Maria Ridulph’s abduction horrified Sycamore, her close-knit farming community west of Chicago, and unsettled parents nationwide. Even then-President Dwight Eisenhower asked to be kept apprised of a massive search for the 7-year-old girl.
Jack McCullough, who was about 17 at the time and lived a few blocks from Maria’s home, is now on trial for her death. The 72-year-old former Washington state police officer has pleaded not guilty.
The case was reopened just a few years ago after McCullough’s girlfriend in the 1950s contacted police with evidence calling his alibi into question. The Seattle man was arrested July 1, 2011, at a retirement home where he worked as a security guard.
The weeklong bench trial at a courthouse near where the second-grader went missing Dec. 3, 1957, has included testimony about dolls, piggyback rides — and a deathbed accusation from the defendant’s mother that her son committed the crime.
But the trial has been complicated by faded memories and an absence of physical evidence. McCullough’s attorneys told the court that prosecutors have the wrong man.
McCullough waived his right to a jury trial and opted for a bench trial instead, meaning Judge James Hallock will decide the verdict. The judge suggested his decision could come as soon as Friday.
The star witness for the state was Kathy Chapman, the friend Ridulph was playing with right before she vanished.
Chapman testified that a young man calling himself "Johnny" had approached them while they were playing, asked if they liked dolls and offered the girls piggyback rides. After Ridulph ran home and came back with her doll, Chapman went to grab mittens on the snowy night. When she returned, her playmate and the man were gone.
She never saw her friend alive again.
McCullough, whose name was John Tessier in the ‘50s, was "Johnny," Chapman told the judge. A prosecutor laid out black-and-white photographs of similar looking men from the era, and Chapman pointed to one of McCullough.
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.
In other testimony for the state earlier this week, McCullough’s half-sister told the court that their mother, Eileen Tessier, said on her death bed in 1994 that McCullough had killed Ridulph.
"She grabbed my wrist and said, ‘Those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it,’" Janet Tessier said. Under cross-examination, she conceded her mother didn’t explain why she believed that.
In their case that lasted less than two hours, defense lawyers focused entirely on the mother’s alleged accusation. They called a doctor who said Eileen Tessier had been given morphine to ease her pain and that she was disoriented at times.
Among the other state witnesses were inmates jailed with McCullough as he awaited trial.
One said he overheard McCullough say he strangled Ridulph 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.
After a five-month search, Ridulph’s badly decomposed body was found in the spring of 1958 in a forest 120 miles away.
In his opening statement his week, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell described the night little Maria went out to play on the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street.
"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."