Winning a conviction in a crime that occurred in 1957 is a remarkable accomplishment — proof that no one should get away with murder, even if justice takes 55 years. But a close examination of the case by CNN raises questions about the strength of the evidence, the motives of some of the witnesses and the ability of the court system to fairly and accurately reconstruct history.
The case was reopened after a dying woman implicated her own son 36 years after the fact. Her words, as recalled by two of her daughters, were somewhat cryptic, and there’s no way to seek clarification. Even the daughters don’t agree on what she said. And, separate from this crime, two siblings had powerful reasons to fear and despise their half brother.
Much of the physical evidence in the case was lost or destroyed over the years, including Maria’s doll, which was handled by her killer. Instead, prosecutors relied heavily on evidence that in the past has often proven unreliable: eyewitness identification and the testimony of informants.
Eyewitness identification is not as simple as it might seem. Factors influencing misidentification include the witness’s distance from the perpetrator, the lighting at the crime scene and the conditions under which a witness later views a lineup. Jailhouse informants bring their own baggage: They’re criminals, or at least accused of crimes, and can be looking to trade testimony for leniency.
In the Ridulph case, three inmates locked up with the suspect told different stories about how he described killing Maria: by dropping her on her head, or by suffocating or strangling her while trying to silence her cries.
Yet a forensic pathologist testified Maria was stabbed.
The eyewitness whose testimony was crucial in winning a conviction was a child when she saw the kidnapper for just a few moments. More than half a century passed before she picked him out in a photo lineup. She is certain she chose the right man, but others question whether she picked up cues from the investigators and tried to please them with her choice. They wonder whether the photo itself — slightly different from the others she was shown — could have prejudiced her.
Illinois is second only to Texas in mistaken eyewitness identifications, according to the Innocence Project, which began its work in 1992. Faulty identifications played a role in 24 cases — more than half of the state’s 43 wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. Nationwide, 75% of 309 wrongful convictions involved faulty eyewitness identifications; 15% were based partly on the testimony of informants who later recanted or were proven to have lied.
It was the job of Judge James Hallock to sort everything out. The defense requested a bench trial, and so prosecutors had to prove guilt to just one person, not 12. That one person, Hallock, had little experience with murder trials.
Hallock’s verdict in this case came after four days of testimony. It was based, the judge said, on the credibility of the eyewitness and the jailhouse informants.
He expressed confidence that his decision would be upheld on appeal.
The goal in every trial is a fair hearing of both sides. And in most trials, witnesses take the stand to recount what they saw with their own eyes, what they heard with their own ears. But in cold cases, those witnesses often are dead.
When that’s true, prosecutors and defendants are sometimes forced to rely on second-hand evidence known as hearsay. And in some states, including Illinois, the law is evolving to allow hearsay evidence under exceptional circumstances.
In this cold case, a hearsay statement that favored the prosecution was allowed into evidence; other hearsay evidence that favored the defense was kept out. And so, a mother was able to accuse her son from the grave, but his alibi, buried in thousands of pages of old FBI reports, was never presented in court.
A man was convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life. A victim’s family embraced long-awaited justice, and Sycamore breathed a sigh of relief. But was the courtroom reconstruction of history unfairly one-sided?
Was justice really served?
‘I can’t find Maria!’
Kathy ran up and down Archie Place, calling her best friend’s name as a gentle snow fell on the evening of December 3, 1957. There was no sign of Maria.
Kathy rushed up to a side door at the Ridulphs’ house, where Maria’s big brother, Chuck, was spinning records on the hi-fi with his friend Randy. Maria’s lost, she told them. I can’t find Maria!
Chuck and Randy set out down Archie Place, all the way to the corner of Fair Street, by the elementary school. The boys saw a police car go by and realized — too late — that they should have stopped it. They headed back home.
By then, Kathy had told her mother about the nice man who called himself Johnny. More details emerged as Maria’s mother, Frances, and Kathy’s mother, Flora, exchanged several frantic phone calls.
Maria’s father was reluctant to summon police because he didn’t want to be embarrassed if she had just wandered off. About a year earlier, Maria had strayed several blocks away to Elmwood Cemetery while playing. She turned up just as a search party organized.
But Frances Ridulph let worry overrule her husband. She drove to the Sycamore police station to report her daughter missing. It was 8:10 p.m.
Chuck continued looking for Maria, but the 11-year-old wasn’t yet sure how concerned he should be about the little sister he walked to school every morning. He traipsed down a long driveway and through a garden that opened onto a field. Then he circled back to the alley that ran behind their home, where a sense of foreboding overcame him. There, next to Ida Johnson’s garage, a searcher spotted Maria’s doll.
That evening, men pounded on the door of 227 Center Cross Street, the home of Ralph and Eileen Tessier. Ralph ran the hardware store, and the men wanted him to open up so they could gather up flashlights and lanterns to use in the search.
The Tessiers were a large family crammed into small quarters about two blocks from the Ridulphs. Eileen was Ralph’s Irish-born war bride who’d sailed to the United States on the Queen Mary with her son John from an earlier marriage. Together the couple would have six children: Katheran, Jeanne, Mary Pat, Bob, Janet and Nancy.
The girls resented the way their mother seemed to favor John. At 18, he was artistic, a bit of a dreamer. He seemed to get a pass with her even when he screwed up. He was expelled for pushing a teacher and calling her an unsavory name. But in their mother’s eyes, he could do no wrong.
Ralph Tessier, who had just arrived home from picking up 12-year-old Katheran at a 4-H social, joined the men in the search that night. Eileen headed to the armory, where the women were making sandwiches and coffee for the searchers. Before they left, the couple locked the front door, even though the key had been lost for years. The back door didn’t lock at all, so Ralph jammed it shut with a board.
The girls huddled with Bob inside; they’d have to let their parents back in when they returned.
They said they saw no sign of John.
In the days to come, police would knock on the door and question Eileen Tessier about the events of December 3. The older girls stood back and listened as their mother told the officers something they knew wasn’t true: John was home all night.
‘I know she is still alive’
The headline on the front page of Sycamore’s afternoon paper screamed the bad news that everybody in town already knew: “Missing Girl, 7, Feared Kidnapped.”
Foul play was suspected, but there were no clues. When she vanished, the newspaper said, Maria was wearing a brown, three-quarter-length coat, black corduroy slacks, brown socks and freshly polished saddle shoes. She was 43 inches tall, weighed about 55 pounds, and wore her hair in a wavy brown bob with bangs.
The man who called himself Johnny, police said, wore a striped sweater of blue, yellow and green. He had long, blond hair that curled in the front and flopped onto his forehead.
Already, there were conflicting reports about the exact time of Maria’s disappearance. Was she snatched closer to 6 p.m.? Or did it happen later, at about 7? Police and FBI reports, as well as news accounts from the time, contain details that support both scenarios.
Sycamore’s police chief, William Hindenburg, told FBI agents that Kathy and Maria went out to play at 6:02 p.m., but the DeKalb County sheriff said Maria didn’t call Kathy and ask her to come out and play until 6:30. Maria’s mother later altered her original estimate, saying the girls could have been outside as early as 10 minutes to 6.
When the case was reopened half a century later, every minute would matter.
As the days passed, Maria’s mother pleaded with the kidnapper for her daughter’s safe return. “God forgives mistakes. We would, too,” Frances Ridulph, 44, said, using the media to send a message to whoever might have her daughter. Maria was “nervous,” she said, a nail biter who could quickly become hysterical if things didn’t go her way.
Maria would make a noise if something seemed wrong, her mother said. And no kidnapper “would put up with that for long.”
“Whoever took her away hit her weak spot. He played with her,” the frantic mother added. On television, she delivered a message to her baby: “Don’t cry, Maria. Above all, don’t cry. Don’t make a fuss. We’ll be with you soon.”
Maria’s father, Michael, who earned $80 a week at a wire and cable factory in Sycamore, scolded reporters camped out at the police station: “For God’s sake, quit saying she is dead. I know she is still alive. Nobody would have any reason to kill her.”
Later, he pulled one reporter aside and explained, “I want fathers to help look for my little girl.”
Chuck Ridulph accompanied his dad to the fire station on the morning of December 4 and was assigned to a search team. Hundreds of people fanned out over the fields surrounding Sycamore. Others opened car trunks and cellar doors.
“People were even carrying guns,” he recalled.
In a neighborhood called Johnson’s Greenhouse, where new streets were going in, Chuck was asked to climb down a manhole because he was the only one in the search party small enough to fit. Later, searchers joined hands as they walked in a line through the frozen cornfields where Sycamore High School now stands. They found a gunnysack of abandoned kittens, and that unnerved Chuck. Other searchers discovered a torn, bloody petticoat in a farm field, but it was not Maria’s.
Two FBI agents took up residence in the Ridulphs’ parlor. A half dozen crop-dusters and military planes circled the sky, searching. The J-11 Roping Club sent riders out on horseback.
Local police with bullhorns urged residents to keep their porch lights on and report anything suspicious. The Illinois State Police set up half a dozen roadblocks; railroad cars, motel rooms and the bus station were searched — as was every house in Sycamore.
Maria’s doll and blue hairbrush were shipped off to the FBI lab near Washington for analysis. So were her schoolbooks, a toy oven, a tin saxophone and records of songs such as “Three Little Kittens” and “The Farmer in the Dell.” They bore witness to a childhood interrupted.
Her little friend, Kathy Sigman, found herself under 24-hour police guard. The family doctor checked her for signs of sexual molestation. The newspapers ran a picture of Kathy showing off her mittens and pointing to the corner where Maria was snatched.
Kathy spent hours poring over mug shots of ex-cons and what police called “known perverts,” but she didn’t see Johnny. She remembers the shouting reporters and flashing camera bulbs that appeared every time she was escorted to a police lineup. At first, she enjoyed the attention, but as the case dragged on she felt exposed, like she was being put on display.
She recalls her mother bending down, placing her hands on her shoulders and looking her square in the eye.
Remember his face, Kathy, she said. You have to remember his face because you are the only one who can catch him. You are the only one who knows what he looks like.
‘We have found exactly nothing’
There was no ransom note. No phone call from the kidnapper. Authorities believed Maria’s abductor had a twisted motive: He was a sexual predator.
The police chief was certain nobody from Sycamore would do such a thing. It had to be the work of a trucker or someone else passing through. The FBI wasn’t so sure. As its investigation revealed, there was no shortage of potential suspects in town.
Hindenburg, the police chief, told reporters his men had rounded up and questioned “all known sexual deviates.” They looked into a local Peeping Tom and followed tips about men nicknamed “Commando” and “Mr. X.”
Investigators dug up a collapsed grave at Elmwood Cemetery. They traced freight cars that passed through Sycamore the night Maria went missing. They scoured lovers’ lanes, drained a lake, set off dynamite in a quarry. And still they came up empty.
“We have chased down countless clues, and we have found exactly nothing,” said a frustrated Carl A. Swanson, the state’s attorney. FBI agents came and went, according to a writer for one of the Chicago papers, “checking into everything with the quiet persistence of bulldogs.”
Three days after Maria vanished, an anonymous female caller alerted the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office to a boy named “Treschner” who lived in the neighborhood and fit the suspect’s description. A pair of FBI agents showed up at the Tessier home on December 8.
Ralph and Eileen Tessier acknowledged that they had talked about how their son, John, fit the general description, but they insisted he was not in Sycamore when Maria was taken: He was 40 miles away, in Rockford, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.
Phone records seemed to verify their story. Someone had made a collect call from Rockford to the Tessier home at about 7 p.m. John Tessier and his parents said he called for a ride home. This was the second alibi Eileen Tessier had given for her son. Earlier, as her daughters listened, she’d told Sycamore police that John was home all night.
Nobody questioned the young Tessier sisters, and they kept silent.
After a week of fruitless searching, authorities alerted residents to look out for scavengers: “It is entirely possible that her body has been discarded in a field or a nearby farm. Be alert to large gatherings of buzzards and crows, and if a body is located make sure nothing is touched.”
The FBI was running out of steam.
“Our temporary office at Sycamore has been functioning for two weeks. Per diem cost for 29 agents is $3,600,” Chicago’s supervisor wrote in a December 15 memo to Hoover. They’d tracked down 250 leads and processed 200 suspects — “all with negative results.”
Agents still had about 125 leads to go.
The Chicago G-man found it “most peculiar” that such a rigorous investigation had not turned up a suspect. The locals were passing on tips about “all of their homosexuals, queers and fairies, etc.” when the FBI was looking for “sex deviants of a different kind,” the supervisor wrote in the pejorative and politically incorrect language of 1957.
Agents were hampered by the “sheer volume” of leads, he stated, adding this observation: “I have never seen as small a city as Sycamore with such a large volume of these unusual individuals.”
Hoover urged them to keep going: “This case must receive continuous, aggressive, imaginative, investigative attention.”
The best evidence they had was Kathy’s story. Some of the details varied — did Johnny have a missing tooth or a gap in his teeth? But she never wavered on the core facts. An agent described her as “the most completely mature little girl I have ever seen,” seemingly fearless during questioning and police lineups. “She has remained steadfast,” he reported, even though the FBI’s bulldogs had “ridden her hard.”
It was a somber holiday season in Sycamore. The local papers carried front-page stories about the Ridulphs, including a large photo of Maria’s family sitting by their Christmas tree. Her mother had bought a typewriter for Maria and wrapped her other gifts.
Their leads exhausted, the FBI agents packed up and went home for the holidays. With no new developments, the case dropped from the headlines, but folks in town remained jittery. One Chicago newspaper noted at the end of January that Sycamore was afflicted with “a wound that won’t heal.” The place had changed, and not for the better.
“Let a strange man walk down an alley in Sycamore today and the police are likely to get a call,” said James E. Boyle, an assistant prosecutor who went on to become state’s attorney, and then a judge. “I tried to help two young girls across a busy intersection the other day. They just looked at me wide-eyed.”
The giant elm tree on the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street was cut down. Sycamore settled into a fugue state.
Looking back, Kathy remembers her childhood in two parts: Before Maria was taken, and after.
“We were safe before, but not afterward,” she said. “People can disappear in big cities but somebody doesn’t disappear in a small town like Sycamore.”
‘There wasn’t much left to her’
Maria was found in the spring, 120 miles from home. A man scrounging for morel mushrooms found her skeleton tucked under a fallen tree on Roy Cahill’s farm off U.S. 20 outside Woodbine, not far from the Iowa border.
Birds and animals had fed on her corpse, clad only in a black-and-white checked shirt, an undershirt and brown socks.
At a coroner’s inquest, Frank A. Sitar, a retiree from Minnesota, described the scene he encountered on the afternoon of April 26, 1958:
“I thought it was an old deer hide. I came up to it then and I could see some bones and I thought somebody had shot a dog. Then I looked closer, and it looked like human bones. I noticed the jacket, but I didn’t pay any attention to it until I noticed the skull. Then I started to look further, and I noticed the hair. And I saw then that it was a little girl.”
He walked back to the car, told his wife, and they drove to a farmhouse and summoned authorities.
“There wasn’t much left to her,” observed James Furlong, the 28-year-old rookie coroner of Jo Daviess County. Son of the local funeral home director, he’d never handled a murder case before. No crime scene photos were taken, he said, because he didn’t want them “slobbered all over the front pages.”
Neither the autopsy nor the inquest determined a cause of death, beyond “suspected foul play.”
Frances Ridulph always said if a child’s body was found wearing brown socks, it would be Maria. Sure enough, the size and manufacturer’s information stamped on the instep of Maria’s socks could still be read. Her mother touched the patch she’d sewn on the black-and-white flannel shirt, recognizing the material. Dental records confirmed what the family already knew.
Maria was laid to rest in a small white casket on a warm spring day. An overflow crowd, at least 300, filled the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John. Her friend Kathy was there under police guard.
Maria was remembered as a bright little girl who had a perfect attendance record at Sunday school.
“This little girl has entered into everlasting peace, probably on the night she was taken,” said the Rev. Louis I. Going. “Maria was taken out of life through unusual circumstances, but nothing could deprive her of God-given salvation.”
The church organist played “Jesus Loves Me.” It was Maria’s favorite hymn.
The trail goes cold
The disappearance and death of her best friend never left Kathy. Nothing could fill the space where Maria once was — the games, the laughter, the shared secrets. She was left with survivor’s guilt and the social stigma of being connected to a notorious crime.
“It robbed me of my childhood,” she said recently. “I was labeled. I was the girl who was with Maria. A lot of parents wouldn’t let their girls play with me. They were afraid he’d come back and take their child.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of Sycamore. It bothered me my whole life why he took her and not me. For years I would ask myself, ‘Was she prettier than I was?'”
Kathy’s family moved away from Archie Place in 1961 to a subdivision on the outskirts of town. When a young man named Mike Chapman met her at a bowling alley, his mother tried to talk him out of dating her. “Don’t you know who she is?” the mother asked. “She’s the one who was with Maria. Can’t you find someone else?”
But Mike wanted only Kathy, and she knew he was the key to a new life. They left Sycamore in 1969 and married in San Antonio, Texas, where Mike attended technical school. They moved around a bit, then settled in Tampa, Florida, before returning to Sycamore to care for aging parents. They raised three children.
Kathy says her own parents were so overprotective she felt like a prisoner. As a mother, she went the other way, letting her kids make their own decisions and their own mistakes. The couple now lives in St. Charles, about a half-hour drive from Sycamore.
No matter where they went, Kathy looked back over her shoulder.
Johnny was still out there.
Chapter 2: A trail of women wronged
John Tessier left his parents’ house in Sycamore, Illinois, for good on December 11, 1957 — eight days after Maria Ridulph disappeared.
He says he didn’t often think about what happened to the little girl who lived around the corner. He remembers talking with her just once. But he never forgot her.
More than half a century later, police and prosecutors would find it disturbing how Tessier’s voice softened every time he spoke of her beauty and those big brown eyes. He’d smile and his own pale blue eyes would get an odd, faraway look as he told people she was “lovely, lovely, lovely” and “like a little Barbie doll.”
John Tessier is Jack McCullough now. He is 73 years old and recently met with CNN at a state prison in southern Illinois. He told the story of how he protected Maria that one time they met.
He was about 13, he said, and she was tiny, about 3, when he found her wandering alone at the corner of busy Center Cross Street, the very spot from which she would disappear four years later. He said he told her to go home and stood in the middle of the street and watched for cars as she trotted up her driveway and got safely inside.
“You gotta understand,” he said, “we boys protected all of the children in the neighborhood. When Maria was taken, it was an affront. Our lives would never be the same after that. Our neighborhood wasn’t the same anymore.”
Sycamore was changed forever by the Maria Ridulph case — one of the few indisputable facts in the oldest cold case to go to trial in the United States. The case was controversial from the start: It was built on circumstantial evidence, the time of the kidnapping is in dispute and an alibi the defense calls “ironclad” was never presented in court.
Five decades after Maria was kidnapped and killed, cops would call the crime “Sycamore’s 9/11.” It shook the place that hard. But while the town of 7,000 struggled with its loss of innocence, John Tessier spent most of his life elsewhere.
He joined the Air Force, and then the Army. He attended officer training school and served in battle in Vietnam as a lieutenant, twice winning the Bronze Star. He’d always felt destined to be a soldier, he told CNN. After all, John’s grandfather served in Britain, and his mother was in the Royal Air Force, one of the first female searchlight operators during World War II.
In one of his earliest memories, he is being carried up a flight of dark, narrow stairs in London on the back of a soldier. He believes it was his father, killed in the war, giving him a piggyback ride.
With both parents in the military, he spent his youth in the English countryside, in the care of an elderly couple and isolated from other children as war ravaged London.
When he was about 7 and his mother brought him to Sycamore, Tessier seemed an odd duck. He didn’t know how to act around other children. He walked the streets wearing camouflage pants and waving a wooden sword — “Commando,” the neighborhood kids called him. He loved the popular Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” He identified with it.
“My name was Johnny and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to come home the hero,” he told CNN. “My DNA is protector.”
That statement reveals an alarming disconnect between how he views himself and how others who crossed his path describe him.
Some say he was a screw-up. To others, he was a masterful manipulator. To some women, especially the younger ones, he was a lecher and worse, a menacing sexual predator. Later in life, he did settle down with a woman who, with her daughter, came to view him as he always viewed himself — as a mentor and protector.
The FBI showed an interest in John Tessier during the early days of the Maria Ridulph investigation in Sycamore. But 50 years would pass before authorities would look for him again. The four-year investigation took agents with the Illinois State Police from Sycamore to Seattle.
When it was over, Johnny came shuffling home in shackles.
Today, police would call him a “person of interest,” someone they want to question. But in 1957, long before televised murder trials and the threat of litigation from people mistakenly tied to crimes, 18-year-old John Tessier was a suspect, pure and simple. Then again, so were 100 other people.
A woman who would not give her name called the sheriff’s office with a tip on December 6, three days after the kidnapping. She told deputies to check out a boy named “Treschner,” who lived not far from Maria and fit the description of the kidnapper who called himself “Johnny.” The FBI found no one named Treschner but zeroed in on John Tessier.
The story of the early investigation is contained in thousands of pages of FBI reports, but most of them remain sealed because of an ongoing investigation the Justice Department would not discuss. CNN obtained about 15 pages from the public court file in Sycamore, and another 200 pages from the National Archives through a public records request. They spell out Tessier’s alibi.
He said then, and he says now, that he was in Rockford, Illinois, some 40 miles northwest of Sycamore, when Maria was kidnapped and that he called home for a ride. His parents backed up his story, and it was supported by a single, indisputable fact: Somebody placed a collect call from Rockford to the Tessier home at 6:57 p.m. on December 3, 1957. The caller gave his name as “John Tassier,” the operator noted.
But almost from the beginning, the timing of Maria’s disappearance was in dispute.
If she was taken around 7, then Tessier seemed to have an ironclad alibi. But if she was grabbed closer to 6:15, then his alibi didn’t cover him. He could have driven from Sycamore to Rockford by 7 p.m. before dumping her body.
Nobody disputes that John traveled December 2 to Chicago to take a physical examination at the military recruiting station on Van Buren Street.
A chest X-ray found a spot, and he failed. He spent the night at a YMCA and returned the next morning for another physical, which he again failed because of the spot, a scar from a childhood bout of tuberculosis.
Tessier said he walked around Chicago the afternoon of December 3, stopping in at a couple of burlesque shows, and then took the 5:15 p.m. train to Rockford, about a 90-minute trip, to drop off paperwork at the recruiting station there.
Recruiters verify that he showed up at their office between 7:15 and 7:30 that evening, after they had closed. He talked with at least two recruiters about getting a note from his doctor to address the spot on his lung. One recruiter told the FBI he thought the nervous young man was a “narcotic,” a drug addict. The other remembered him as “a lost sheep.”
A third recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jon Oswald, met with Tessier the morning of December 4 at the Rockford office. The recruit had a fresh cut on his lip and made small talk, saying it was a good thing that he was not in Sycamore the previous night because of “the disappearance of the girl,” Oswald recalled for the FBI.
Tessier also told the recruiter he’d never be considered a suspect because his girlfriend’s father was a deputy sheriff. And then he showed Oswald his “little black book.” It contained the names and addresses of girls in Sycamore, as well as their bust and hip measurements.
The FBI questioned Tessier on December 8, and two days later gave him a lie-detector test. Asked whether he ever had sex with children, Tessier admitted being “involved in some sex play” with a younger girl but said it happened years earlier. He said he’d outgrown it and had no relationship with Maria, although he acknowledged he knew her from the neighborhood.
Those details and his peculiar behavior with the recruiters didn’t seem to raise suspicions at the time. Nor did his mother’s contradictory stories: She’d told local police her son John was home all night December 3, and FBI agents that he was in Rockford that evening.
The more precise question was: Where was John Tessier between noon and 7 p.m. on December 3? Records placed him at the Chicago recruiting station that morning, but his whereabouts remained unaccounted for until he turned up at the Rockford recruiting station at about 7:15.
The FBI had only his uncorroborated version of what he did that afternoon.
Did he pass the time in Chicago and take a 5:15 train to Rockford, as he said? Or did he somehow make his way back to Sycamore?
An acquaintance recalled decades later that he spotted Tessier’s car in Sycamore that afternoon, before Maria vanished. The Pontiac was hard to miss — it had flames painted on the sides — but the man didn’t see who was behind the wheel.
‘No evidence of guilty knowledge’
Tessier remembers that his mother was crying as he went off to talk to the FBI on December 8. He says he comforted her, telling her everything was going to be all right.
He told the FBI that after he made the collect call from Rockford he killed time at a restaurant, waiting for his stepfather to pick him up. He remembered having to run back to the recruiting office to pick up a shaving kit he’d left behind.
Ralph and Eileen Tessier told the FBI that Ralph drove to Rockford to fetch John at about 8. Years later, John’s half sister, Katheran, would come forward to dispute the timeline her parents gave, saying her father was in DeKalb, the town next to Sycamore, taking her to a 4-H social that lasted from 5 to 8 p.m. She recalled coming home to find the street lined with police cars, and soon after that, her father was opening up the hardware store to supply flashlights for the search.
But back in 1957, the Tessiers’ story seemed to check out. John passed the lie detector test; the FBI’s expert concluded that a teenager wouldn’t have been able to conceal his involvement in the crime.
“The recorded reactions on the polygraph did not reflect evidence of guilty knowledge or implication by Tessier in this matter,” the polygraph examiner concluded. An FBI agent closed out his report on December 10 by noting: “No further investigation is being conducted regarding the above suspect.”
John Tessier’s name was scratched off the list. He left Sycamore the next day.
‘Consistent in screwing up’
It is not unusual for people who leave the military to gravitate toward police work. The macho culture, the command structure and the discipline seem a natural fit. But if John Tessier rose through the ranks in the Army, he was a washout as a cop.
Tessier was in his mid-30s, a captain fresh out of the Army and living in Washington state, when he graduated in June 1974 from the King County law enforcement academy and found a job in the small town of Lacey, near Olympia. The job had its perks. It allowed him to portray himself as rescuer and hero — particularly to women.
A marriage that produced a son and a daughter had fizzled. As a Lacey cop, he found his second wife, Laura.
She was a student at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and came from money. Her father was looking for off-duty cops to moonlight as bodyguards. Newly single, Tessier jumped at the chance. It wasn’t long before a romance blossomed.
They were married for three years but broke up, he said, “because I cheated on her.”
By 1979, he was working for a much larger department in Milton, near Tacoma, where he continued to indulge his interest in the ladies.
Police Chief Harold Burton viewed Tessier as inept and insubordinate and fired him for tipping off a drug suspect. Tessier fought the case, prompting the chief to document his complaints in a letter to the city’s lawyers.
The police station was constantly receiving calls from Tessier’s bill collectors, Burton wrote, and he loudly told dirty jokes in restaurants during breaks.
And then there were the women.
“Five incidents have been brought to my attention involving local women, three of which were contacts made as a result of police involvement,” the chief wrote. They included a woman Tessier arrested for drunken driving; she later moved into his apartment. Another woman called police about someone slipping obscene photographs through a window; Officer Tessier responded, and before long they had struck up a relationship. The chief said he personally had seen Tessier’s car parked all night outside her apartment.
Tessier got involved with a third woman who worked for the city and was going through a divorce; the drama spilled over into loud barroom arguments with the woman’s ex, the chief wrote. There also was the woman he brought to a town party: She had been arrested for prostitution.
And, Tessier took topless photos of a 17-year-old waitress “in a Playboy type pose.”
“Tessier is not very well liked by his coworkers and several complaints have been received about his conduct from other police departments,” the chief wrote. He added that Tessier’s infractions weren’t serious. “But,” the chief said, “he is consistent in screwing up.”
Tessier was reinstated, but it wouldn’t last long. In just weeks, a teenage runaway would end his police career.
‘They made me feel like dirt’
Michelle Weinman says she fled the wrath of her father and ran into the hands of a man who would abuse her in his own way.
She was 15. He was a cop.
CNN usually does not name the victims of sexual assaults, especially underage victims. But Weinman, now 46, agreed to tell her story on the record and to be photographed. She says stepping out from behind the stigma has helped her heal.
She’d lied about skipping detention at her high school on the outskirts of Tacoma, Washington, and knew her father would punish her. So she ran away. She was joined by a friend who knew a Milton policeman who said they could stay with him. The girls slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room of John Tessier.
He was in his 40s by then, but he wasn’t playing the father figure. “He was as old as my own father, but he would try to be the cool guy,” Weinman told CNN. He took her to the movies, out to dinner, to the mall. He taught her to drive in his squad car at a park overlooking the city. He let her work the lights and siren, and that was exciting. He made sure she stayed in school.
He bought her the first record album she ever owned, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But first, he made her promise she’d be good.
He taught her how to dress and apply makeup. She thought that part of their deal was strange, but he was a police officer, so she trusted him.
“I was raised to fear God, trust police officers and respect teachers,” she said.
Then came the massages: She’d lie on the floor while he moved his hands over her back.
He told her she could work in a massage parlor when she got older. He pulled down her pants and rubbed her buttocks. It was creepy and made her uncomfortable, but she never said anything to anyone.
Weinman felt grateful for a place to live.
During the weeks the girls stayed at his apartment, Tessier made a habit of kissing them goodnight. One evening, he gave Weinman’s friend “a boyfriend kiss.”
“And she said, ‘Does he do that to you?’ I said, ‘Gross, no.'”
Weinman assumed if any funny stuff happened, he’d focus on the other girl, who was more developed, more mature. But then one night, Weinman says, he came for her.
She was asleep on the sofa bed. He whispered in her ear, waking her. Before she could figure out what was going on, she said, he was performing oral sex on her.
“I couldn’t stop it. I think I just lay on the couch and froze. I couldn’t scream. I was so scared. I was ashamed.”
She told her girlfriend, and a counselor pulled Weinman out of class the next day. Police questioned her, but they didn’t seem to believe her.
“They were really, really mean to me,” she recalled. “They scared me so bad. I didn’t know how to tell them what had happened. So they started yelling at me. This one particular guy started yelling at me and telling me I was nothing but a tramp, telling me he was going to make it look like I wanted it, that I begged for it. That they were going to make my life hell, that they were going to drag me through the mud.”
There was no medical exam, no counseling, not even a female police officer to question her, she said. “I was turning in a police officer for violating me in the most vulgar way. They made me feel like dirt. They made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be happy.”
The investigators, all men, worked for a larger department from a neighboring town, Weinman said. But they made no secret that they were not happy she was accusing a cop.
John Tessier was charged with statutory rape but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge: communication with a minor for immoral purposes. He denied then and denies now that he sexually assaulted Weinman, and says he took the deal because he couldn’t afford a lawyer. He was placed on probation for a year and quietly resigned from the Milton Police Department on March 10, 1982.
Weinman said she blocked the experience from her mind for more than 30 years — until an agent with the Illinois State Police walked into the bar where she works and asked about John Tessier.
‘He let me go’
Tessier was a struggling photographer in the early 1980s when one of his models introduced him to Denise Trexler. She was getting out of an abusive relationship and needed a protector. Tessier liked that she was well-educated and held a steady job as an engineer designing electrical systems for Peterbilt trucks.
She owned a nice house, and she had class.
Tessier quickly installed himself as a bodyguard of sorts. He moved into her house in Tacoma and within three months they were married.
It’s a time in her life she’d rather forget; it’s a time he won’t talk about, except to say he won’t badmouth Trexler. She spoke briefly over the phone with CNN. She is retired now and happily married to someone else.
She recalled how Tessier became controlling and emotionally abusive soon after they exchanged vows. Her knight in shining armor was manipulative and “on the emotional level of a 4-year-old.”
“You know the type,” she said. “They reinvent themselves to make themselves look good or convince you who they are. They find someone with some money and their status looks good. And they move on in. They’re self-centered, egotistical asses.”
As he had with Michelle Weinman, Tessier taught Trexler how to dress and apply makeup the way he liked. He told her he kept her around so he would seem “respectable.”
To maintain control, he constantly ran her down.
“You’re never good enough, pretty enough,” she said. “You always have to look your best. Your makeup has to be perfect. You’re controlled, you can’t get out. If you want to get out, you’re going to die.”
She learned not to believe a word he said.
He did not talk about his family much, but she did meet his parents when they visited Seattle. She found them to be “wonderful.” She had the impression that her husband was slightly afraid of his mother. She seemed to be the one woman he respected: “You didn’t mess with her. She said something, he did it.”
She never met any of his half sisters; Tessier told her he didn’t like them.
“We never talked about the past,” she said. “Whatever he told me, it probably wouldn’t have been the truth.”
He never mistreated her sexually, she said. In fact, their relationship was mostly platonic.
They stayed together on and off from 1983 until 1989, when he told her he’d met someone else. She didn’t put up a fight.
“He let me go,” she said. “I feel really lucky.”
Asked whether she ever saw any signs of sexual impropriety, Trexler recalled two incidents she found particularly disturbing. They involved his daughter from his first marriage, who stayed with them for a short while when she was about 12.
One morning, she found Tessier and his daughter in the kitchen. He was holding a banana in a particular way and making sexually suggestive comments.
Later, while looking for something in a desk, she felt the drawer catch. She ran her hand along the bottom.
Taped to the underside was a recent picture of Tessier’s daughter. She was nude.
Chapter 3: Bulldogs on the case
Eileen Tessier was dying, and there was one secret she would not take to her grave. She’d kept it for 36 years — much too long.
“Janet,” she called out, according to her daughter’s courtroom account many years later. There was urgency in her voice.
Janet Tessier rushed to her mother’s hospital bed. Eileen’s blue eyes were wide open. She grabbed Janet’s wrist and spoke again.
Those two little girls, and the one that disappeared, John did it. John did it, and you have to tell someone.
Janet knew immediately what her mother was saying: that Janet’s half brother John had kidnapped and killed Maria Ridulph. The second-grader’s unsolved murder had haunted their hometown of Sycamore, Illinois, for decades.
Was this a confession, an unburdening of the soul, as Janet believed? Or could it be the ramblings of a dying cancer patient, a mind fogged by morphine?
Either way, it was a breakthrough moment in a case that cast a long shadow over Janet’s childhood. The words Eileen Tessier spoke on her deathbed compelled her daughter to “tell someone” many times. It would take her nearly 15 years to find someone who listened.
Janet was just a baby when her 7-year-old neighbor vanished three weeks before Christmas in 1957. She grew up knowing there were bogeymen out there. Even in sleepy Sycamore, strangers could grab little girls off the street and make them disappear.
On Saturdays, kids from the neighborhood would walk to a matinee at the movie theater downtown. Afterward, they’d go around the corner for ice cream cones, then stop at the Sycamore police station and stare at the wanted posters. It passed for excitement in a small town.
Janet would study the sketch of “Johnny,” the man suspected of snatching Maria, but nothing clicked. It was the photo of Maria that truly haunted her. “I would stand in front of the poster and stare at her face and I would close my eyes and clench my fists and pray really hard that God would find the bad man that killed her,” Janet recalled half a century later on a radio show.
Over the years, she heard her older sisters recount the night of the kidnapping. They said police later knocked on their door, and they listened as their mother said something they knew was not true: that John was at home the night Maria disappeared.
The scene at their mother’s deathbed confirmed these suspicions. They knew she often lied to protect John. But had she literally let him get away with murder?
Eileen Tessier died on January 23, 1994; some 300 people attended her funeral. But John was not welcome. His siblings told him to stay away.
The family’s darkest secret had finally surfaced. Now the story of “Johnny” and Maria was Janet’s burden to carry.
Janet had seen her brother’s scary side.
She was 21 and trying to figure out what to do with her life when John, the big brother she’d grown up believing was a war hero, invited her to come stay with him in Tacoma, Washington, and help with his photography business. He was in his late 30s and just divorced for a second time.
They were fetching coffee on the way to a photo shoot when she made what she believed was an innocuous remark. He turned and looked at her with an expression of “utter hatred,” she recalled during her March 30 interview on the Money Matters Radio Network. He suddenly seemed like a different person, and she couldn’t understand what had triggered it. Seconds later, John acted like nothing had happened.
Another time when they argued, she said, he pulled out a gun and laid it on the table. He said he would kill her and tell everyone she ran away. That he would dump her body where nobody could find it.
She packed and headed home.
Now, all these years later, her mother’s words tugged at her conscience and wouldn’t let go.
She called the Sycamore police several times, she said, and got the bureaucratic shuffle. Other family members urged her to just let it be.
It’s an old case, they told her.
Just forget about it.
She pushed it to the back of her mind for a while, but it never really went away.
One day, she called the Chicago office of the FBI on a whim. Agents referred her to the original jurisdiction, Sycamore. Again, she didn’t get anywhere. In October 1997, as the 40th anniversary of the crime neared, it became clear why. A detective, Patrick Solar, had identified a suspect and declared the case closed.
Using an FBI offender database, Solar had linked the crime to a transient truck driver with a history of enticing and sexually assaulting girls in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The suspect, who also worked as a Ferris wheel operator, was dead. He’d been investigated in Pennsylvania for the 1951 murder of an 8-year-old girl but never convicted. The child had been sexually assaulted, and her body left in the bed of a pickup truck. Solar noted that the crimes were similar and concluded that the suspect physically resembled “Johnny.”
The people of Sycamore had never wanted to believe that one of their own could be capable of such a terrible crime. Solar’s sleuthing gave them all the proof they needed: A stranger was to blame.
Solar told CNN that he never would have suspected John Tessier. He knew the family; for years, John’s stepfather painted the insignias on the sides of Sycamore police cars. Solar said Janet never spoke to him about her suspicions. Had she, he would have checked his files and seen that John Tessier was investigated and cleared by the FBI in 1957. He would have told her he needed more to go on.
The Ridulph case had occupied Solar for years. A decade earlier, when he had identified yet another suspect, Solar had gone in search of Kathy Sigman, the girl who was with Maria and saw the kidnapper. He wanted to show her a photo of the man he believed to be Maria’s killer.
By then, Kathy was in her mid-30s, married and a mother. The disappearance and death of her friend had haunted her all her life. When the detective asked where he could find Kathy, her father told him enough was enough — to just “let sleeping dogs lie,” Solar recalled.
Someone did give Kathy an article about Solar’s 1997 investigation and his claims to have solved the Ridulph case. She never read it. She sighed, folded up the paper and put it away in a drawer. She was relieved to think that “Johnny” was dead. He could no longer hurt her.
‘I’m putting my bulldogs on this’
A decade later, Janet Tessier met the author of a book about an unsolved murder. Mark Lemberger’s “Crime of Magnitude” details the 1911 abduction and slaying of a 7-year-old girl.
How does a person look into an old murder case? she asked him.
Janet seemed nervous, stressed, Lemberger recalls, and her body and voice trembled as she spoke. She told him what her mother had said on her deathbed and seemed desperate to lift the weight of the secret she had held for so long.
Her mother insisted she tell someone, she said. But no one she had approached would listen. What more could she possibly do?
You have to find the right investigator, Lemberger told her. Someone who would pursue the case with “the tenacity of a bulldog.”
Janet’s father, Ralph, had long discouraged her from dredging up the past. But after he died, she decided to try the police one last time.
She found a tip line on the Illinois State Police website and typed this e-mail:
“Sycamore, Illinois. December 1957. A seven-year-old child named Maria Ridulph vanished. Her remains were found in another county several miles away in early spring of 1958. I still believe that John Samuel Tessier from Sycamore, IL — AKA Jack Daniel McCullough — was and is responsible for her death. He is living in the Seattle/Tacoma Washington area under the name Jack Daniel McCullough.
“I’ve given information to the person responsible for the cold case in Sycamore. I’ve done this a few times. Nothing is ever done.
“This is the last time I mention this to anyone. 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.”
At 1:04 p.m. on September 11, 2008, she hit “send.”
The frustration in those last lines caught the eye of Tony Rapacz, a state police commander based in Elgin. He wasn’t sure how seriously to take the tip. But he’d been a cop for 25 years, long enough to know that even a scrap of information can lead to something big.
His first phone conversation with Janet lasted 45 minutes. She began by telling him she was just a year old when the events occurred.
OK, here we go, Rapacz thought. Not a good sign.
But then Janet described how her mother was dying when she told her it was her brother who kidnapped and murdered Maria.
He sensed there just might be something to what she was saying.
“I can’t promise you anything,” he told her, “but we’re going to try.”
“You’ve got to try,” Janet pleaded.
“I know,” he responded. “I was afraid you were another crackpot when you called.”
“Do you think I am?” she asked.
And then he said something that sent a shiver down her spine:
“I’m putting my bulldogs on this.”
Larry Kot and Brion Hanley were the commander’s bulldogs.
Kot is a mild, scholarly man of 57; he doesn’t carry a badge or a gun and is not the type to shrug on SWAT gear and kick down doors. He could easily be mistaken for an accountant or a high school principal. In his off hours, he’s a town alderman.
He’s also a detail guy well known in Illinois State Police circles for his photographic memory and ability to find anyone or anything on the Internet. In his role as a civilian analyst for the police, he assembles the bits and pieces of a case into a seamless timeline. He connects the dots.
Kot had never heard of the Ridulph case. But a quick Google search clued him in. This unsolved case had been a big deal.
Hanley joined the case a couple of weeks after Kot. A special agent with the investigations division, the 41-year-old Hanley favors college football jerseys and turned-around ball caps when he works undercover, which is most of the time. He usually has a wad of chewing tobacco parked in his cheek. His open, friendly face seems to get people talking.
The early stages of an investigation are the most tedious: tracking people down and getting them to open up. Hanley’s legwork began with Janet Tessier and her siblings, who were scattered from Illinois to Wisconsin to Kentucky. None had good things to say about John, especially Jeanne.
Hanley was surprised by how open she was, how articulate. Maybe it had something to do with her work: She taught college classes in communications, counseled parents of dying children and was active in the community of sexual abuse survivors. Whatever the reason, Jeanne spilled the details of what she said was another family secret.
John sexually molested her while they were growing up, she told Hanley, and forced her to stand watch while he molested other neighborhood girls in the bushes and in a stairwell at West Elementary near their home. She said he raped her and offered her to his friends while he was home on a military leave. At the time, she was 14.
(Janet and Jeanne Tessier declined to speak with CNN, which does not usually identify victims of sexual assault. But Jeanne Tessier has openly discussed her allegations against her brother in Sycamore’s local newspaper and in a network television interview. Her account here is drawn from court transcripts and other public records.)
Hanley knew Jeanne Tessier was an accomplished woman who would make a credible witness. He also found that many of the people he wanted to talk to were alive, healthy and willing. It helped that Maria’s murder had been such a transformative event. People remembered it.
Hanley came to think of the case as “Sycamore’s 9/11.”
Many of John Tessier’s old high school friends still lived within a few miles of the town. Some told Hanley that Tessier was supposed to pick them up at a hobby shop the night Maria vanished but stood them up. Tessier’s sisters said he wasn’t at home that night as their mother reported to police — or the next morning. His oldest sister, Katheran, said she didn’t see his car that day, either.
Years earlier, Tessier had told the FBI that he and a high school classmate helped search for Maria the night she was kidnapped. He added a curious detail: He said they’d found some dirty magazines and turned them over to police.
Hanley poked holes in that story, too. He found the classmate, who told him he never saw Tessier. And, the witness added, had he found any dirty magazines as a teenager, he would have kept them. Sycamore police had no record of anyone turning in magazines, smutty or otherwise.
And then there were the piggyback rides. Maria’s kidnapper gave her a piggyback ride to win her trust. Hanley unearthed the story of another piggyback ride three or four years earlier. Only in this case the little girl had lived to tell about it.
Pamela Long said she was about Maria’s age when an older boy she knew from the neighborhood gave her the ride. There was no doubt who he was: Long knew John Tessier by name. Neighborhood kids thought he was weird and called him “Commando.”
His grandparents lived directly behind her family’s home in the nicest part of town.
She recalled how he walked up and down the street wearing camouflage pants and waving a wooden sword. She wasn’t supposed to play with him, but she couldn’t resist a piggyback ride.
It so upset her father that he pulled her off the teen’s back, sternly warned him to stay away and reported the incident to Sycamore police. After Maria was taken, FBI agents showed up at school to question Long about that piggyback ride. Whatever she told them, it wasn’t enough to keep “Commando” on the list of suspects.
Long’s father announced at the supper table: He’d better have a damn good alibi.
A new timeline
The timeline of events on December 3, 1957 — and John Tessier’s alibi — were central issues in the investigation. Kot believed misinformation and faulty conclusions had entered the case during its early hours. He began building a detailed timeline to test those old assumptions.
It took months to gather all the documents scattered among the Sycamore police, Illinois State Police and the FBI archives. But Kot’s paper chase brought in thousands of pages, which he studied, tabbed and organized in binders. His timeline grew to cover three walls of his office. And as he looked closer, he saw that there were only two sources for Tessier’s alibi: Tessier himself and his parents.
Tessier said he was in Chicago the morning of Tuesday, December 3, taking a physical to gain entry into the U.S. Air Force. Kot was able to verify that. But he learned that Tessier left the recruiting station by noon that day. He later was seen in Rockford, nearly 90 miles from Chicago, at about 7:15 p.m. But there was nothing to verify his whereabouts between noon and 7:15 p.m., which means he easily could have returned to Sycamore before showing up in Rockford.
Initial reports set Maria’s disappearance at about 7 p.m. But reading the old files, Kot realized that information may have been injected into the case by the kidnapper himself. When Kathy ran home to fetch her mittens, she asked “Johnny” what time it was, and he told her it was 7 p.m.
Kot dug up an Illinois State Police report dated July 27, 1958 — three months after Maria’s body was found. “We feel certain facts may have been overlooked,” it began, concluding that Maria had been taken earlier than initially reported, and that her abductor had probably escaped by running up the alley and jumping into a car parked on a back street.
And so, Kot homed in on facts that had been ignored earlier because they didn’t fit the original 7 p.m. timeline. Phone records and other details fleshed out after the first chaotic days of the investigation had prompted the girls’ mothers to adjust what they believed to be the timing of events. At first, Maria’s mother said the girls went outside at 6:30 and that Maria came back in for her doll at 6:40. Later, she said Maria could have gone out as early as 10 minutes to 6.
Kathy’s mother set the precise time at 6:02 p.m., although the reason for her precision has been lost to time. Maria’s mother pulled out of her driveway at 6:05 p.m., taking daughter Kay to a music lesson. Frances Ridulph recalled waving to the girls, who were playing in the street in front of the house.
Kot examined closely the accounts of the most neutral, credible witnesses at the time: A heating oil deliveryman and a city bus driver.
Tom Braddy knew Kathy Sigman and her family, and he recalled that she waved at him as he stopped to deliver oil at the big white house on the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street, where the girls were playing. He estimated he got there about 6 p.m. and spent 15 to 20 minutes delivering his load. He noticed the time on a clock at a service station as he headed back to his office: 6:20. He did not see the girls on the corner as he left.
A city bus passed by that corner at 6:30 p.m. The driver said he saw no one there.
Kot concluded that Maria was taken no later than 6:20 p.m. If Tessier parked his car in the back alley where Maria’s doll was found, he could have headed straight to Rockford with Maria in his car. It was a 40-mile trip, give or take a few miles, but there would have been little traffic on the back roads in 1957, and he easily could have made it to Rockford in less than an hour.
A collect phone call placed in Rockford to the Tessier home — a key piece of John’s alibi — also fit into the new timeline.
Phone records showed the collect call was placed at 6:57 p.m. but they didn’t pinpoint where in Rockford the call was made. Tessier could have called home from a pay phone on the outskirts of town.
Maybe, Kot thought, Tessier’s alibi wasn’t so ironclad after all. Maybe the phone call from Rockford wasn’t Tessier asking his stepfather to pick him up at the recruiting station there, as he’d maintained. Maybe the call was made by a nervous Tessier wanting to see if anyone was looking for Maria yet.
As they drilled down deeper into the case, Kot and Hanley also found a reason why Sycamore police might not have taken a closer look at Tessier as a suspect. It was a small town and everybody knew everybody else. His stepfather, Ralph, was friendly with the police chief, William Hindenburg. John himself had volunteered to the Air Force recruiter that he’d never be a suspect in the girl’s disappearance because his girlfriend’s father worked for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office.
The girlfriend, then known as Jan Edwards, was part of his story, too. He said they met for a date at about 9:20 that night, after his stepfather picked him up in Rockford and brought him home. Kot and Hanley tracked her to Florida, where she and her husband had retired. She agreed to talk about her old high school boyfriend, but only if she could have her lawyer with her. She was a reluctant witness, perhaps, but she gave Hanley and Kot one of their biggest breaks.
She told the cops she never saw Tessier on the night of December 3. Her parents were so upset about the abduction of Maria, so afraid a crazed kidnapper was on the loose, they wouldn’t let her out of the house.
Hanley asked whether Edwards had a good picture of John from 1957. He hoped to show a photo lineup to Maria’s friend, Kathy, who had seen and talked to “Johnny,” the kidnapper.
Because Tessier was expelled from school, there was no 1957 yearbook photo of him that accurately showed what he looked like then.
What are the chances someone would save a photo from a high school dance half a century ago? Jan Edwards told the cops she’d take a look. She called a few days later. Yes, she had found a picture of John. It was taken at a formal in June 1957. She’d be happy to mail it.
When the photo arrived at the state police offices in Elgin, outside Chicago, Hanley was pleased he had something he could work with. On the back was a bonus: It was signed, “Love, Johnny.”
Another break came when he pulled the photo from its cardboard frame. A small, yellowed square of paper fluttered out. It appeared to be a government-issued train ticket. Tessier was supposed to use it to travel to Chicago for his induction physical on December 2. The train would leave from Rockford; there was no passenger train from Sycamore.
It was a one-way ticket, and it didn’t appear to have been punched. Kot reasoned that Tessier never took the train to Chicago on December 2. He must have found another way to get into the city, most likely his own car. And if he had his own car in Chicago, he could have driven back to Sycamore on December 3, during the noon to 7:15 p.m. window in which his whereabouts could not be verified.
A high school friend later told Hanley that he remembered seeing Tessier’s car cruising through Sycamore at about 2:30 p.m. on December 3. He didn’t see who was behind the wheel, but he knew Tessier never let anyone else drive his baby.
Cops are cautious by nature. But even if Hanley and Kot weren’t dancing around the room exchanging high fives, this was huge. They’d poked a big hole in Tessier’s alibi. If he’d lied about how he got around, what else was he lying about?
Kot sent the ticket to the Illinois Central Railroad Historical Society, and the cops got the word on June 2, 2010: The ticket was authentic, and it had not been punched.
They now felt certain they could solve this cold case.
Chapter 4: ‘That’s him’
How wonderful it is to be 8 years old at Christmastime. But what if one moment your best friend is there, laughing and cutting out paper snowflakes, and then in an instant she is gone forever?
Imagine what it is like to have grown-ups constantly asking you questions and showing you pictures of strange men. To have flashbulbs going off in your face, leaving spots dancing in your eyes.
Why isn’t Maria coming home?
Think for a minute what it is like to be sad for months on end, and to wear your new Easter coat to your best friend’s funeral. And then imagine spending your childhood looking over your shoulder for a bogeyman you know is real.
Is he coming back for you, the girl who got away, the one he didn’t choose?
You put it all to rest. Life goes on. Half a century passes and then, suddenly, a knock on the door brings it all back again. Fifty-three years later, you’re replaying that terrible night all over again.
Imagine all of that, and you get a sense of what it was like to be Kathy Sigman after a man who called himself “Johnny” kidnapped and murdered Maria Ridulph in 1957. Kathy saw “Johnny” give 7-year-old Maria a piggyback ride minutes before she vanished from the street where they lived.
Kathy grew up hearing the whispers: “She’s the one who was with Maria.”
Some mothers wouldn’t let their daughters play with her. Some mothers didn’t want their sons to date her. She was different, marked.
No wonder she couldn’t wait to get out of Sycamore, Illinois. And so eventually she did, marrying and moving to Texas and Florida and raising three kids before settling in St. Charles, about half an hour away from her hometown.
Knock, knock. A man in his late 30s wearing a football jersey and a turned-around ball cap stood at the door, chewing gum furiously. It was about 6 p.m. on September 1, 2010. He knocked again.
Kathy Sigman Chapman thought the caller was a salesman, so she ignored him. But as he turned to walk away, her husband spotted handcuffs dangling from his back pocket.
Can I help you? Mike Chapman asked, opening the door a crack and peering out.
The man turned and answered: This is about something that happened a long time ago.
Brion Hanley, of the Illinois State Police, wanted to show Kathy some photos. For two years, he’d been piecing together a cold case — rekindling memories, poking holes in an alibi.
It began when a tipster e-mailed state police, saying her mother knew who was responsible for Maria’s disappearance and murder: the tipster’s half brother, John Tessier. Those two girls, and the one that disappeared, John did it, the dying woman told her daughter. John did it, and you have to tell someone.
Hanley and his partner, Larry Kot, had compiled a “six-pack” — a composite lineup of six photographs, including one taken of their suspect, John Tessier, at a dance. The detective was eager to show the lineup to Kathy.
But as she spoke of “Johnny,” all the details came flooding back — the piggyback ride he gave Maria, the trip Kathy made to fetch her mittens and how she lost her best friend. Kathy felt overwhelmed.
Hanley sensed it was too soon to show her the photographs. He’d only get one chance, and she was too rattled. She needed more time to work through long-buried memories.
More than a week passed before he stopped by to see the Chapmans again. This time, he laid out the six shots, one by one, on the glass-topped coffee table in the couple’s living room. Kathy perched on the edge of the sofa, leaning forward as she intently studied each face.
Five of the photos were taken from Sycamore High School’s yearbook. John Tessier had been kicked out of school in 10th grade, so his close-up wasn’t from the yearbook. It was slightly different. His collar was open and the background was darker.
Kathy eliminated several photos right away, but she continued to pore over two — No. 1 and No. 4. She studied them for a good two minutes; it felt to Hanley like an eternity.
“That’s him,” she said, tapping No. 4.
Kathy placed her hands over her head and let out a long sigh.
She was certain.
She didn’t know whose picture she’d chosen, or if it was the one Hanley was hoping she’d pick. He didn’t tell her.
But she had no doubt.
“I couldn’t forget that face,” she later recalled.
Her mother had instructed her to sear Johnny into her memory:
Remember his face, Kathy, she’d said. You are the only one who can catch him. You are the only one who knows what he looks like.
More than half a century later, Kathy smiled.
“Yeah, Mom, I remember.”
‘You don’t know Jack’
Brion Hanley had what he needed: a bona fide suspect. It was time to go see “Johnny.” He knew from his tipster where to find him: Seattle.
If Hanley was relatively new to homicide investigations, the two Seattle cops who joined him on the case were grizzled veterans.
Cloyd Steiger is a jokester who masks the grim work with gallows humor. He keeps a binder of old cases on his desk, titled “My Career in Homicide: My Day Begins When Yours Ends.” He has been a Seattle cop for 32 years and could have retired long ago, but he loves the work. His first case on the homicide squad was the murder of an 8-year-old girl. He solved it.
Mike Ciesynski favors tailored suits and wears his hair closely trimmed and brushed back. He’s an avid golfer. He keeps a supply of pens on his desk inscribed with gold letters that say, “Knock, knock. Remember a long time ago?” But the pens are more than a gimmick. They’re stamped with his phone number.
Seattle’s police headquarters is high on a hill downtown, nestled against Interstate 5. The homicide squad looks out over Puget Sound through floor-to-ceiling windows on the 7th floor. There, the cops’ desks are arranged in cubicles, and a skull on a stick with the sign “DEATH” signals who will catch the next case.
Around the corner, down the hall from the interrogation rooms, is a windowless closet of an office, Room 762. There’s a sign on the door: “Cold Case Squad, NO Dumping.”
This is where Ciesynski works. In Seattle, a cold case is defined as any homicide left open after the retirement or departure of the original investigating officers. Ciesynski started with about 300 cases; 30 have been solved.
The Seattle cops learned that Hanley’s “person of interest” was living and working in a high rise for seniors, the Four Freedoms House, in northwest Seattle. He was Jack McCullough now, having changed his name in the early 1990s when he married his fourth wife.
He was an ex-cop with a checkered past. Steiger and Ciesynski pulled John Tessier’s police personnel file from Milton, Washington, and discovered he’d been a screw-up. They learned about his womanizing ways and how he dabbled in cheesecake photography. They learned he was fired from the police force after being charged with the statutory rape of a 15-year-old runaway.
They tracked down the victim, now in her 40s, and Hanley and the two Seattle cops paid her a visit at the bar where she worked the day shift. As Michelle Weinman told her story, the cops shook their heads. He’d dodged the statutory rape case, pleading guilty to reduced charges and spending a year on probation. He went by John Tessier then.
“You don’t know Jack like I knew John,” Weinman said.
They searched a storage container McCullough owns on 20 acres outside the tiny town of Tonasket in Okanogan County. The spot is isolated; fewer than 41,000 people live in the entire county.
Inside, the cops found thousands of photos taken by their suspect. Some showed whip-toting women wearing leather bustiers, boots, chains and dog collars. Ciesynski later tracked down a few of the models. They described McCullough as a “letch” who plied them with alcohol during the photo shoots, claiming he was working for artistic magazines.
The cops also talked to his third wife, Denise Trexler, who told them she’d found a creepy photo taped to the bottom of a drawer. It was a nude picture of Jack’s 12-year-old daughter from his first marriage. Trexler said she later learned that while she was at work he was taking suggestive photos of the girl and her middle-school friends.
Investigators also discovered that McCullough’s daughter, who vanished in 2005 at age 34, near San Antonio, Texas, was listed as “missing endangered.” She was last seen at a motel with her boyfriend. Her body, which was found on a golf course shortly after she disappeared, was identified in June 2013. Police have opened a homicide investigation and would not comment on the case.
Hanley still feels a chill when he recalls the daughter’s middle name: Marie.
The first Mrs. McCullough
If anything, Jack McCullough seemed to have mellowed since his years as John Tessier. He had been married to the same woman, Sue, for almost two decades. The couple often baby-sat the children of Sue’s daughter, Janey O’Connor.
He met Sue through work: He was a driver at her father’s limousine service; she was the dispatcher. For 30 years, the company shuttled airline crew members from Sea-Tac Airport to their hotels. It is no longer in business.
When he proposed to Sue in 1993, he told her he was thinking about changing his name.
“Do you want to be the fourth Mrs. Tessier or the first Mrs. McCullough?” he asked. McCullough had been his mother’s maiden name, and he said he wanted to honor her.
McCullough didn’t talk about his family much; when he did, Sue and Janey sensed there was a powerful sibling rivalry. And no love lost for his sisters.
Before they married, Sue received a strange phone call from McCullough’s sister, Jeanne Tessier. Janey, who was a teenager at the time, listened in.
The caller warned that the man Sue planned to marry was “evil” and that her daughter wasn’t safe. But she gave no details. The caller never said a word about a kidnapped child.
“She was going on and on, and my mother asked her,” “What did he do that was so awful?’
“Jeanne said it was the way he looked at her, the way he made her feel. ‘He would touch my hair and tell me I was pretty.'”
Later, the story Jeanne told police would be much darker, and far more specific. It would lead to a rape trial.
‘Look at my eyes’
The police came for Jack Daniel McCullough on June 29, 2011. He had just finished his graveyard shift as night watchman at the Four Freedoms House.
Oddly, his apartment number was the same as Maria’s street address on Archie Place in Sycamore: 616.
Ciesynski watched McCullough for several days before making his approach. Then, he used a ruse, saying he needed the night watchman’s help with an assault in a downtown luxury apartment building where McCullough had worked the previous year. But soon, McCullough was taken on the proverbial ride downtown, to Seattle police headquarters. He was placed in an interrogation room and told they had some questions about the Maria Ridulph case.
Sure, he said, he’d be glad to help.
Hanley read McCullough his rights. “It’s all good advice,” the suspect said, waving him off. “I’m on your side here. I’m trying to help you.”
CNN obtained a copy of the eight-hour interrogation. At first, McCullough seemed gracious, even obsequious. He made small talk and cracked jokes with the officers. But he bristled when Hanley asked about his marriages and divorces: “You’re investigating a child, right? You’re not investigating me.”
During a break, when Ciesynski left the room, McCullough signaled for Hanley to stay with him. He said the others didn’t seem interested in what he had to say. He leaned over a tabletop and gestured for Hanley to come closer. “I had a dream,” he said, suddenly slapping the table with his palm. “And it reminded me of a conversation I had as a kid.” He said a friend warned him to stay away from another boy who was preoccupied with sex. He couldn’t recall the name of the boy, but said he stayed with a family in the neighborhood.
He raised his voice, slowed his words and dramatically tapped his fingers on the table top with each word.
“And on the same block as Maria lived.”
McCullough squirmed and became evasive when asked about his family and sex. He denied sexually assaulting his sister Jeanne.
“I NEVER HAD SEX!” he roared, pounding the table in the interrogation room.
“Ok, what did you have?” Hanley asked.
“Just playing around.”
“O.K., O.K., playing around with your sister. You know that we just want you to be honest,” Hanley continued. McCullough countered that even if he did “play around” with his sister, “that doesn’t make me a murderer.”
Without any prompting, he leaned forward and stated:
“Let me tell you something, I did not kidnap that little girl.”
He brought his face close to Hanley’s. “Look at my eyes. I did not have anything to do with that little girl. She was loved in the neighborhood. She was a little Mexican girl with big brown eyes and she was sweet as could be, hardly said a word to anybody and everyone loved her.”
‘Lovely, lovely, lovely’
Nearly three hours into the questioning, McCullough agreed to take a polygraph test but balked when the questions became personal. He alternated between rage and calm before shutting the test down.
Irene Lau, the homicide detective who prepared the test, thought he showed a strange attachment to Maria.
“He described her as being very stunningly beautiful with big brown eyes and he stated that she was ‘lovely, lovely, lovely,'” Lau recalled. “He appeared to be discussing her as if he was talking about someone he had been deeply, deeply in love with.”
After the aborted polygraph, Ciesynski took over the questioning. The veteran cold case investigator relishes the “bad cop” role in interrogations. He got in McCullough’s face, relentlessly challenging him about his whereabouts on December 3, 1957 — the night Maria was kidnapped. He confronted him with the deathbed statement his mother made to his sister.
“The only time Mom talked about it was when I was going to see the FBI,” McCullough insisted. “She was crying. I said, ‘Don’t worry Mom, I’ll be cleared.'”
He refused to acknowledge that his mother would say on her deathbed that he killed Maria. “That’s a lie! My mother loved me,” he protested. “She would never say that.”
Ciesynski showed him an unused, military-issued train ticket investigators received from an old girlfriend and pressed him on how he’d gotten around on December 3.
He was at a recruiting station in Chicago the morning of Maria’s kidnapping, but his whereabouts between noon and 7:15 p.m. could not be independently verified. If he hadn’t taken the train to Chicago, as he’d originally told the FBI, he must have driven his car there, the cops believed. And if that was the case, he could have driven back to Sycamore. He could have been there during the period the cops now suspected Maria was snatched.
McCullough couldn’t really explain. Maybe he hitchhiked, he said.
Finally, Ciesynski showed him the lineup photos, laying copies down on the table like playing cards. In the No. 4 spot was the photo of him that Maria’s friend Kathy had identified. McCullough avoided looking at it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
The detective pressed on. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you were the person who was there. I’m not saying that you went and killed her. You were there at this time.”
McCullough pushed back. “This was two blocks away from my house. Everybody in the neighborhood knew me.”
He grew edgy when he was asked whether he ever handled Maria’s clothes or touched any of her things. He placed a chair as a barricade between himself and the detective, who decided that it was a good time to leave the suspect alone with his thoughts.
With the cops out of the room, McCullough touched his toes, stretched and pushed the photo of himself away, sliding it across the table. He sighed and studied his image in the reflective glass of a one-way window. He looked at the photo again, and back at his reflection. Then he studied the photo some more.
As the clock struck midnight, he leaned back in his chair, pursed his lips and made a raspberry sound. He said, to no one in particular, “Not a very good picture.” He looked at it again, leaned back and let out a long, loud belch.
“OK, that’s me,” he conceded when Ciesynski returned a few minutes later.
“This is a very poor picture. I didn’t even recognize myself.” He said that the boy in the photo looked “too effeminate.”
He was shown the full photograph, taken on a date with a girlfriend, Jan Edwards, on June 22, 1957. “I was in love with that woman for so many years,” he said. “She didn’t even know it. Thanks for showing me this. It brings back wonderful memories.”
“Remember what she knew you as?” Ciesynski asked. “She knows you as Johnny.”
It went downhill from there.
“I didn’t do it,” he asserted.
“Who did it?” Ciesynski pressed.
“I have no idea.”
Some eight hours had passed since McCullough was asked to take a ride downtown.
“You do realize that you are under arrest,” the cop finally said, bringing out his handcuffs.
“We’re done. We’re done. Where’s my lawyer?” McCullough said.
At 3 a.m., the cops called Clay Campbell, the top prosecutor in DeKalb County, Illinois. The Seattle cops transmitted a video copy of the interrogation.
“Clay, you’ve got to watch this,” homicide cop Steiger told him.
“It speaks for itself.”
‘You need to do the right thing’
Clay Campbell huddled in his office with his two top assistants on the last night of June 2011. A computer screen flickered in the darkness as they uploaded the interrogation video.
Campbell had been elected state’s attorney seven months earlier, after working 20 years on the other side of the courtroom as a criminal defense attorney. He’d been a maverick candidate, and Sycamore’s legal establishment was not pleased that he had won. Folks whispered that his pursuit of the Ridulph case was political grandstanding. That a trial might be nicely timed to his campaign for re-election.
As they watched the interrogation tape, the prosecutors went back and forth. Do we have enough to charge him?
Julie Trevarthen was struck by McCullough’s reaction every time the topic turned to Maria. His demeanor changed, and he grew quiet, almost reverential as he described Maria’s big brown eyes.
“This isn’t just a guy where things broke bad one night while he was hammered and otherwise he’s a decent guy,” Trevarthen said. “He is inherently evil.”
Campbell agreed. He thought McCullough displayed a creepy fixation for Maria. But he knew all too well the hurdles they faced. Witnesses were literally dying on them. For every one they tracked down and found alive, three or four were dead.
Their efforts to solve the case had already met resistance. People were telling him, “There’s no way you can possibly prosecute a 55-year-old murder.”
But Campbell felt driven by the memory of Maria. He’d practically become a member of Chuck Ridulph’s family. He’d gone through photo albums, even Maria’s old homework assignments. He felt a strong connection to Maria’s older brother and his loss. After all, Campbell had daughters, too. How would he react if someone snatched them in the night?
“Cold cases matter because dead children matter,” he told his prosecutors.
“There’s a family out there who never learned who killed their child.” To him, that meant more than winning or losing any trial — or any election.
McCullough had denied everything. But his demeanor convinced the prosecutors he was guilty. He was lying, hiding something.
“You probably have enough to charge him,” Trevarthen told her boss.
At 38, Trevarthen was a natural-born prosecutor who stood up fiercely for crime victims. She has green eyes that have seen too much, and views the world in terms of right and wrong, good guys and bad guys.
“You need to do the right thing for Maria,” she told Campbell, “and whatever comes of it, comes of it.”
He knew she was right. They would go for it, consequences be damned.
A few days later, just before the July 4 weekend, Kathy Chapman’s phone rang, and all those buried childhood memories came rushing back again. It was Campbell, calling from his office in Sycamore.
“Kathy,” he said, “are you sitting down? We’ve made an arrest.”
For the first time, Kathy learned the accused killer’s name. She realized he’d lived just around the corner from her and Maria.
“Johnny” was real, but he was no longer a threat.
That night, a pink rose appeared on Maria’s grave in Sycamore’s Elmwood Cemetery, just a few blocks from where she was snatched half a century before. A note was attached.
“We got him.”
Chapter 5: The whole truth?
Jack McCullough returned to Sycamore in handcuffs on July 27, 2011 — the same day authorities brought Maria Ridulph up out of the ground. He was an old man, stooped, with white hair, thick spectacles and a long surgical scar from a quadruple bypass snaking down his chest. She was tiny, caught in time at age 7, all mummified skin and bones.
Police and prosecutors gathered at Sycamore’s historic Elmwood Cemetery as dawn broke on a glorious summer morning. The Ridulph family plot was tucked in a back corner, in the shade of a majestic elm tree much like the one Maria once played under.
A backhoe stood at the ready. State police investigator Brion Hanley waited on the sidelines with prosecutors Clay Campbell and Julie Trevarthen, watching in awed silence. All felt a powerful connection to Maria.
Trevarthen, who had gotten the Ridulph family’s blessing to exhume Maria so her remains could be searched for traces of DNA, saw an overwhelming irony in the timing of events: Maria would rise up on “the same day the S.O.B came back to Sycamore.”
Hanley felt it, too. The slain second-grader had been the central focus of his life for three years as his own children circled their 7th birthdays. He would leave the news conferences and photo ops to others as he remained by Maria’s side. They could handle the living. He stood vigil for the dead.
An unearthly stench accompanied Maria out of her grave. She had not been embalmed in 1958 because her body had been exposed to the elements for so long before it was found. Instead, the funeral home sprinkled lime on her remains. Her little white coffin was taken from the cemetery to the coroner’s office in the basement of the building that also houses the jail.
Prosecutors, investigators and forensics experts filled every inch of the small room. Campbell, a short man, climbed on top of a table in the back corner to get a better view. Trevarthen pushed her way toward the front, and when they opened the casket she thought at first that she was looking at a doll.
One foot was mummified, and they could see Maria’s hair and wizened muscles. In a corner of the coffin, a jar held her jaw and teeth; Maria had been identified through her dental records.
No DNA was recovered. But at last, they would learn the cause of death — something the crude autopsy and coroner’s inquest had not accomplished in 1958. Maria was stabbed to death.
Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Indianapolis, pointed out nicks made by a sharp blade in the child’s sternum and the vertebrae of her neck. Someone had plunged a long, sharp knife into Maria’s throat and slashed downward — at least three times.
The man police and prosecutors held responsible was on his way to the Sycamore jail. As he was driven through town, Jack McCullough pointed out his childhood home — and Maria’s. He said nothing as they passed through the intersection at Archie Place and Center Cross Street, the place where “Johnny” grabbed Maria.
While the grim work in the morgue continued, Campbell stepped outside for a break. A fierce storm approached from the west, complete with glowering clouds and wind gusts strong enough to knock a man down. He watched it arrive with breathtaking fury in a moment that felt epic to Campbell, perhaps even biblical.
Trevarthen likes to think that Maria had a special greeting for McCullough as he arrived at the jail.
Though the air-conditioned morgue is in the basement, the stench of Maria’s corpse traveled through the air ducts and permeated the building for days. The prosecutor hopes it haunted McCullough in his cell.
‘All I need is one juror’
The suspect seemed anything but haunted during his extradition from Seattle to Sycamore. He acted more like a kid on a field trip.
McCullough got the window seat in the last row of the early morning United Airlines flight to Chicago. He talked a blue streak, and it didn’t take long for other passengers to realize a murder suspect was onboard.
By then, he had read the affidavit police submitted for his arrest, and learned some details of the case against him. He altered his claims about his movements on December 3, 1957, the night Maria was snatched.
He knew they had an unused train ticket to Chicago, so now he said he hadn’t taken the train. He’d hitchhiked. He no longer said his father picked him up in Rockford, either; he thumbed his way home.
Was McCullough changing his story so his alibi would match the facts unearthed in the investigation? Or had reading the affidavit genuinely refreshed his memory?
The Seattle cops escorting McCullough had seen it all before. Cloyd Steiger had 32 years on the force. His former partner on homicide, Mike Ciesynski, was now the department’s one-man cold-case squad.
Ciesynski had the center seat, next to their prisoner. At one point, McCullough pointed his finger in the detective’s face. “All I need to do to beat this case is convince one juror,” he said, “like Casey Anthony did. All I need is one juror.”
He talked about Maria’s beauty, as he had during his interrogation, comparing her to “a little Barbie doll.” His voice took on an almost sensual quality. It gave Steiger the creeps.
When their plane touched down in Chicago, local cops and Illinois State Police took McCullough off the plane and loaded him into an SUV. Ciesynski and Steiger rode with him as the motorcade pulled out of O’Hare International Airport and headed toward Sycamore.
McCullough kept up his rant about how he could beat this rap. “Pay attention to the timeline, pay attention to how long it takes to get from Chicago to Sycamore because it’s very important,” he told the cops. He believed the timeline would prove his innocence.
With decades of experience interviewing murder suspects, Steiger felt like he was being hustled by a sociopath with a constantly shifting story. The detective stroked McCullough’s ego, hoping for the big reveal, but it never came.
“He’s a weird guy. He’s a slammin’ narcissist, there’s no question about that,” Steiger said later. “He’s smarter than everybody in the place.”
Their motorcade stopped for lunch at a Steak ‘n Shake and McCullough gobbled down a hamburger, fries and a glass of milk. He also kept talking. Steiger parked himself at a table behind the prisoner and wrote down everything he said — on a paper placemat.
The Sycamore that McCullough was coming home to wasn’t the Mayberry he remembered. It had grown from 7,000 residents to 17,000 in the years he’d been gone. While the downtown area still boasted brick storefronts and tree-lined streets, the country roads were now cluttered with strip malls and fast-food joints. As they rode through town, McCullough pointed out the lot where he’d bought the car that had been his pride and joy.
The Seattle cops finally felt they had heard enough from their prisoner. They signaled to their driver to head to the jail.
As they approached the back entrance, they spotted a line of television satellite trucks. Reporters and camera operators closed in on the SUV.
His wrists were shackled to a waist chain, but McCullough smiled and tried to wave.
“They’re all here for me!” he exclaimed.
A jury of one
Sex has always been an underlying theme in this case, and McCullough would face a rape trial before he’d be tried for the murder of Maria. During the investigation, his half sister, Jeanne, told police that her brother raped her and shared her with two friends when she was 14. The attack occurred, she said, at a house near Elmwood Cemetery in 1961 or 1962, while he was between stints in the military.
The statute of limitations should have expired long ago. But McCullough, who was then known as John Tessier, had spent so little time in Illinois that the clock had stopped ticking.
Prosecutors felt the rape case against McCullough was stronger than the murder case. Their witness was impressive.
Jeanne Tessier held advanced degrees from prestigious universities, taught college classes and counseled the parents of terminally ill children. She was 64, a woman of profound faith who never went anywhere without her dog, Spirit. She wore her snow-white hair in a long braid down her back and dressed in flowing, patterned tops and scarves.
Jeanne took the witness stand when the rape trial began in April 2012, and she was followed by a woman flown in from Tacoma, Washington. Michelle Weinman was just 15 when she told authorities in 1982 that John Tessier had sexually assaulted her. He was a Milton, Washington, police officer then and charged with statutory rape. He was able to plead the case down to a misdemeanor, but it ended his career.
With Weinman as their witness, prosecutors would argue that McCullough had a history of taking advantage of girls.
The defense attorneys had made a strategic decision to try the case before a judge instead of a jury. A judge would focus on the legal issues and problems with evidence in a case this old, they thought, while jurors might be swayed by their emotions.
Indeed, Judge Robbin Stuckert had serious questions. Why did the accuser wait decades to mention the crime?
Prosecutors were frustrated that they couldn’t explain that the rape allegations surfaced during a murder investigation. Any mention of murder would be prejudicial. Jeanne had dealt with her trauma her own way, and talked about the abuse to police only because they were looking into the Ridulph case. She didn’t want to file charges but agreed to go along if it would help the investigation.
The judge also questioned why there were so many holes in Jeanne’s story, so many contradictions. Did the attack occur during the summer or the winter? Why could no one else remember the red convertible she said her brother drove? Why did Jeanne remember being dragged down a hallway when the bungalow where the attack allegedly occurred had none?
The judge acquitted McCullough and excoriated prosecutors.
Campbell in turn blasted the judge on the courthouse steps. He said the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice,” and called Stuckert’s criticism of his office “a travesty.”
Jeanne Tessier, meanwhile, unloaded on Campbell in a signed letter published by the local newspaper.
She said she felt like she’d been victimized a second time.
Hearsay rulings: ‘I’m toast’
Jack McCullough was so pleased with the outcome of his rape trial that he wanted Judge Stuckert to decide the murder case as well. Forget about a jury of his peers. He viewed Stuckert as “brilliant” and thought he’d found a friend on the bench.
But the judge’s war of words with Campbell after her verdict led Stuckert to step down from the murder trial. Judge James C. Hallock was brought in from neighboring Kane County.
Hallock, an associate judge who over the past decade had mostly presided over family court, traffic and drunken-driving cases, was considered a promising jurist but had little experience trying murder cases. As a lawyer, his civil practice had focused on landlord-tenant disputes and foreclosures.
He told the attorneys he had heard some talk about the Ridulph case around the Kane County Courthouse but wouldn’t let it affect his decisions.
Before the trial began, Hallock made two key rulings. Both dealt with hearsay evidence.
Two types of testimony are presented at trial. Direct testimony is what witnesses saw and heard with their own eyes and ears. Hearsay testimony is what someone else told them they saw or heard. Because the accused has a right to confront witnesses through cross-examination, hearsay testimony generally is not permitted. But there are certain exceptions, especially when witnesses have died.
The Ridulph case had been reopened because of a statement made by McCullough’s dying mother in 1994. Nearly four decades after Maria’s kidnapping, Eileen Tessier told her daughter Janet: Those two little girls, and the one that disappeared, John did it.
Prosecutors successfully argued that this statement qualified for a hearsay exception. Eileen Tessier could have been exposed to criminal charges for covering for her son. Her deathbed statement, prosecutors argued, was made “against her own interests.”
Hallock said he would allow Janet Tessier to testify about what her mother told her on her deathbed; he’d decide later how much weight to give the statement.
The judge also ruled on a hearsay exception sought by McCullough’s defense attorneys. They wanted the 1957 FBI reports on the case allowed in as evidence. The documents, they argued, were key to their client’s alibi.
Illinois does not allow police reports, including FBI reports, to take the place of testimony from actual witnesses. Usually the authors of the reports — the cops and investigators themselves — are put on the stand. But in this case, all the FBI agents who’d been involved were dead.
The reports show that Tessier had once been a suspect in the kidnapping but was cleared after FBI agents gave him a lie-detector test. Then 18, Tessier claimed he was 40 miles away, trying to enlist in the Air Force, at the time Maria was snatched from the street corner. His parents, and recruiters in Chicago and Rockford, verified his whereabouts: He was in Chicago in the morning, and in Rockford at about 7:15 p.m.
The defense argued that the hearsay rule barring the police reports is meant to protect the defendant; in this case, the defense wanted the reports admitted. And, if the judge rejected that request, they argued, the reports could come in as historic records because they were more than 20 years old.
Hallock rejected both arguments. The FBI reports would not be admitted as evidence.
There was, however, another way for the alibi to be heard: The defendant could take the stand and testify to what he told the FBI about his whereabouts on the afternoon and early evening of December 3, 1957. But this option was a potentially dangerous move for a defendant who had told conflicting stories during his police interrogation and displayed such an odd demeanor at times. Even his defense team acknowledged that McCullough could be his own worst enemy on the stand.
He would be open to cross-examination by prosecutors, who could ask him about strange details noticed by an Air Force recruiter the day after the kidnapping:
How did he get that cut on his lip?
Why did he bring up the kidnapping that had occurred in his hometown?
And why did he show off a little black book with the names, addresses and measurements of girls in Sycamore?
The hearsay rulings seemed one-sided to the defense, and the outcome felt inevitable to McCullough:
“As soon as the judge ruled this stuff wouldn’t be admitted I knew: ‘Oh man, I’m toast.'”
Staring down ‘Johnny’
Kathy Sigman Chapman found it unnerving to come face to face with “Johnny” after all those years. She couldn’t take her eyes off the defendant as she testified during his trial in September 2012. He stared right back at her.
He seemed to Kathy to be smirking, like he was sure he would beat the charges.
She was resolute on the witness stand as she recounted the story she’d told so many times before — how she played “duck the cars” with her best friend Maria, how a friendly stranger who called himself Johnny offered them piggyback rides. She recounted how Maria and Johnny were gone when she returned from a quick trip home to fetch her mittens. She was shown an old newspaper photograph of herself as a child, displaying those mittens.
“My goodness,” she said.
Kathy stood her ground when she was shown the same six photos of suspects she’d seen in 2010. She was firm in her conviction that she had identified the right person and without hesitation went straight to the fourth picture from the left.
“This photo right there,” she said, tapping the picture of John Tessier.
On cross-examination, McCullough’s defense attorney pointed out that Tessier’s photo differed from the others. But he couldn’t shake Kathy.
“That picture was slightly different than other pictures, is it not — is that fair to say?” he asked.
“No. It was the picture of Johnny,” she said.
Eventually, Kathy acknowledged that the young man in the photo she chose wasn’t wearing a suit as the others were. And she agreed that the background in his photo was darker.
But, she insisted, it didn’t matter.
“I wasn’t looking at background.” She said she focused on the man’s features.
Janet Tessier testified about her mother’s dramatic deathbed statement, recounting the story in straightforward fashion, without drama or embellishment. Asked why she didn’t prod her mother for more details, she responded that she was reacting as a daughter, not an investigator.
The defense countered with its own witness, Janet’s sister, Mary Hunt, who’d also been at her mother’s side when she was dying. Hunt reluctantly testified that she heard her mother say only, “He did it.”
She could not say who “he” was, or what “it” was.
Informants from Cellblock G
Three jailhouse snitches who came forward — two of them just days before the trial — testified about conversations they had with McCullough at the DeKalb County Jail. They all said he admitted killing Maria.
But each gave a slightly different account of the killing, and all said Maria died by strangling or suffocation. They didn’t name the cause of death determined by a forensic anthropologist: stabbing.
Jailhouse snitches are notoriously unreliable. They are criminals, or at least accused of crimes, so their credibility is suspect. Most inmates who offer testimony are looking to cut a deal for themselves by hanging someone else out to dry.
Kirk Swaggerty, Christopher Diaz and a third inmate who testified under the pseudonym “John Doe” had been locked up with McCullough on Cellblock G.
Swaggerty was the first to provide information. He wrote a letter to the state’s attorney’s office. His motive, he said, was to do the right thing. But he’d been convicted of a home invasion murder, and he also was asking the court for a reduction in his 33-year sentence. He said he’d been promised nothing. Whether he expected something was another issue.
McCullough admitted he had killed Ridulph, Swaggerty testified, but claimed it was an accident. He explained that Maria fell during the piggyback ride. “She wouldn’t stop screaming and he was trying to keep her quiet and she suffocated.”
He also heard a story McCullough volunteered during his police interrogation, and later in his interview with CNN: “He said that he had called the FBI himself because he had a dream that a guy named Johnny did this to the girl and that the guy Johnny lived a few houses away from the little girl.”
But if Swaggerty is to be believed, McCullough took that story a step further:
“He then told me he was Johnny.”
The other two inmates shared a cell. They said they came forward when McCullough told them he was looking for someone to kill Swaggerty because he was a “snitch.”
Diaz was in custody on an immigration hold after being accused of having sex with a 14-year-old girl. He testified that he turned down the volume on his headphones as McCullough walked into his cell and started talking about his case: “He was saying about how he was giving the little girl, the victim, a piggyback ride and he — he ran with her down this alley once the other girl that was there went inside the house to grab the mittens.” McCullough returned the next day and talked some more. That time, Diaz testified, he said he strangled the little girl with a wire.
(McCullough insists that he was talking about the contents of an anonymous confession letter sent to Maria’s father in 1964. The details in the letter do match this version of the killing.)
“Doe,” another convicted home invasion killer, testified that McCullough told him he slipped while giving the child a piggyback ride. “The little girl hit her head and started crying or yelling … He said it was an accident.”
Then McCullough said he carried the child inside his house and choked her, “Doe” testified. Later, he said, McCullough changed his story, saying he “strangled her with a wire.”
Doe also picked up on McCullough’s odd demeanor when he spoke of Maria, just as investigators had. “He would seem almost childlike. He would get real giddy, if that’s the right word. It’s like he couldn’t stop himself. He would just keep going and going. When he was talking about the little girl, he would get amped up.”
Testimony lasted all of four days. McCullough did not take the stand, so his alibi was never presented.
Besides the excluded FBI reports, there were other missing pieces at the trial. The unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago didn’t come into evidence, nor did the video of his eight-hour police interrogation. That evidence didn’t really prove anything, other than to cast doubt on his credibility, and by remaining silent he didn’t call his credibility into question.
When it came time for the verdict, Judge Hallock said he believed the informants and found Kathy Chapman’s testimony particularly convincing. He didn’t say a word about what Eileen Tessier told her daughters on her deathbed.
A loud cheer erupted as the judge handed down the verdict — guilty on all counts: murder, kidnapping and abduction of an infant.
Johnny was going to prison. Kathy was finally free.
“If I would have been shown his picture in 1957,” she said, ” he would not have been a free man all those years. He would have been in jail.”
At a news conference, Janet Tessier told Maria’s siblings she was sorry — sorry that her brother killed Maria, and sorry it had taken so long for the truth to be told.
She apologized on behalf of her mother.
Jaded cops had tears in their eyes. Justice was Maria’s at last.
McCullough is 73, and prison life isn’t easy. He spends most of his time alone. He is kept in protective custody because he qualifies twice as the lowest form of life in prison culture: He’s a convicted child killer and an ex-cop.
He spoke for several hours with CNN while at the state’s maximum-security prison in Menard, before being moved to another prison in Pontiac, most likely because of his age and notoriety. Menard, a 19th century brick behemoth, overlooks the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, about an hour’s drive from St. Louis, Missouri.
McCullough announced his innocence without prompting as he sat down and was shackled to a metal table: “I’ve been accused and convicted of a murder I did not commit.” He said it twice.
He seemed happy to have visitors. He likes to talk, especially about himself. He broke into tears when asked about his combat experience in Vietnam, but showed little emotion as he spoke about the murder in his hometown. His explanation: “I was part of one, but not the other.”
He tried to steer the conversation away from questions about Jeanne, the sister who accused him of rape, and his acquittal in that case. “We have a history,” he said of his sister. He used the same expression to describe the relationship between his mother and her father, who he believes sexually abused her.
He spoke about his mother as if she were a saint and called Janet, the sister who launched the murder investigation, “a black sheep” and a liar. He responded with a non sequitur when asked: If he were innocent, why would so many people tell lies about him in court? “Exactly.”
He wouldn’t discuss the nude photograph of his 12-year-old daughter that an ex-wife said she found hidden under a drawer. He said his daughter was troubled and had problems with men, drugs and alcohol.
He said he regretted taking in the teen runaway Michelle Weinman when he was a police officer and says she “set me up.”
“I was accused of rape, and it didn’t happen.”
By the time of CNN’s interview, he had come to recognize that others found it strange that he referred to 7-year-old Maria Ridulph as “lovely, lovely, lovely.” He changed his wording, calling her “precious.” An odd expression crossed his face when he spoke of the little girl with the dark, curly hair and big brown eyes.
There is a gap between his front teeth and he does have a high, thin voice, just as Kathy described all those years ago. He is quick to anger over certain subjects and, when that happens, there is nothing soft in his blue eyes.
The women left behind
Unlike many destined to end their days behind bars, Jack McCullough has not been forgotten. His wife of nearly 20 years, Sue McCullough, and a stepdaughter, Janey O’Connor, wrote letters to the court saying they stood by him. Both are certain that he is the victim of a grave injustice.
Their letters were more articulate than many written on behalf of men judged guilty of heinous crimes. Sue scolded the authorities in Illinois: “My husband was convicted in order to close the oldest cold case in U.S. history. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.” And the hurt in O’Connor’s words was unmistakable: “Perhaps sacrificing one old man is enough to give an entire community closure,” she wrote. “My Dad is innocent. I hope the pain of my family is worth the five minutes of fame you all have received.”
O’Connor, 35, says she trusted McCullough with her own daughter, and he doted on the child. When police came to arrest Jack, the little girl was watching cartoons in his bedroom.
O’Connor has assumed the role of her stepfather’s spokesman and champion. When she first met him, she says, she was a wild kid — exactly the type of teenager he has been accused of preying upon. It would have been so easy for him to cross the line with her, she said. But he never did.
Instead, McCullough was patient. He became the father she never had. She believes now it is her turn to watch out for him.
O’Connor does not rant. She is logical in her arguments. She doesn’t understand why the court didn’t let her stepfather defend himself better.
She doubts how much Kathy Chapman can remember about that night long ago. It was dark, it was snowing, and Kathy was just 8.
O’Connor points out that Chapman picked out another man she said resembled the kidnapper at a lineup in Wisconsin back in 1957. It turned out he couldn’t have been “Johnny;” he had an alibi.
The timeline bothers her, too. The time of the kidnapping has shifted from 7 p.m. back to about 6. It also troubles her that the defense couldn’t present evidence of a collect phone call placed from Rockford to the Tessier family house at 6:57 p.m. — or anything from the 1957 FBI reports that once cleared him as a suspect.
And she absolutely does not believe the stories told by the Tessier sisters. She wonders whether her stepfather, as the first-born in his family and his mother’s clear favorite, wasn’t targeted by the others out of some twisted sibling rivalry.
There’s a blog now, where the family raises questions about the evidence used to convict McCullough. His stepdaughter hopes someone will notice and take up his cause, as others have done in famous controversial cases such as the West Memphis Three.
Sue McCullough also is standing by her man. She acts at times like this mess is all a big misunderstanding, and he’ll come home soon.
She passes the time in a rickety chair in the bedroom of their small apartment in Seattle. There isn’t much furniture, just a few chairs, a bed and a home computer. A large safe dominates the living room, her husband’s Stetson hat resting on top.
She has visited him in prison, and says he seems frail. She treasures a letter he wrote a few months after his arrest. She had it laminated and keeps it close:
“Hang on because I’m going to not only apologize, I’m going to say I’m sorry. (My pen didn’t want to write that but my heart did.) I do need to say I’m sorry for all the times I disappointed you, made you mad, made you sad, yelled at you or just pissed you off,” the letter begins.
What is he apologizing for? Nothing specific, she says.
“He just wanted me to know he’s going to treat me better when he comes home.”
A perfect alibi?
A criminal trial is a journey to the truth, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Witnesses are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But the whole truth is rarely told at trials; they are more like well-scripted plays, edited in advance through a series of pretrial legal maneuvers and evidentiary rulings.
The prosecution’s version of the truth was told last fall at McCullough’s four-day murder trial. The defense consisted of an anemic attempt to poke a few holes in the prosecution’s script.
“Based on the judge’s pretrial rulings, it became a situation in which we sort of tried the case with our hands tied behind our back,” said his lawyer, Public Defender Tom McCulloch.
The defense attorney could not show that the FBI had cleared his client decades ago. Without putting his client on the stand, he could not present an alibi defense. He could not tell Jack McCullough’s version of the truth. Nor could he argue that Kathy Chapman had picked out someone else in the Wisconsin lineup back in 1957. Because she could not recall the lineup on the witness stand, he couldn’t question her about it.
Had the crime been committed a year or two ago, there likely would have been DNA samples to test, along with credit card receipts, phone records and cellphone GPS pings to trace. There would have been little doubt where McCullough was — and when. The key witnesses would be alive and their memories would be fresh.
But this 55-year-old kidnapping and murder suffered from weaknesses typical of cold cases: The physical evidence that had existed was lost, including the doll Maria was carrying and her killer handled. No murder weapon was found. Most of the witnesses were dead.
“When it came down to our case and the state’s attorney’s case,” said defense investigator Crystal Harrolle, “the state had more people alive than we did.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys were left to reconstruct history with what little evidence they had. And that is why a decision to bar any surviving evidence — even old police reports — can be so significant in a cold case.
Judge James Hallock ruled before the trial that Eileen Tessier’s dying statement implicating her son would be admitted, but the 1957 FBI reports would be barred. As a result, a mother was able to accuse her son from the grave, but his alibi was never heard.
Would justice have been better served by a hearing of all of the facts and theories?
“I think the question of how you deal with old reports that are as authentic as the day is long — in the context of them being the sole remaining evidence of a defendant’s alibi — is something an appellate case will have to decide,” said McCulloch, the defense attorney.
Hallock could not comment on his rulings. Judge Judith Brawka, the chief judge of his circuit, cited McCullough’s appeal and said in an e-mail that the state’s code of judicial conduct “prohibits a judge from public comment about a pending proceeding in any court.”
CNN consulted two attorneys with expertise on Illinois’ hearsay law. Both were intimately involved in the Drew Peterson case, which galvanized the sweeping changes to the law in 2008.
Steve Greenberg was a member of Peterson’s defense team. Stephen White, at the time a judge, upheld the constitutionality of what became known as Drew’s Law. It expanded the circumstances under which hearsay statements could be admitted in trials.
Peterson, a former police sergeant in Bolingbrook, Illinois, was convicted in 2012 of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio; he is suspected of killing his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, who vanished in 2007.
In Peterson’s trial, the new hearsay exceptions allowed statements both women made to others that Peterson might harm them. Why? The women were unavailable to testify, and a judge found that Peterson likely was responsible for their absence.
Examining the Ridulph case for CNN, both Greenberg and White questioned how Eileen Tessier’s deathbed statement could have been allowed into evidence. Drew’s Law didn’t apply because the defendant did not make the witness unavailable; she died of cancer.
Judge Hallock admitted the woman’s dying words under the theory that she made the statement “against her own interests.” But CNN’s experts pointed out that she admitted no wrongdoing, so it really didn’t fit under that hearsay exception.
Eileen Tessier never acknowledged taking part in a cover-up. She merely said, “John did it,” or “He did it.”
“It’s an accusation,” Greenberg said, not a confession. “If she had said ‘John killed that little girl and I helped him cover it up,’ that would work. But this is too sketchy.”
In Greenberg’s view, allowing in the deathbed statement was a stretch of the hearsay exception. And it raises a question: Should the court have taken a similarly liberal view toward the defense’s request for a hearsay exception? Should it have also allowed the old FBI reports?
Greenberg says the FBI reports might have come into evidence as historical records — a hearsay exception that applies to documents that are more than 20 years old. That was the defense’s strategy, but the judge rejected it. The exception has been used in the past for maps, deeds, wills and other civil documents, but never for police reports. There is no legal precedent to allow them.
But every legal precedent begins with a test case, Greenberg added.
Campbell, the prosecutor, said he was “stunned” that Hallock allowed Eileen Tessier’s statement into the trial. But, because the judge did not cite it in his verdict, Campbell believes the error might be “harmless” — not enough to overturn the conviction.
Campbell said that he thought Hallock’s ruling on the FBI reports was solid; he can’t see any circumstance under which a judge would allow police reports into evidence in the place of witness testimony. Had the FBI reports been allowed, he said, prosecutors were ready to fight back by showing that the original source for the alibi was the defendant himself.
If the FBI reports were to somehow enter the case, there are two timelines to consider, not just one. And that really is the central dispute in this cold case: Was Maria snatched at 7 p.m., or did the crime take place earlier, before 6:20?
Newspaper articles from the time — and the FBI reports themselves — show that establishing a clear timeline was a problem from the very first hours of this case. Only two facts relating to the timeline cannot be disputed: A collect call was placed from Rockford, 40 miles away, to the Tessier family’s house at 6:57 p.m. And Maria wasn’t reported missing to police until 8:10 p.m.
So what happened at the corner of Center Cross Street and Archie Place between 6 and 8 p.m. on December 3, 1957? The police and FBI reports from 1957 could have helped shed light. CNN was able to examine about 200 pages of those reports; thousands of pages more remain sealed from public view.
If Maria was snatched at about 7 p.m., the defense says, John Tessier couldn’t have been the kidnapper. He was 40 miles away, in Rockford, calling home from a pay phone.
That was the conclusion the FBI agents in Sycamore reached in 1957, when they cleared Tessier. A judge or jury might have reached the same conclusion, defense attorney McCulloch believes, had the old FBI reports been admitted at the trial.
“The FBI verified all of that information,” he said. “So if you are 40 miles away at that point, roughly three minutes, give or take, away from the time of the snatch, that is what we believe to be the perfect alibi.”
Eyewitnesses and snitches
Appeals courts are unpredictable, lawyers say, and might sidestep the tricky hearsay questions if one or more other issues appear problematic.
Other vulnerable areas, according to former judge Stephen White, include the credibility of the jailhouse informants and the reliability of the eyewitness identification. These two issues have caused many a conviction to fall.
Testimony from informants has played a role in 15% of the convictions overturned nationwide by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. In a 2005 study, Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions documented 38 cases in which informant testimony sent innocent men to death row.
The issue with informants is partly one of motive. Why are they testifying? Street informants often are seeking financial rewards or trying to avoid arrest. Jailhouse informants usually are motivated by a reduction in sentence or other special favors.
Prosecutors are not permitted to offer inmates favors in exchange for testimony. But in this case, one inmate mentioned his assistance in the McCullough case in court papers seeking a reduction in his sentence. And another did receive what the defense contends was favorable treatment: He was allowed to testify anonymously as “John Doe.” His name, his record and other details about his background remain sealed from the public record.
Campbell said he found the jailhouse informants credible because they told three different stories about how Maria died. Police couldn’t have planted the stories the inmates told.
“What you get from this is there was no effort by us to go over there and hang out some cheese, and so whoever gives us the story gets the cheese,” he said.
Faulty eyewitness identification is also problematic, according to the Innocence Project. In Illinois, it has played a role in 24 wrongful convictions, cases later exonerated by DNA evidence. Among the factors contributing to misidentification, research shows, is the kind of photo lineup used, and the way it is administered by police.
The defense contends that Kathy Chapman chose McCullough’s photo from an “impermissibly suggestive” lineup. His was the only photo with a dark background; he was the only one not wearing a suit; the others looked off to the right, but he stared directly into the camera; the others’ hair was combed while his was unruly; the other photos were yearbook photos, his was not.
“The picture of Jack was done differently, no tie and the lighting is different, and that’s the one she picked,” defense attorney McCulloch said. “It shouldn’t be a surprise, but 55 years later maybe people react to subliminal suggestion. If you’re looking for ‘one of these things is not like the other,’ then the answer is pretty clear which photo to pick.”
The defense also notes that investigator Hanley spoke with Chapman for about 90 minutes before returning more than a week later to show her the photos.
Unlike Illinois, many states do not allow the same investigator who questions witnesses to show them photographs of suspects. The point is to avoid the natural tendency of witnesses to give the answers they think police want to hear.
Campbell is certain that Jack McCullough killed Maria Ridulph. He is confident in Kathy’s Chapman’s identification of “Johnny.” He and Hanley note that she did not learn she’d chosen McCullough’s photo until 10 months later, when he was charged. Campbell believes her when she says she could never forget his face.
“I spent a lot of time with her,” he said. “I am familiar with the identification problems, and snitches have taken down clients of mine before. At the end of the day, it’s the best system we have.”
However problematic they might be, the testimony from the jailhouse informants and Kathy Chapman’s eyewitness identification convinced Judge Hallock that McCullough was a child murderer and a kidnapper. He expressed confidence that his decision will be upheld on appeal.
Defense attorney McCulloch and his investigator, Harrolle, remain convinced that their client is innocent.
“I think it was an incredibly thin case,” said McCulloch. “It seems to me Illinois has a bad history of having existing prosecutors file sensational cases as they prepare for election.”
If Campbell pursued the 55-year-old cold case as a means to re-election, it certainly backfired. The prosecutor lost his job by 700 votes just weeks after the conviction. He will be watching the appeal as a private criminal defense attorney.
He is keenly aware of the questions that swirl around many cases after a conviction — especially a cold case.
“Any type of cold case is going to raise questions, and to be honest with you, I think that’s healthy,” Campbell says.
He cites a sad truth about the criminal justice system: It is fallible.
“Here in Illinois, we’ve had a lot of people go on death row who ultimately ended up being innocent,” he says. “We’re always concerned about people being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.”
‘Look in the box’
Jack McCullough finally got his say at his sentencing. He stood before the court last December 10 — 55 years and seven days after Maria Ridulph disappeared.
He used the occasion to tell his version of the truth. He insisted that he didn’t kill Maria, and that the FBI had cleared him. He blamed his legal predicament on ambitious cops, corrupt prosecutors, an incompetent judge and spiteful siblings. He challenged Kathy Chapman’s ability to remember a face after 55 years.
He accused the judge of ignoring the FBI reports and his alibi. “Look inside the box,” he exhorted, pointing to a carton labeled “McCullough case” resting on the defense table. “The truth is in the box.”
He was defiant to the end. His remarks to his probation officer were read aloud at his sentencing. Asked what caused him stress, he had said: “Corruption, Democrats, socialism, rude people, noisy people, black people and Muslims.”
Maria’s siblings did not stand up in court and speak. They chose instead to write letters, which were slipped into the court file. The sad, simple beauty of their words bore stark contrast to the ugliness of McCullough’s.
Chuck Ridulph wrote about the crime that defined his life, and the little sister he never got to know. As his parents neared the end of their lives, he said, they both couldn’t wait to be with Maria. They are buried next to her at Elmwood Cemetery.
He wonders often about the woman Maria would have become. “Would she have excelled at music?” he asked. “How would I have scrutinized her first boyfriend? Where would she have gone to college? Who would she have married? How many children would she have had? What fun would we have had together? The answer to all those questions, and so many more, Jack McCullough snatched away.”
Snow began to fall as the hearing ended and the key players in this cold case gathered one last time on the front steps of the old courthouse in Sycamore. The meaning was lost on no one: It had been snowing all those years ago when Maria was taken.
Chuck Ridulph felt the hand of God. Kathy Chapman saw her lost friend signaling approval.
Once again, Kathy’s hands felt cold. Some things never change; she had left her gloves behind in the car.
She stopped by Maria’s grave on her way home from court. She bent down and picked up a small rock with the word “justice” carved into it. She cradled it in her gloved hands as she bowed her head in silence. Asked later what she told Maria, she replied, softly, “Private little things.”
After Kathy had gone, seven pennies — one for each year of Maria’s life — were lined up on the headstone.
How this story was reported
The 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph is the nation’s oldest cold case to go to trial. This story was pieced together by CNN’s Ann O’Neill through interviews and public records.
She and video producer Brandon Ancil traveled to Sycamore, Illinois, and Seattle, Washington, to interview investigators, witnesses, prosecutors and family members of the man convicted of the crime. They interviewed the convicted killer in prison and obtained a video copy of his eight-hour interrogation by police.
O’Neill reviewed numerous documents, including transcripts of the trial and key pretrial hearings. She obtained several hundred pages of 1957 FBI reports from the National Archives through a public records request. Thousands of pages more remain classified, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The exhibits presented at trial were unsealed at CNN’s request by the Second District of the Illinois Appellate Court.
Some of the people quoted in this story are dead. Their quotes come from police and FBI reports and media reports from 1957.
Maria’s brother, Chuck Ridulph, declined to be interviewed, as did the defendant’s half sisters, Janet and Jeanne Tessier. Their accounts are based on their trial testimony, public records and interviews with other media.