SYCAMORE – Charles Ridulph is asked almost daily whether he is the brother of the little girl who disappeared more than 50 years ago.
People often approach Ridulph to tell him how his younger sister’s 1957 kidnapping and death changed their lives in quiet Sycamore, that parents became much more watchful and protective of their children after her disappearance.
Although longtime residents never have forgotten 7-year-old Maria or the events surrounding her kidnapping and slaying, for the Ridulph family, the incident has been more than simply a tragic event.
“It has helped mold who we are, and who we’re even seen as,” said Charles Ridulph, who was 11 when his younger sister was taken.
On Monday, more than 50 years after Maria’s death, a Seattle man and former Sycamore resident will begin trial on charges of abducting and murdering her.
Jack D. McCullough, 72, was arrested last summer and has been housed at the DeKalb County Jail since that time.
“It’s been a very difficult time for us, and we will be glad when this is all brought to a conclusion,” Ridulph said.
It was shortly after 6 p.m. Dec. 3, 1957, when Maria Ridulph and a friend were playing at the corner of Center Cross Street and Archie Place near their homes in Sycamore.
A man who identified himself as “Johnny” approached them and asked whether they wanted piggyback rides, according to court documents.
Maria said she did, and the man gave her one. The man then asked the girls whether they had dolls and Maria went home to retrieve one.
After Maria returned with a doll, her friend went home to get some mittens. When the friend returned, Maria and the man were gone.
After Maria went missing, extensive searches were launched; then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Dwight Eisenhower requested daily updates on the case.
Five months later, her skeletal remains were found along Route 20 in rural Jo Daviess County by a couple looking for mushrooms.
The remains were so badly decomposed that a cause of death could not be determined, but authorities said it was foul play.
New information received in recent years, including an unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago that McCullough gave a former girlfriend with the date of the abduction on it, has led authorities to reopen the case and re-interview several people.
McCullough, formerly known as John Tessier, was arrested July 1, 2011, in Washington. He also was charged with an unrelated rape, and after an April bench trial was found not guilty in that case.
He has pleaded not guilty to the murder and abduction charges and has said he was in Chicago and Rockford at the time Maria disappeared. A judge recently decided that McCullough’s attorneys cannot not use FBI records from that time as evidence of his alibi.
The older a case, the more difficult it can be for attorneys, said DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell. The arguments that have been made and motions filed in this case are rare, he said. Memories may have faded, potential witnesses have died.
“Obviously, the challenges are self-evident in these cases,” he said. “You know, how often do you have arguments over 55-year-old FBI records?”
Prosecutors’ case is largely circumstantial, meaning the judge will be asked to draw conclusions based on what attorneys present.
Len Cavise, a law professor at DePaul University, said cold cases are problematic not only in terms of who is alive and able to testify, but also because evidence has aged.
DNA evidence wasn’t available in the 1950s, and testing done now on old items or remains might not be the most reliable, he said.
Maria’s remains were exhumed from a Sycamore cemetery in July 2011 as prosecutors searched for DNA evidence; her remains recently were returned to her family and reburied.
Most criminal cases go to trial based on circumstantial evidence, Cavise said. What varies is the amount and quality of circumstantial evidence.
Attorneys have said McCullough’s trial could last at least a week.
“We continue to work, really, around the clock to be prepared Monday morning,” Campbell said.
McCullough’s attorney, Tom McCulloch, said he finds the case interesting and challenging. McCulloch took over the case after being named interim public defender to fill the vacancy left by Regina Harris, who resigned in June.
“I can’t imagine any other case like it,” he said.
McCulloch said Ridulph’s family members are entitled to their grief. It’s his job to try the case in court, he said, and defense attorneys believe the state’s case isn’t a very strong one.
Yearning for truth
Ridulph doesn’t think much about what his sister would be like had she lived to become the 62-year-old woman she would be today. He prefers to keep her in his memory as she was.
“It’s hard for me to even grasp how old she’d be, because I still see her as she was,” he said.
Maria’s disappearance and death at such a young age had a profound effect on the family, said Ridulph, who cared for his mother as she aged.
“Even after all these years, Maria was foremost in her mind,” he recalled of his mother. Ridulph said his own daughter, Diane, has called him overprotective.
Since McCullough’s July 2011 arrest, thoughts of his sister have been overwhelming, Ridulph said.
“People talk about closure, but I don’t buy into the whole closure thing,” he said. “We will certainly be glad when this thing is behind us, but it doesn’t change what happened.”
Faith has carried the family through it all. Although some have questioned the need for such an old case to be re-opened, Ridulph called those comments foolish and said he feels the case must go to trial.
“This is not about revenge by any means,” he said. “It’s about the truth finally, finally, being revealed, as much as it can be.”
Who was Maria Ridulph?
Charles Ridulph said his sister, Maria, was a tomboy but also liked girly activities, such as playing with dolls, tea sets and her toy electric oven.
He said his sister was smart and athletic, and a very gifted child.
"And she had to be tough, 'cause I was picking on her all the time," Ridulph said fondly. The two were four years apart, but still very close, he said.
Maria loved Sunday school and learning about Jesus, he said. The plaque outside the Sycamore Police Department, showing Jesus Christ with his arms around young children, "depicts who she was," Ridulph said.
The picture of a child with her Savior, "that's Maria," he said.
Typically, Ridulph said, a younger sibling is referred to as "so and so's little sister." But since Maria's disappearance, Ridulph and his siblings became known as her older brother and sisters.
"What I wouldn't give to hear somebody say, 'That's Chuck's little sister,' " Ridulph said.
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