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Man convicted in 1957 abduction and killing of 7-year-old girl

September 14, 2012|By Amy Hubbard
  • The Illinois girl's kidnapping gripped the country. President Eisenhower asked law enforcement to keep him apprised.
The Illinois girl's kidnapping gripped the country. President Eisenhower… (Courtesy of the Ridulph…)

A case of kidnapping and killing that drew the attention of President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover has a resolution -- 55 years later.

Jack McCullough, 72, has been found guilty of kidnapping and killing second-grader Maria Ridulph in 1957, according to media reports. And the star witness at the trial was Cathy Chapman, who was playing with Maria at the time she was abducted from a small-town Illinois curb.

The child's disappearance made national news, with President Eisenhower and Hoover asking to be kept in the loop. Maria's body was found five months after her abduction, decomposed, in a forest more than 100 miles from her home.

The Los Angeles Times revisited the Ridulph killing in 2007, four years before McCullough was arrested in Washington state, rebuilding details of a case that had shuddered to a halt decades before.

On the evening of Maria's disappearance, Maria and Cathy were playing in the front yard of a neighbor's home. 

Neighbors told authorities at the time that the girls were screaming as they chased each other around the trunk of a huge elm tree a little before 7 p.m. on Dec. 3, 1957.

As the story recounted:

"It was cold and, without street lamps, there were only the headlights of passing cars for illumination as the girls played in the dark.... Whatever happened next is a bit confusing, but remember that it's a tale told by an 8-year-old girl who had lost her friend."

Young Cathy gave varying accounts about being approached by a tall young man with curly blond hair who called himself "Johnny." (McCullough was known as John Tessier at the time.)

She said he asked if they wanted piggyback rides. In one version, he said he was married, in another version he said he was unmarried, and in another he asked if they had dolls. Cathy went home, either to get permission to play with the man or to get her mittens.

The ending, however, is the same. When she got back, Maria and the man were gone, and Cathy went to the Ridulph house and said: "Maria is lost."

Five months later, the story continues:

"Maria's badly decomposed remains were found by Frank Sitar, a retired farmer from Hopkins, Minn., and his wife, who were searching for mushrooms.... Maria's body was about 500 feet off U.S. 20, lying face-down under a partially fallen tree and had apparently been there all winter. She was wearing her shirt, undershirt and socks. Her coat, pants and shoes were never found....

"The discovery was reported to Emma 'Two Gun' Grebner, the sheriff of rural Jo Daviess County, in northwest Illinois near the Wisconsin and Iowa borders. The local authorities were completely unequipped to handle an investigation of this magnitude. Grebner's force consisted of two deputies, one of them her husband, and coroner James Furlong said he had never handled a murder case.

"No photographs of the crime scene were taken, Furlong said, because 'he did not want to see pictures of the body "slobbered all over the front pages." ' Grebner said she didn't intend to even investigate the case because as far as she was concerned the crime wasn't committed in Jo Daviess County."

McCullough, who was 17 at the time of the kidnapping, was on an early list of suspects in 1957, according to the Associated Press. His alibi was that he had traveled to Chicago that day to get a medical exam so he could enlist in the Air Force.

But in 2010, an old girlfriend contacted police saying she had found McCullough's train ticket -- unused. The case was reopened, and McCullough was arrested July 1, 2011, at a Washington state retirement home where he worked as a security guard.

At McCullough's recent trial, Chapman testified that he was the young man who had approached the girls. She said she was sure he was the man who had called himself Johnny.

McCullough's half-sister also testified, according to the AP, saying that their mother, Eileen Tessier, said on her death bed in 1994 that McCullough had killed Maria. "She grabbed my wrist and said, 'Those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it,'" Janet Tessier said.

Inmates who had been jailed with McCullough as he awaited trial were also witnesses -- one said he overheard McCullough saying he'd strangled the girl; another quoted him as saying it was an accident, that she fell as he gave her a piggyback ride.

Prosecutors maintain that McCullough stabbed the girl in the throat and chest.

After serving in the military and then settling in Washington state, McCullough worked as a police officer, reports the Chicago Tribune. His law enforcement career ended in the 1980s after he was accused of sexually abusing a teenage runaway staying with him and his girlfriend. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in that case.

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amy.hubbard@latimes.com

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