SYCAMORE, Ill. — A 72-year-old man was convicted Friday in the 1957 murder of a 7-year-old girl, with spectators letting out a deafening cheer as the verdict was announced in one of the oldest unsolved crimes to eventually get to court in the U.S.
The sound of sobbing overtook the room as the cheers and applause faded after Judge James Hallock pronounced Jack McCullough guilty of murder, kidnapping and abduction in Maria Ridulph’s death. Family and friends of the girl fell into each other’s arms; others walked up to hug and kiss prosecutors.
McCullough was around 17 years old on the snowy night in December 1957 when the second-grader went missing in Sycamore, about 60 miles west of Chicago. He later enlisted in the military, and ultimately settled in Seattle where he worked as a Washington state police officer.
Maria’s playmate the night she disappeared, Kathy Chapman, was a star witness in the case. She testified that McCullough was the young man who approached the girls as they played, asking if they liked dolls and if they wanted piggyback rides.
“A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Chapman, who is now 63, said outside on the courthouse steps. “Maria finally has the justice he deserves.”
Others in court included Jeanne Taylor, 57, who said children in the close-knit town lived in terror after Maria’s disappearance.
It all happened in an era when grease-backed hair and automobile tail fins were still in, and when child abductions, if not unheard of, rarely made headlines.
This one did.
President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover asked to be kept apprised of the search for the girl, which lasted five months and ended when her decomposed body was found in a forest 120 miles from her hometown.
Testimony, which lasted four days, was often dramatic and, for friends and family, emotional.
The victim’s brother, Charles Ridulph, took to the stand to describe his sister as a sweet, smart, pretty and outgoing child beloved by the family.
McCullough’s half-sister told the court that their mother, Eileen Tessier, said on her death bed in 1994 that McCullough — whose name was then John Tessier — had killed Maria.
“She grabbed my wrist and said, ‘Those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it,’” Janet Tessier said.
After the verdict, Janet Tessier’s eyes were red with tears.
“He is as evil as prosecutors painted — and some,” she said.
Chapman said she was playing with Maria on Dec. 3, 1957, on the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street when a young man calling himself “Johnny” approached and talked to them. Maria ran home to get a doll; Chapman went to get mittens. When Chapman returned, her friend and the man were gone.
She never saw Maria alive again.
A prosecutor laid out black-and-white photographs of similar looking men, and Chapman pointed to one of McCullough, saying she was sure he was the man who called himself “Johnny.”
A Seattle investigator who interviewed McCullough last year, Irene Lau, said McCullough remembered Maria, calling her “stunningly beautiful.” But he maintained he had nothing to do with her disappearance or death.
McCullough was on an early list of suspects in 1957. But he had an alibi, saying that on the day, he had traveled to Chicago to get a medical exam before enlisting in the Air Force.
The case was reopened after his old girlfriend contacted police with evidence calling his alibi into question — she had found his unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago on the day Maria disappeared. He was arrested on July 1, 2011, in Washington state at a retirement home where he worked as a security guard.
The trial has been complicated by faded memories and, in McCullough’s case, an absence of physical evidence.
McCullough waived his right for a jury trial and opted for a bench trial instead.
Among the other state witnesses were inmates jailed with McCullough as he awaited trial.
One said he overheard McCullough say he strangled Maria with a wire. Another said McCullough told him he killed her accidentally — that she fell as he gave her a piggyback ride, then smothered her as he tried to stop her from screaming.
Prosecutors say McCullough stabbed the girl in the throat and chest.
In his opening statement, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell described the night Maria went out to play on a street corner with her friend.
“This ordinary night would end in horror,” he said. “It would end with this defendant dumping her body in the cold, dark woods like a piece of garbage.”