How America’s coldest criminal case – the mystery of missing seven-year-old ‘pretty Maria’ –
By DAN BATES NOVEMBER 12, 2014
- Maria Ridulph vanished into thin air in small town Sycamore, Illinois, in December 1957
- She disappeared moments after she had been with a friend and yards from home
- FBI boss J Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower were informed about case which shocked America
- Her body was found the following spring, choked and stabbed, but police could not find killer
- Suspect Johnny McCullough’s mother confessed on her deathbed that she had lied about an alibi
- Victim’s sister persuaded police to open case and in 2012 McCullough – a former airman, soldier and policeman – was convicted
- New documentary and book reveal truth about case and comes as McCullough, 74, plans appeal against conviction
It was on the first Tuesday in December, 1957, that little Maria Ridulph disappeared after taking a piggy back ride from a stranger.
Her disappearance from a small town in the rich farmlands of Illinois shocked America: it seemed she had vanished into thin air in the safest corner of the United States.
All that was known was that she had been seen taking a piggyback ride from a strange man near her home – a man her friend said was called ‘Johnny’.
Long months followed until the seven-year-old’s body was found in a field the following Spring. It was worse than could have been expected: she had been choked with a wire and stabbed.
Her family hoped that the killer would be brought to justice quickly but in the end they had to wait – an astonishing 55 years for justice.
The coldest case in US history was finally closed in 2012 when Maria’s killer was convicted using a deathbed confession by his mother that had re-opened the investigation.
‘Footsteps in the Snow’, based on a book of the same name, will be shown tonight (Wed) on the Lifetime Movie Network.
It stitches together the events that took place in Sycamore, Illinois, a tiny farming community of 7,000 people that would never be the same again after families and friends turned against each other in the hunt for the killer.
The documentary features interviews with, among others, McCullough, who speaks from the prison in Illinois where he will likely die.
The book’s author Charles Lachman told MailOnline that there was ‘nothing like’ the case in American history.
He said: ‘It’s an epic story of crime and family that spans five decades. What’s extraordinary is how this single event changed so many years so many years later.
‘People alive in Sycamore, Illinois in 1957 remember the night Maria was kidnapped the way the rest of us remember where we were on 9/11, or, for an older generation, the Kennedy assassination. It’s with you forever.
‘Beyond that, the case made legal history. Never before had a criminal case from such a distant past ever been brought to justice in a criminal court in America.’
Lachman, who is also executive producer of Inside Edition, added that the case was so compelling because it ‘opened the door’ to Sycamore’s dark past.
He said: ‘Sycamore was the quintessential small town – a great place to grow up and raise a family. But there were all these secrets.’
Maria was a brown-eyed second grader when she disappeared from the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street in Sycamore on the evening of December 3, 1957.
She had just taken a piggy back ride with a man who introduced himself as ‘Johnny’ – and then took away to her doom.
It was crime that shocked America and then president Dwight D Eisenhower reportedly asked for regular updates on the case.
Maria’s mother Frances and father Michael pleaded on TV for her to come home but the following April her body was discovered 120 miles away by a grove of trees, and a homicide inquiry was begun.
Seventeen-year-old McCullough, who was known then as John Tessier, was given an alibi by his parents who told investigators he was in the city of Rockford 40 miles away.
He also passed an FBI polygraph and told agents he’d been traveling to Chicago for a medical exam before joining the Air Force.
The inquiry looked at 100 persons of interest but nobody was arrested and nobody was brought to justice.
Years passed and Maria’s parents would endured unimaginable agony until 1994 when McCullough’s mother Eileen Tessier died – and told her daughters that she lied to give her son an alibi 36 years earlier.
Another 14 years passed until 2008 when the Illinois state police finally reopened the case at the request of McCullough’s half sister Janet Tessier.
When McCullough was arrested he was living in Seattle and was working as a security guard under a different name.
During his lifetime he also been in the Air Force, the Army and worked as a Washington state police officer.
In 2012 Maria’s body was exhumed and his trial went ahead, heavily relying on witnesses who tried their best to recall events more than half a century old.
The key testimony came from Kathy Chapman, a childhood friend of Maria’s who was with her until moments before she disappeared.
She was shown an old photograph of McCullough and identified him as ‘Johnny’.
She recalled how she ran up and down the snow covered street before dashing home to tell her family: ‘Maria’s lost! I can’t find Maria!’
Now 63, Chapman was just eight at the time it happened.
Tessier also told the court about her mother’s confession and after McCullough refused to give evidence he was found guilty.
Before the sentencing prosecutor, Victor Escarcida said that McCullough had ‘left a lifetime of emotional wreckage in his wake’.
He said: ‘Jack McCullough made Sycamore a scary place. Now there was a true boogeyman living among them. He is the definition of evil.’
Maria’s parents were not there to see the verdict as they had died in the 1990s.
But speaking after the hearing, Maria’s older brother Charles Ridulph said he was ‘satisfied’ with the sentence.
He said: ‘This is all we could expect. Now Maria is finally at peace.’
The conviction also gave observers a chance to look again at the missed chances to prosecute McCullough which could have brought about justice sooner.
Lachman told MailOnline that the case took so long to come to court because it was a ‘mess’ from the beginning.
He said: ‘The original investigation was afflicted by police dysfunction and incompetence. There were issues of jurisdiction.
‘Who was in charge? The FBI? The state police.? The local authorities?
‘Everybody found it hard to believe that the crime could have been committed by a local boy.’
Earlier this year McCullough, now 74, filed an 80-page appeal saying there was no forensic evidence tying him to the crime.
He says that since it happened so long ago there was no way the witnesses could remember what they saw.
The appeal states: ‘The evidence against Jack McCullough, was so unreasonable, so improbable, and so unsatisfactory as to create a reasonable doubt that he was responsible for a 1957 murder, kidnapping, and abduction of an infant.’
The hearing will be held on December 3 – with deep irony, 57 years to the day since Maria went missing.