A Murder Mystery Thaws After 5 Decades in the Freezer

‘Footsteps in the Snow’: Solving a Murder After 55 Years

New York Times


"Footsteps in the Snow," Wednesday on LMN,  recounts John Tessier's conviction for a murder. Credit Sycamore High School Yearbook

“Footsteps in the Snow,” Wednesday on LMN, recounts John Tessier’s conviction for a murder. Credit Sycamore High School Yearbook

Television is full of true-crime stories, many of them trashily told, but the genre is well served by the one offered on Wednesday night on LMN, “Footsteps in the Snow.” It’s a movie-length treatment of what is often described as the coldest cold case ever solved, the 1957 murder of a 7-year-old girl in Sycamore, Ill. A man named Jack McCullough was finally convicted of the crime in 2012.

The case has already received some television treatments, and the film is nothing fancy, using the tried-and-true mix of interviews, archival images and re-enactments to tell the story. But it’s particularly thorough and thoughtfully assembled, recreating one of the more fascinating cases of modern times.

The girl, Maria Ridulph, disappeared on a December evening, and the first thing the film does is cause you to appreciate the way that, long before Amber Alerts, the people of Sycamore, about 65 miles west of Chicago, quickly made the search for her a community effort. Older high school students, we’re told, were let out of school to join in the search. Chuck Ridulph, Maria’s brother, also participated.

“I was 11 at the time,” he says in an interview. “My particular group opened a manhole because I was small enough to get down to look down in there. I was aware of what we were looking for. And I was frightened.”

The body was found the following April, near Galena, Ill., which is over 100 miles northwest of Sycamore.

Then decades passed before a half sister of Mr. McCullough (who was known as John Tessier at the time of the crime) raised suspicions about him. He was arrested in 2011 but still maintains his innocence. The film’s interviews with him are among its most compelling moments.

Yes, true-crime tales turned into television can feel exploitative, and “Footsteps in the Snow” doesn’t entirely escape this problem. But over all, it exercises restraint in revisiting a mesmerizing case.