"Maria's got her justice."
Jack McCullough heard his guilty verdict Friday in a packed courtroom on the third floor of the DeKalb County Courthouse, less than 10 blocks from where he snatched Maria Ridulph on the snowy evening of Dec. 3, 1957.
Known in those days as John Tessier, the 72-year-old convicted kidnapper and murderer sat through five days of a bench trial before Judge James Hallock and heard a parade of prosecution witnesses detail circumstantial evidence that tied him to the seven-year-old girl’s disappearance from the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street in Sycamore.
The courtroom gallery, only partially filled during days of testimony, was packed and standing room only as the final session began.
The audience included McCullough’s half sisters – Jeanne, Katheran and Janet, who had testified against him, and Mary, who was called by the defense – and his half brother Bob; Maria’s childhood playmate Kathy Sigman Chapman; and many of the investigators who helped bring the case to trial.
Decision rests on judge's shoulders alone
All were there to hear how Judge James Hallock would rule on charges of murder, kidnapping, and abduction of an infant – defined as a child under the age of 12. McCullough had opted for a bench trial and did not testify in his own behalf. The burden of weighing the evidence and deciding the defendant’s fate rested on Hallock’s shoulders alone.
The defendant was brought in wearing a dark suit with a dark shirt and a dark patterned necktie. He took his seat at the end of the defense table and paid close attention as closing arguments began.
Assistant State’s Attorney Victor Escarcida, intense and tough, recounted many of those details:
- The strange person who introduced himself as Johnny gave Maria a piggyback ride then disappeared with her when her playmate Kathy Sigman (Chapman) went home to fetch mittens.
- Kathy described a multicolored sweater that Johnny wore that night – and his family said they never saw again.
- Johnny didn’t show up at home that evening and was not there early the next morning.
- Johnny owned a 1948 coupe that was not seen around his home that evening or the following day.
- Johnny knew the place where Maria’s body was dumped from family trips to that area.
- McCullough told fellow jail inmates details of that night that only the perpetrator could know.
“Maria did not have any idea that she would never again go home, sleep in her bed, play on the playground or on the corner,” Escarcida said. “Kathy went home to get her mittens. That gave the defendant the opportunity to take what was not his.”
He showed the judge a photograph of little Maria: “This is an angel,” he said.
Next came a snapshot of Maria and Kathy together: “These are innocent children,” he added.
Then he displayed a picture of Maria’s traumatized remains: “This,” he declared, “is murder.”
“She didn’t deserve to die the way she did,” Escarcida said. “She couldn’t protect herself from this man who favored dolls and piggyback rides.”
Interim Public Defender Tom McCulloch took aim at the prosecution’s lack of solid evidence to back up Maria’s playmate’s story. “Other than showing that they played on the corner and their whole world was on that street,” he said, “they haven’t proved anything.”
Spreading out his reference materials on the shelf on the front of the bench, he checked documents and photographs from time to time as he conducted a one-sided conversation with the judge.
“The state has failed to produce a weapon,” McCulloch added. “The state has not produced any footprints. There were no fingerprints; there was no hair left behind.”
He also assailed the ability of Kathy Sigman Chapman to pick out the right face after 50 years and the likelihood that a the defendant’s heavily sedated dying mother could communicate to her daughter in January 1994 that Johnny was guilty of the terrible crime more than three decades earlier.
He noted that two Seattle Police detectives who accompanied McCullough back to Sycamore couldn’t elicit a confession of guilt despite several hours of questioning and conversation. “They gave him every cheap and cheesy way through this, inviting him to make some admission,” the defense attorney said. “It didn’t happen. He said he was in Rockford; he said to pay attention to the timeline.”
Scorn for three jailhouse "snitches"
He saved his strongest scorn for three jailhouse “snitches,” as he called them, saying they were trading their testimony in hopes of leniency for themselves in the form of improved conditions or shorter sentences. “The state tries to characterize the knowledge as something that only the killer would know,” he said.
Indeed, as Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Trevarthen stated in rebuttal, “The defendant tells us through his own words told from the mouths of Christopher Diaz, John Doe and Kirk Swaggerty.”
Those three witnesses all spent time with McCullough in the DeKalb County Jail and shared what he said to them with prosecutors.
Formal yet somewhat comfortable behind a reading stand, Trevarthen noted, “We didn’t pick these witnesses; the defendant chose those witnesses for us. The defendant conceived these crimes he commited against Maria in hell, and he’s not going to confide in three angels.”
She said that McCullough all but confessed to one of the trio. “His statement was, ‘If they do have DNA evidence, I’ll take a plea’,” she said. “That is a defendant’s admission to having killed Maria Ridulph.”
Trevarthen also backed the accuracy of the photo lineup in which Kathy Sigman Chapman identified the defendant.
“Kathy will never forget the face of John,” she said. “It wasn’t Kathy’s ID that pointed law enforcement to Jack McCullough; it was the overwhelming evidence that pointed law enforcement to Kathy Sigman.”
From one of the inmates, Trevarthen said, “We also know that the defendant’s mom knew what had happened to Maria. She knew what he did, and she didn’t want to die with that on her conscience. Mom was able to put into motion what she should have put into motion 50 years ago. It’s poetic justice.”
Judge Hallock called a recess to review his notes.
During the break, Kathy Sigman Chapman hugged weeping Janet Tessier in the hallway after the closing statements. She hugged Victor Escarcida back in the courtroom and told him “good job, good job.”
The judge returned shortly before 11:15 a.m. Two additional sheriff’s deputies took positions in the courtroom along with the pair who guarded the defendant.
Judge Hallock, in his verdict address, began with some basic tenets of the U.S. legal system. “Indictment and election not to testify is not evidence against the defendant,” the judge explained. “Presumption of innocence applies. The accused must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, that is not beyond any doubt but beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“They’re all bad guys; they all belong in prison"
He addressed the issue of the so-called snitches: “Prisoner witnesses are witnesses that all courts should scrutinize carefully,” he said. “They’re all bad guys; they all belong in prison. There is no doubt they hope to benefit from their testimony.
“The court must pay special attention to see if there might be true facts that deserve consideration,” he continued. “The testimony of these three witnesses contains details they could only know if they got those details from the defendant. The court finds this reasonable.”
He addressed several facts in the case, and turned to the other testimony. “The court finds that the identification of the defendant by Kathy Sigman was most convincing. I don’t believe there was a defect in the photo lineup,” Hallock said.
“The court finds the other witnesses were credible, although their memories were clouded a bit by the passage of time,” he added, “but that’s to be expected.”
Then came the verdict. No sooner was the word “guilty” out of Judge Hallock’s mouth than the gallery erupted in jubilant applause. Hallock stopped speaking, glared and pointed a stern finger. He admonished the audience against further outbursts and then began again.
“Based on the totality of the evidence presented this week,” he said, “the court finds the defendant has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on the three charges.”
The state moved to revoke McCullough’s bond, and the judge agreed, remanding him to the jail to await a sentencing hearing at 11 a.m. Nov. 30. He advised the defendant of his right to file an appeal and the availability of counsel to help with that appeal.
Then the judge left the room, McCullough was taken away, and a quiet pandemonium of handshakes and hugs ensued for the next 20 minutes or so.
Shortly thereafter, Janet Tessier – who had started the ball rolling by heeding her mother’s admonition to “tell someone” that Johnny had committed the crime – walked out of the courthouse and gave a double thumbs up to the news media. “Maria’s got her justice,” she said.