Jack Daniel McCullough is back in his cell at the DeKalb County Jail, weighing his options for filing an appeal of his conviction on charges related to the disappearance of little Maria Ridulph on Dec. 3, 1957.
He has 30 days to make that decision, with a sentencing hearing scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 30.
In April, McCullough waived his right to a jury trial, opting instead for a bench trial on charges of murder, kidnapping, and abduction of an infant – defined in Illinois law at the time as a person younger than 12 years old.
McCullough’s decision put Kane County Circuit Judge James Hallock in the position of deciding the fate of the 72-year-old former police officer in Washington state. After four days of witness testimony and a morning of closing arguments, Hallock made this straightforward statement:
“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.”
Juries hear most criminal cases. Bench trials often return a verdict much more quickly by eliminating the jury selection and questioning process and streamlining motions. Defendants in particularly heinous crimes, like the murder of a child, often opt for a bench trial because they stand a better chance by having their case heard by a judge instead of members of the local community.
The 55-year-old case – one of the oldest unsolved murders in U.S. history – heard testimony from the defendant’s relatives, cellmates and neighbors, plus a deathbed accusation by the defendant’s mother. However, the details of Maria’s disappearance and death have remained a mystery shrouded in hearsay and speculation.
Last year, new evidence and eyewitness testimony led to the arrest in July of Jack Daniel McCullough (formerly known as John Tessier) in Seattle, Washington. The defendant was indicted on kidnapping and murder charges in Maria’s death. McCullough waived his right to fight extradition charges and has since been held on more than $3 million bond in the DeKalb County Jail.
The disappearance was national news
Though the Ridulph murder lacks the high profile of modern child murder cases like Jon Benet Ramsey’s, residents of Sycamore and the surrounding areas remember that, at one time, Maria’s abduction was national news, catching the attention of then FBI Director J Edgar Hoover and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Today, Maria’s death remains a painful reminder of innocence lost and the dangers that lurk in the shadows for children in the face of predators. After more than half a century, the fight to bring Maria’s killer to justice drove prosecutors to find her killer.
On December 3, 1957, Maria Ridulph disappeared from a street corner near her home in Sycamore. She had been playing with a friend, Kathy Sigman, when a man calling himself “Johnny” asked the girls if they would like a piggyback ride. Kathy ran home to get her mittens and, when she returned, Maria was gone. She never again saw her seven-year-old playmate alive.
In the trial that began Monday, prosecutors disclosed that forensic exams revealed Maria died from three stab wounds to the throat and chest. According to DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, Maria’s life ended “with this defendant dumping her body” near Galena, “in the cold, dark woods like a piece of garbage.”
What started as a simple winter night ended in horror for the little girl whom her brother Charles Ridulph described as “smart, active, outgoing, and the baby of the family who had the run of the house.”
Thousands of volunteers searched
In 1957, Maria’s disappearance sparked a massive search with thousands of volunteers and police officers looking desperately for the missing girl for months. Police set up roadblocks that extended over eight counties, but no suspect was ever charged in Maria’s abduction or death, until last year.
According to police records, McCullough was initially a suspect in 1957, but his stepfather, Ralph Tessier, told the FBI that his son was in Rockford for a military physical exam on the day Maria was abducted. A fire in the 1970s at the military archives in St. Louis destroyed any records that could have confirmed this claim.
According to the official affidavit, when police questioned John Tessier five days after Maria’s disappearance, they asked him about “having sex with children,” based on information obtained from interviews with neighborhood girls. One of these girls alleged that Tessier had “sexually abused her on numerous occasions, and habitually molested her outdoors behind tall bushes.” She went on to describe times when John took girls “into the attic of their home, where he made them strip and touch each other, sexually.”
Tessier admitted to police that he had been involved in some “sex play…but not for several years, and had not been involved in those relationships with other girls.” Tessier was released and never charged and, after joining the Air Force the next year, he changed his name to Jack Daniel McCullough.
Born in Belfast in 1939
More recently, McCullough told the Daily Chronicle that he “was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1939” and “moved with his mother to England when she took a position as a searchlight operator with the Royal Air Force, once lighting up a Nazi plane during a bombing raid.” McCullough added that “his father left when he was three,” explaining that he “always suspected that he simply left the family.”
According to McCullough, both he and his “mother came to the U.S. in 1946 and settled in Sycamore.” The defendant described the town as idyllic, mentioning that it was “a lot like the television show ‘Happy Days’.” According to the Chicago Tribune,when asked about Maria Ridulph, McCullough told Seattle Police Detective Irene Lau that the little girl was “stunningly beautiful,” and “lovely, lovely, lovely,” though he denied any involvement in her disappearance or murder.
At the time of Maria’s abduction, McCullough claims to have been on a train from Chicago to Rockford, though witnesses have recently come forward to dispute this.
According to WCNC News in Seattle, during an interview before the indictment McCullough’s former girlfriend “was asked to look for photos of McCullough at the time Maria disappeared.” The police reported “she found one…in a frame and, when she grabbed it, the ticket fell out. It wasn’t stamped, which means it was never used.” And so McCullough’s “airtight alibi,” as he described it, began to fall apart.
Last Monday, Judge Hallock delayed opening statements at the trial while he heard motions to allow testimony from two of McCullough’s prison inmates. Hallock barred a defense motion to prevent the prisoners from testifying and allowed one of the inmates to protect his identity by testifying as “John Doe.”
Defendant described crime in detail to inmates
Both inmates testified Wednesday that McCullough made incriminating statements while in jail, boasting about the murder, describing Maria’s death in detail.
On Tuesday, Kathy Sigman Chapman – who was eight years old at the time of the murder – took the stand testifying that, though she told her story to police 55 years ago, she was never shown a picture of McCullough, who at the time was 17 years old. Two of the defendant's half-sisters also testified.
In addition to Wednesday’s testimony from McCullough’s two former cellmates, Judge Hallock also heard from forensic anthropologist Krista Latham, who testified that Maria’s remains, found in the spring of 1958, revealed that the little girl had been stabbed a number of times in her chest and throat.
Thursday, final testimony in the trial was heard from three witnesses, including a third inmate who testified that he independently contacted the DeKalb County State’s Attorney after having several revealing conversations with McCullough.
That inmate, Kirk Swaggerty, testified that McCullough told him “he would probably get probation if he had a jury trial because it was an accident.” Swaggerty added, “He said he was giving the girl a piggyback ride on his shoulders and she fell and started screaming. He tried to keep her quiet and she suffocated.”
According to the Daily Chronicle, McCullough’s defense says the evidence in the case is circumstantial, pointing out that “there is no physical proof tying their client to the murder and authorities have the wrong man.”
However, both the Seattle Police Department and the State of Illinois, who issued the affidavit, feel differently. "The defendant thought he could get away with it," State’s Attorney Campbell said. "What he couldn't count on was that Kathy Sigman could never forget his face."