08.06.11

Child-Murder Arrest After 53 Years

Maria Ridulph’s abduction shattered America’s sleepy, suburban 1950s fairy tale. Winston Ross on the incredible story of how the alleged killer—18 then, 71 now—was finally caught.

The last time anybody saw 7-year-old Maria Ridulph alive, she was just outside her home, near the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross in the small town of Sycamore, Ill., 50 miles west of Chicago. It was December, and she was playing with a friend, Cathy Sigman, enjoying the first snowfall of the year, when a young white male in a multicolored sweater approached them and introduced himself as “Johnny.”

Johnny asked the girls if they wanted a piggyback ride. Maria agreed, and he hoisted her onto his back and tromped up and down the sidewalk. Then he asked if they had any dolls. Maria said she did, and ran back to her house to find one. While she was gone, Johnny touched Cathy on the arm and thigh and told her she was pretty, the 8-year-old later told police. Maria came back with the doll, and Cathy went home to get her mittens. But when she returned, Maria and Johnny were gone. 

That was 53 years ago. 

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower demanded daily updates.

“It changed my life forever,” said Cathy Sigman, now Cathy Chapman, who lives in St. Charles, in an interview with The Daily Chronicle of DeKalb County, Ill. “My childhood was never the same since.”

The search for Maria Ridulph and the man in the multicolored sweater became a nationwide obsession. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower demanded daily updates. The girl’s skeleton turned up four months later, found by mushroom hunters, but her killer was never caught. 

Now he has been, say authorities in Illinois. Thanks to an unused train ticket that slipped out of a picture frame, on June 29 police in Seattle picked up a former cop and self-styled “modeling agent” with a keen interest in young girls. The man, Jack Daniel McCullough, has been extradited to Illinois to face murder charges that are more than half a century old. 

McCullough changed his name not long after police questioned him in the disappearance of Maria Ridulph. Back then, he went by John Tessier. Tessier came under scrutiny not long after the girl’s body was found in Jo Daviess County, Ill., some 120 miles from where she disappeared, so badly decomposed that the cause of death was simply listed as “foul play.”

An anonymous caller had phoned the DeKalb County sheriff a few days after Maria went missing, to report that she knew a man who matched the description of the suspect Cathy Sigman had described. She called him “Treschner,” and said he was about 20 years old and lived in the neighborhood. That led deputies to Tessier, who lived about a block away from where “Johnny” first offered the girls a piggyback ride. He was 18. 

Tessier’s stepfather, Ralph Tessier, told police that the teen had been in Rockford, Ill., at a military-recruiting station, when Maria disappeared. Rockford is 40 miles from Sycamore. Ralph added that he’d gotten a collect phone call from his stepson at about 7:10 p.m., asking for a ride home from Rockford, which would have put him far from Sycamore when Maria disappeared shortly after 6. 

The cops caught up with John Tessier five days after Maria went missing. He said he knew the girls but insisted he knew nothing about the disappearance. The detectives then asked him about having sex with children. He admitted he had been involved in some “sex play” when he was younger, but not for the past several years, according to a probable-cause affidavit filed in Seattle. 

Another girl told investigators that Tessier had sexually abused her several times, and that he’d taken other girls into the attics of their homes, where he forced them to strip and touch each other sexually, according to the report. 

Tessier fit Cathy’s description, and his alleged behavior would have made him a prime suspect if not for the military-recruitment alibi. He’d had a physical in Chicago earlier that day, traveling there by government-issued train ticket. Doctors discovered a spot on his lung, he said, but he made it into the military anyway. 

Once the exam finished at noon, Tessier told agents, he walked around downtown Chicago, looking in on some burlesque shows before catching a 5:15 p.m. train back to Rockford. The 90-minute ride got him there at 6:45, he said, which put him in transit the whole time “Johnny” was giving Maria a piggyback ride. According to the story, Tessier then called his stepdad for a lift from a Rockford post office, went home, and made a date to meet his girlfriend later that night.

Decades later, the former girlfriend finally botched Tessier’s alibi. With news of the missing girl, she told police her parents didn’t let her out of the house that night. But at the time, investigators moved on from their search, and John Tessier went on to serve his country. He met a man in the Air Force named Ron Soden, who now lives in Tacoma, Wash., and spoke to The Daily Beast by telephone. Soden served with Tessier, whom he knew then as Jack David McCullough, because by that point he’d already changed his name. 

Soden doesn’t remember anything out of the ordinary about McCullough. “He was a little different, and I knew he wasn’t going to be able to make the Army a career,” Soden said. “He was a captain. He had a few problems in the military, but I don’t think anything that’s relative to what’s happening now. Something about the loss of a security document, which can be taboo for career military.” The two rode dirt bikes together, and their families would gather on occasion.

They kept in touch for a while, but the last time Soden spoke with McCullough was in 1977. McCullough had started a modeling agency in Tacoma, and he wanted Soden to start a talent agency in conjunction with the business.

“By the time I was ready to possibly do something, he and his wife at the time—she was the one putting in all the money—they got divorced,” said Soden. “That plan was out the window.”

Soden hasn’t spoken with McCullough since, but he did see him in the news after McCullough was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a teenage runaway in Pierce County, Wash., in 1984. McCullough was working as a police officer in Milton at the time, on a transfer from his first stint as a cop, in Lacey. He pleaded guilty to a charge of “unlawful communication” and lost his job. 

The next time Soden heard anything about him was this year, when authorities announced McCullough’s arrest in the Maria Ridulph case. 

“It was a total shock,” he said. “My wife and I both, as soon as we heard the name on the news, right away our ears perked up. It floored me.”

Investigators have been tight-lipped about what led them to reopen the case in 2008, but once they did, they re-interviewed Tessier’s former girlfriend, the one who said she hadn’t seen him the night Maria disappeared. Detectives asked if she had any photographs of her with him at the time. Even 50 years later, she did. When she went to pull the photo out of the picture frame it had sat in all that time, a train ticket fell out. It had a government stamp on it. Tessier had given the framed photograph to her all those years ago, she said. The date on the ticket: December 3, 1957. The same night Maria Ridulph disappeared. The train ticket was unused. 

While the agents did verify that Tessier made the collect call he said he did, the ticket blew a huge hole in his alibi. The detectives kept digging. 

Tessier’s sister Kathy told police at the time of the disappearance that Ralph Tessier had dropped her off at a 4H meeting that night in DeKalb, at about 7—another fact that didn’t match John Tessier’s story. She also said her brother owned a multicolored sweater that fit the description of the one Cathy Sigman said “Johnny” wore. His mother had hand-knitted it for him. After the night Maria Ridulph disappeared, Kathy never saw her brother wear the sweater again. 

Detectives also interviewed another of Tessier’s old friends, David Frederick. Frederick said he spotted Tessier’s car that day, a “very distinctive car,” and that he was surprised to see it, because he thought Tessier was supposed to be leaving town to enlist in the military. That was between 2 and 3 p.m., Frederick told police, when Tessier was supposedly in Chicago.

Frederick “couldn’t see who was driving,” according to the affidavit, but he added that Tessier never let anyone else drive his car.

Last September, detectives photocopied the pictures of five white males from an old high-school yearbook, all of about the same description. They took the copies to Cathy Sigman, Maria’s playmate from that day in 1957, and asked her to take a look.

“She immediately pointed to the photo of Tessier,” according to the affidavit, “and said ‘That’s him.’ She placed her hands over her head, let out a big breath, and then said, ‘To the best of my memory and recollection of that night, that’s him.’”

The detectives knew they were close. They interviewed Tessier’s sister Jan, who described an incident that took place when her brother was working as a police officer and the two got into a heated argument. John “took out his gun and laid it on the table,” according to the affidavit. “He told her he would kill her, and tell everyone that she ran away. He said he would dump her body where no one would ever find it.”

And they interviewed McCullough’s ex-wife, who said she married him after a three-month courtship. Not long afterward, he became emotionally abusive, she told police. McCullough ran his own photography business at that point, “though he seemed to make no money doing so,” according to the affidavit. “She said that he would frequently have what she described as ‘prostitutes’ come over to the house for photography. She said that he would frequently take nude photos of them.”

The ex-wife also said McCullough had once made sexually suggestive comments with a banana to her 11-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. 

Finally, police decided they were ready to talk to McCullough himself. He’s now 71 years old, and was working as a night watchman at a retirement home in Seattle, where he lived with his third wife. On June 17, Seattle homicide detective Michael Ciesynski went to McCullough’s apartment under a ruse. 

“Ciesynski saw a small child lying on a bed inside,” according to the affidavit. “He asked McCullough/Tessier if that was his daughter. McCullough/Tessier replied that it was his granddaughter.”

Twelve days later, detectives searched McCullough’s house and arrested him.

He’s now being held on a $3 million bond, on murder, kidnapping, and abduction charges, and will appear in court Monday. Maria Ridulph’s body was exhumed last month from a family plot in a Sycamore cemetery, and was examined by a team of more than a dozen scientists.

“I am convinced,” said DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell at a press conference last month, “that Jack McCullough killed Maria Ridulph.”

McCullough’s Illinois defense attorney declined to comment to The Daily Beast, but the suspect himself gave a jailhouse interview to the Associated Press last month. He said he was born in Belfast in 1939 and moved with his mother to England, where she took a job as a searchlight operator with the Royal Air Force. She claimed his father was killed in the war, but McCullough suspected he had abandoned the family. The two came to America in 1946, and he grew up in Sycamore. 

He suggested he may have been the one to prompt agents to reopen the case, claiming he’d called the FBI a few years back after a dream made him remember a boy who lived in the neighborhood at the time, who matched the description of the suspect. 

“I called the FBI,” McCullough told the AP. “They said ‘Thank you.’ And here I am.”

He insisted the train ticket proves nothing, that his father picked him up that day, that he has a “rock-solid alibi,” which could easily be confirmed by military personnel records at a National Archives repository in St. Louis. As it happens, McCullough’s file was destroyed in a fire in 1973.

A jury may soon decide just how rock-solid that half-century-old alibi really is.