Maria Ridulph isn’t a name you’re familiar with but in 1957, the people of Sycamore, Illinois, would become aware of her name and would remember it for the rest of their lives – which would be considerably longer than Maria’s. Maria’s name would also become part of the oldest cold criminal case ever to go to trial in the United States, and against all odds, it ended in a conviction.
Little Maria was 7-years-old when she was abducted, raped and murdered in the quiet Midwestern town of Sycamore. It was December 3, 1957. The sun had just set and the first snowflakes of winter were softly falling. Ridulph and her best friend Kathy Chapman, were outside playing a game of “duck the cars” (not as scary as it sounds). “We would go around the pole until a car would come up the street and then … you had to … get behind [a] tree before the car lights hit you,” Chapman explained. It was an idyllic time when parents allowed their little girls to play outside on the sidewalk alone after sunset. No one in Sycamore had any reason to be wary. Unlocked doors and children walking home alone from school were commonplace occurrences.
On this particular day however, a stranger approached the two little girls and made polite conversation with them, asking them about their dolls. “He stopped to talk to us … told us that his name, his name was Johnny. … Maria took a piggyback ride and he went maybe 20 feet away with her and then … came back, and asked if we liked dolls. … And Maria went home to get a doll. She went home and brought her doll back. And I said I was gonna go home and get my mittens. I was cold,” Chapman has repeated this same story countless times for decades. “I left both of them standing there on the corner … and when I got back they were gone. …No sign of her doll, no sign of her, no sign of anybody.” If only Maria hadn’t returned with her doll.
When Chuck Ridulph, Maria’s brother, searched for Maria and couldn’t find her, he told his parents. It was another hour before the Ridulphs called police, who joined a frantic search for Maria and the man who called himself Johnny. Naturally, there would be no finding Maria and Johnny anywhere together. Neighbours and community members walked the streets with shotguns, rifles and handguns tucked in their waistbands. They knocked no doors and insisted, ‘We need to search your home. There’s a girl missing.” They had no idea they were at least an hour too late. “Johnny”, meanwhile, had skipped town and headed to Rockford, Illinois with Maria’s body in the trunk of his car, although no one would discover that grisly fact for another six decades.
No one knew exactly when Maria was taken, but two neighbors reported hearing a scream around 7 p.m. in an alley where Maria disappeared, and where her doll was found…..”between the fence and a garage which is set back on Center Cross Street.” Local police did what they could. They organized a massive search party. Newspapers and posters displayed Maria’s little face around town but to no avail. Within days, the FBI took over, arriving in Sycamore with 1,000 men and flying over the town with police airplanes, but the crime scene had been trampled before any physical evidence was gathered. The local, well-meaning search party had all but wiped out any possible physical connection to Johnny and Maria. All that investigators had was one eyewitness who was 8- years-old, being Chapman.
“They talked to probably 1,000 people in our community, but they had a short list of about a dozen individuals who were on their A-list, so to speak.” Surprisingly, “there were a lot of suspects in that … little town of Sycamore…how many people were on lists of sexual predators. Of course, being … a sexual predator at that time could have been a young man caught peeping into a window”. Nothing harmless about that. Voyeurism (peeping) is often an early stage towards later, more violent sexual assaults. Who knew Sycamore had so many perverts? So much for idyllic.
Five months later, on April 26, 1958, the case went from a kidnapping to a murder when Maria’s body was found partially clothed 90 miles away, near Galena, Ill. A farmer and his wife found the body partially concealed under a downed tree. Killers do place bodies in the strangest places, don’t they? Maria had been stabbed three times in her little body cavity. She was also manually strangled with a wire. Because Maria had not been taken across state lines, the FBI handed the investigation over to the Illinois State Police (ISP). Two years later, the ISP ran out of new leads and the case went cold. But it wasn’t over.
In 1994, Jeanne Tessier’s mother was on her deathbed as she made a terrible confession about her son, John, to her daughters, Jan and Mary. Tessier simply stated, “‘Those two little girls and the one disappeared. John did it. John did it. And you have to tell someone.'” Jeanne also wanted people to know her brother was evil. She had firsthand experience of his cruelty. “John had abused me,”…throughout her childhood … and so did her father. Her mother knew, but kept it secret. They were a household of horrible secrets. The picture-perfect town of Sycamore was truly an illusion, nothing more.
“I love my mother. I love my father. I love John. But they all did great harm to me,” she said. Incredibly, in spite of his weird behavior in the neighborhood and the knowledge that it was a stranger named Johnny who had approached the two little girls, neither the neighbors nor police didn’t think of John Tessier as a possible suspect. After receiving an anonymous tip from a woman, police visited the Tessier household the day after Maria disappeared. Jeanne Tessier’s mother lied and offered her son a false alibi. He had been in Rockford, over 40 miles away, the day the little girl disappeared. It wasn’t entirely odd that the family lied. They had hidden terrible secrets for years. This was one more tragic skeleton (pun) in the Tessier closet. Yet, Mother Tessier made a mistake in her lie: she told the FBI her son had been home with her all night, rather than being in Rockford. No one noticed the discrepancy. Damn.
The alibi 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.” However, another indisputable fact stood against Tessier: if Maria was taken around 7, then Tessier had 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. Five days later, John left his parents home, and Sycamore, for good. Nothing suspicious there, what?
The day before Maria was murdered, John had indeed been in Rockford in an effort to join the military. He was seen by two recruiters. The day after the murder, John was back in Rockford. Staff Sgt. Jon Oswald met with John the morning of December 4 at the Rockford office. John 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.” John also told the recruiter he’d never be considered a suspect because his girlfriend’s father was a deputy sheriff. With a sly grin, he showed Oswald his “little black book.” It had the names and addresses of girls in Sycamore, as well as their bust and hip measurements. That’s not at all strange. Consider he had just murdered a little girl the day before and the situation becomes even more sinister.
By the time Jeanne’s brother was arrested in July 2011, he was a 72-year-old former police officer, living in Seattle under a new name: Jack McCullough. McCullough claimed he changed his surname (for the second time in his life) and insisted it had to do with his heritage. Personally, I think he sounds like a man of disguise and for good reasons. McCullough wasn’t a retired police officer. He’d been permitted to resign after he sexually assaulted a minor. Now that doesn’t bode at all well. When investigators told McCullough they suspected him of being Maria Ridulph’s killer, he became angry. “I did not kidnap that little girl. … look in my eyes. … She was loved in the neighborhood. She was a little … girl with big brown eyes. And she was sweet as could be, hardly said a word to anybody. And everyone loved her,” McCullough told detectives.
To State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, McCullough’s clear and detailed memory of the child during his interrogation was a red flag. He was still obsessing over the child after so many decades and it didn’t sit right with investigators. McCullough, for his part, insisted he knew who the real killer had been. “This guy would’ve been perfect. He was about my height. He looked something like me,” McCullough insisted. Can you imagine telling someone (especially police) that a child’s killer looked like you? No one in his right mind would make such a statement. Red flag number two.
During the investigation, Jeanne revealed a particularly horrific incident that happened when she was 14, and her brother was home on a military leave. “He drove to a home I didn’t know in another part of town and raped me with great — cold anger. And then shared me with his friends.” Normally, a 55-year-old rape case would be barred by the statute of limitations, but because Jack returned to the military and never came back to the jurisdiction, the statute didn’t apply. So Jack McCullough was arrested and tried for the rape of his sister.
Transcript from his interrogation reveal a creepy admission of “sex play” with his sister:
Special agent Brion Hanley: You said … you had a sexual encounter with your sister…
Erin Moriarty (interviewer): Did you abuse your sister, as she was growing up? You did, didn’t you?
Jack McCullough: My sister and I were very close.
Erin Moriarty: What do you mean that you were very close with your sister?
Jack McCullough: We’re done with this. This is — has nothin’ to do with Maria, has nothin’ to do with murder.
Special agent Brion Hanley: As you got older there could there have been other times?
Jack McCullough: Yeah … but this doesn’t make me a suspect in a murder…
The Rape Trial
On April 10, 2012, Jeanne took the stand in a Sycamore courtroom and accused her brother of raping her when she was just 14-years-old. He stared coldly at her. A traumatized Jeanne left the courtroom before the verdict, believing her evil brother would once again get away with his crimes. Jeanne was right. Jack McCullough was found not guilty of rape and not guilty of indecent liberties with a child. However where little Maria was concerned, three jailhouse informants testified that McCullough confessed her murder to them behind bars. One snitch claimed that McCullough told him he killed Maria by accident. They usually do claim a child’s killing was an accident, although in reality McCullough had choked Maria with a wire and stabbed her. That doesn’t sound too accidental to me.
Other young women and little girls in the neighborhood had traumatic or strange experiences with “Johnny.” McCullough usually made his move on little girls by offering them a piggyback ride. A beautiful little blonde girl, now a grandmother, accepted a piggyback ride from Johnny and recalled her father emerging from their house to pull her away from the 13-year-old boy. He warned Tessier never to go near his daughter again “or so help me.” McCullough had used the piggyback approach with Maria. Red flag number three.
Years later, when Tessier became a police officer of the Milton, Tacoma police department in Washington state, the chief wrote a grim report: “Five incidents have been brought to my attention involving local women, three of which were contacts made as a result of police involvement… 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 is not very well liked by his coworkers and several complaints have been received about his conduct from other police departments… “he is consistent in screwing up.”
While working at the same station in Milton, Washington, he offered a homeless 14-year-old runaway a place to live. The first night he took her in he made a sexual pass at her. Finally one night he performed oral sex on the teenager and a counselor pulled her out of class at school the next day. “They [police] 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.” You have to wonder whose behavior was worse – the police or the rapist’s?Although police were crude with the girl (Michelle Weinman), this was the sexual attack that would lead to McCullough’s final firing from the police force. (She is pictured above today).
Denise Trexler was married to McCullough for a time, in the early 1980s.He constantly belittled her. “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.” (If she’d only spoken to Jeanne she might have felt differently). 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.”
One morning, Trexler found McCullough and his daughter, Christine, 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 John’s daughter. She was nude. The incest McCullough had forced upon his sister continued with his own little girl. McCullough was a sick man who was unable to control his darker desires.
In yet another dark twist to this tragic tale, Christine Marie Tessier disappeared in 2005 at the age of 34, from the San Antonio area, with her boyfriend. Since McCullough was not yet in police custody, it is entirely possible he had something to do with her disappearance. Why? Christine was a grown woman. She had learned about her father’s role in Maria Ridulph’s death. Maybe she was ready to come forward with her own story about sexual assault at McCullough’s hands throughout her childhood and he killed his daughter to silence her.
The Second Wife
Sue McCullough, the only living Jack McCullough staunch supporter, declared: ‘Jack did not do this. He’s got proof he was in Chicago. He was getting a military exam. A colonel and two sergeants gave affidavits that they had seen Jack this time, this time and the other time. Jack never had a chance. They would not let any of the evidence that said where he was. I know a person does not change. They don’t kill somebody and say oh that was fun but I will never do it again. He does not even kill bugs, he takes them outside. He has already been gone for 14 months. He’s an old guy and he does not have many years to screw around with this. My only thing is trying to get Jack home…We thought, wrongly of course, that because the judge had seen all five affidavits that he could not in good conscience convict someone who did not do anything.’ Hopefully Sue didn’t have any offspring living in the home that Jack built.
Perhaps there is a hint of how the troubled boy began in McCullough’s own brief recollection: “In my beginning I was born in Belfast Ireland….I was put out into the countryside because the city was too dangerous. I had not had contact with another child until I was 7 years old…They didn’t teach me or anything. They just housed me and fed me. I had gone by myself an awful lot as a child. I was self-raised.” Tessier was once a lonely, angry boy who grew into a disorganized, angry man with a sexual vendetta against girls and women. How it was he became a rapist and murderer will probably never be known since Tessier still denies having committed any of these acts.
McCullough was found guilty of Maria Ridulph’s first degree murder and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison without parole. He has returned to a place where they will “house him and feed him.” Most likely, he will die there. Most likely, no one will shed a tear for him. McCullough made an unsuccessful appeal in 2014. Finally, after 6 decades later, at the age of 73, Maria Ridulph’s killer entered an Illinois state prison. Maria Ridulph will always be 7-years-old and will always reside in Sycamore, Illinois.
As with all first degree murder cases, Jack McCullough has his supporters. The Jack McCullough blog offers an interesting counterview to McCullough’s conviction.