One of the oldest cold cases in American history looks has entered its final chapter with the news that a life sentence was handed down to Jack McCullough, convicted of murdering 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in 1957 in Illinois.
After decades of uncertainty around the crime, McCullough was arrested in July 2011 for Maria Ridulph's abduction and murder. He was then convicted after a trial in which prosecutors said McCullough, 17 years old at the time of the crime, introduced himself to Maria and her friend Kathy as “Johnny” when they were playing outside.
McCullough then offered the girls piggy-back rides, but when Kathy ran inside to retrieve gloves he dragged Maria to an alleyway, here he choked her with a wire and stabbed her in the throat and chest, according to ABC News. Maria’s body was found 100 miles away in a wooded area on April 26, 1958.
McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in Sycamore, Ill., where the crime took place. During the proceeding Judge James Hallock repeatedly scolded McCullough, whose name was John Tessier in 1957, for trying to communicate to Ridulph’s family members and not the bench.
“I did not, did not, kill Maria Ridulph,” said McCullough. “It was a crime I did not, could not, would not have done.”
The defense hinged on the claim that he was on a train at the time of the crime, a story met with skepticism when in 2010 a girlfriend found an un-punched ticket for the alleged trip. The Chicago Sun Times reported McCullough was Maria’s neighbor when he kidnapped and murdered her, a shock to the Ridulph family who assumed the perpetrator was someone from outside the Sycamore area.
“In all my life, I never would have guessed,” said McCullough's neighbor Rena Rooney, 88, after the 2011 arrest. “It’s such a shame. He was so good to us.”
The crime received national media attention in the 1950s and was so notorious that President Dwight D. Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover were given daily updates on the investigation. After Maria went missing, FBI agents moved into the Ridulph home and tapped their phones in search of clues.
After murdering Ridulph, McCullough changed his name from Tessier and joined the Air Force. He followed his discharge with a career in the Seattle Police Department and was arrested in the nursing home he resided at.
Maria’s parents died years before McCullough was arrested, although Charles Ridulph, brother of Maria, said that was for the best.
“They talk about closure, which there is never such a thing,” Ridulph said to the Sun-Times. “It was pretty well closed for us, and now it’s all open again. My daughter said to me when I told her [about the arrest], she said it’s too bad my parents aren’t alive. I said, ‘Thank God they weren’t alive for this day.’”
The life sentence for the 1957 murder is appropriate, according to prosecutor Victor Escarcida.
"Jack McCullough made Sycamore a scary place," Escarcida said. "Now there was a true boogeyman living among them. He is the definition of evil."