Editor's note: This article was first published Dec. 6, 2007, marking the 50 years since Maria Ridulph had been abducted.
The older Charles Ridulph gets, the more he thinks about what his sister, Maria , could have been.
“She was a beautiful girl, athletic, gifted, smart,” he said.
“She would have been something.”
Maria Ridulph remains 7 years old in the minds of many Sycamore residents. That's the age Maria - 44 inches tall, 53 pounds, with dark brown hair - was when she was abducted 50 years ago this week from the corner of Center Cross Street and Archie Place, just yards away from her family's home.
The intense searching that ensued would last weeks and leave no stone unturned in DeKalb County. The search would end in April 1958, when Maria 's body was found in Jo Daviess County.
The questions - who and why - raised by the incident remain. Also abiding, in part, is the way law enforcement officials investigate non-family kidnappings. Technology helps, but the basic investigation skills are the same, area law enforcement officials said.
What has changed, in some ways, is the way children are raised - in fear. For Sycamore, and DeKalb County, some of the innocence and trust of childhood died Dec. 3, 1957.
“The feeling of urgency hasn't changed for officers,” DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said of kidnapping cases. “When you got the calls then, it's the same awful feeling as you'd get today. It's the worst kind of call, then and now.”
Fifty years ago, that call came at least an hour after Maria was last seen. She and a friend, Cathy, were playing around 7 p.m. on the street they both lived on.
The first three hours after an abduction are the most crucial, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, because 76.2 percent of abducted children who are murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction.
Of course, times were different then. Everyone knew everyone in Sycamore, a city of about 6,500. People left the keys in their cars at night and their front doors unlocked, Charles Ridulph said.
It was perfectly acceptable for kids to throw a jacket on and head outside, even at night. The community was home.
“This was a place you felt perfectly comfortable playing up and down the street with other kids,” said Phyllis Kelley, a county historian at the Joiner History Room in Sycamore who lived in DeKalb 50 years ago. “You didn't think it could happen here.”
What happened that night has been pieced together by police from statements given by Cathy and the little evidence found.
The girls are believed to have been playing a game near the street. It is assumed a truck driver went by, saw the girls, went around the block, parked and walked to the girls.
He introduced himself as “Johnny” and asked them if they wanted piggyback rides. He asked Maria if she had any dollies, and she ran home to get one. When she returned, Cathy went to her home to get her mittens.
When Cathy returned, the man and Maria were gone. Cathy went to Maria 's house and asked where Maria was. Charles Ridulph , who was 11 at the time, thought his sister must have gone to another friend's house to play.
He wasn't alarmed until they couldn't find her, and Cathy mentioned the man. The doll was found in the backyard between where the girls had been playing and where it is assumed the stranger's vehicle was parked.
“Everybody that came into the store was talking about it,” said Kelley, who worked at the time at the Kroger's store on Sycamore Road, where The Salvation Army resale shop now stands. “It was every mother's worst nightmare. All you could think of was, ‘What if that had been my little girl?' People didn't want to let their kids outside.”
Charles Ridulph remembers that the high school was let out so students could search for his sister. Police stopped adults in the street, asking where they were coming from and where they had been. Sycamore's Sportsmen's Lake was drained and dredged. And the community came together to support his family and search for his sister.
Maria was on the front page of local newspapers for months. Papers reported about the search for evidence, how 50 FBI agents were assisting, how Sycamore churches offered prayers Sundays for her safe return.
It ended 144 days after the abduction. Her body was found on Route 20 near Galena by a couple hunting for mushrooms. An autopsy found the most likely cause of death to be suffocation.
Her case is considered closed but not solved.
While Hollywood may produce tense programs about stranger abductions, and the ones that do occur are splashed on TV and in newspapers, an abduction by a stranger is actually rare, Genoa Police Chief Patrick Solar said. In DeKalb County, there is only one other abduction by a non-family member that area law enforcement officials know of during the past 50 years.
In 1999, about 797,500 children younger than 18 were reported missing in the U.S., according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Just 115 were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as crimes involving someone the child doesn't know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom or intends to keep the child permanently.
Law enforcement officials share information differently now from how it was 50 years ago, Sycamore Police Chief Don Thomas said. Technology has made it possible to communicate with other law enforcement officials in nearby towns, cities and counties, as well as state police, within minutes of an abduction being reported.
Amber Alerts have taken the process a step further, broadcasting relevant information, such as descriptions of vehicles or suspects, to the public quickly as well. Advances in technology allow police to match DNA or fingerprints to suspects.
But a lot of the time it comes down to basic police work, Scott said.
He knows. In 1985, just a few months after he became sheriff, he investigated the kidnapping of 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman from Somonauk. Her body was found about two weeks later in LaSalle County.
In the Ackerman case, a sharp Mendota beat officer saw the suspect's vehicle within two hours of the abduction and wrote down the license plate number. While there was no reason to hold the suspect then, that information led to his arrest later, Scott said. The suspect was later convicted in her death.
Trying for closure
There was no such closure for those affected by Maria 's death.
“It was said later that it was a good thing that this guy was never found,” Charles Ridulph said. “There was a lot of anger, that this terrible thing could happen.”
Solar started his work on the Maria Ridulph case in 1982, when he was with the Sycamore Police Department. A woman came into the office, convinced she knew who committed the crime.
The police department didn't have any case files on it, so he started compiling one, contacting the FBI and Illinois State Police to get what he could. Over the years, about a half-dozen others would come in and offer suggestions as to the perpetrator, and the file was a way to track whom had already been looked at. Solar also hoped to bring some closure to the family.
Solar entered all the case information into an FBI database in 1982 that was used to look for patterns in unsolved cases.
In 1996, he got a call. The FBI had a link between the Ridulph case and one in Pennsylvania. An 8-year-old girl had been abducted, sexually assaulted and strangled. A cold-case detective there used fingerprints to link that case to William Redmond, a truck driver.
Redmond, who died in 1992, roughly matched the description given by Cathy of “Johnny,” and his behavior almost “precisely matched” that of the unknown assailant, Solar said, as did his height, age, tattoos and missing teeth.
Solar considers him the best suspect in Maria 's kidnapping. Her case is closed but not solved, he said.
“All I can say about Redmond is, if he was still alive today, could we convict him of this crime?” Solar said during an interview in his Genoa office last week. “No. It's marginalist whether or not if we could indict him. Absent of admission of doing this, which he wouldn't do, it's doubtful we could go anywhere with this. But it's certainly circumstantial.”
The person responsible is probably either dead or in jail, Charles Ridulph believes, adding he's not sure if Solar's suspect is the guy. The description was based on the observations of an 8-year-old girl, he noted, which could be inaccurate.
Even in the first days, and even though it was never verbally said, Charles Ridulph didn't think there was an expectancy his sister would be found alive. The family tried to go on with life, attending church and going to school. Christmas went on in the family, although Maria 's gift remained unopened. When she was found, Charles was on a camping trip with the Boy Scouts and a sister was at a dance.
“Things were going on as usual, but there was an empty there, a missing of her,” he said.
He would hope, if today's technology had existed a half-century ago, that DNA could have been found on Maria 's doll and used to find the man responsible.
He's seen firsthand the changes in child-rearing during the past 50 years, especially in the way parents keep tabs on their kids.
“They fear these things, they are afraid to let their kids out of their sight at the grocery store, on the playground,” he said. “We used to wander the streets along, the whole town, by ourselves."