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Witness: Memories strong in McCullough case

SYCAMORE – Seven-year-old Maria Ridulph was kidnapped almost 55 years ago, but Cheryl Crain said the day is as vivid in her memory as the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

As one of prosecutors’ first witnesses on Day One of the kidnapping and murder trial of Jack D. McCullough, Crain said she was with McCullough’s girlfriend Dec. 3, 1957, the evening Maria disappeared. The two were decorating the girlfriend’s father’s hobby shop in downtown Sycamore, and McCullough was supposed to pick them up afterward.

Crain, of Sycamore, said she never saw McCullough that night. Instead, Crain’s father took the girls home. Crain said she was then on “lockdown” in the days that followed, as people continued to search for Maria.

Prosecutors say McCullough, 72, of Seattle, is responsible for the disappearance and death of 7-year-old Maria, who was abducted from her Sycamore neighborhood. McCullough, formerly known as John Tessier, was arrested in July 2011 in Seattle.

Police have said they received new information on the case several years ago that led them to focus on McCullough, who lived near Ridulph in 1957. McCullough’s attorneys have said he was in Chicago and Rockford the day Maria disappeared.

During opening arguments, State’s Attorney Clay Campbell said McCullough didn’t join the search for Maria, when every man in town took part in looking for the little girl.

Maria’s remains were found in a wooded area of Jo Daviess County in April 1958; she was wearing only an open shirt and socks. An examination of her body determined she was stabbed in the throat at least three times, Campbell said.

One of McCullough’s attorneys, Robert Carlson with the public defender’s office, said the state had no eyewitnesses to Maria’s abduction, no murder weapon and no DNA evidence linking McCullough to the incident.

Maria’s older brother, Charles Ridulph, testified that Sycamore in 1957 was a safe town where everyone knew each other, and children frequently played at the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street, where Maria was last seen.

Ridulph said his sister was a smart, active, outgoing girl, the baby of the family who had the run of the house.

As he described the way Maria looked, Ridulph paused for a moment and became emotional. He said she was a beautiful girl, tall with dark hair, who always was smiling.

Ridulph said he remembered Maria’s friend, Kathy Sigman, coming to the home the evening of Dec. 3, 1957, and saying she couldn’t find Maria. The two had been playing at the corner of Archie and Center Cross, near their homes.

Ridulph and a friend then began to walk the neighborhood looking for his sister. He testified that police soon were notified of Maria’s disappearance; neighbors began to help the family search for the little girl.

“I don’t think I’d be exaggerating by saying there were nearly 100 people already [that night],” Ridulph said.

Searches continued the next day, with no sign of Maria, he said. He never saw his sister again. After her body was found, she was buried in May 1958, he said.

Seattle police Detective Irene Lau testified that McCullough referred to Maria during a June 2011 interview as stunningly beautiful, with big, brown eyes, and “lovely, lovely, lovely.” She said McCullough was angry about being interviewed, but his face softened as he spoke of Maria.

Also Monday, Kane County Associate Judge James Hallock granted two motions filed by the state, which sought a gag order so a jailhouse informant’s identity would not be released, and another asking that the informant be allowed to testify as a John Doe witness.

A letter from another inmate at the DeKalb County Jail sent to prosecutors claims McCullough approached him about intimidating or hurting Kirk Swaggerty, one of the state’s witnesses.

Swaggerty, who is imprisoned after being found guilty last year of murder and home invasion, has said he had a conversation with McCullough while in the county jail.

Prosecutor Julie Trevarthen said the informant, who will be called as a John Doe witness, has told authorities McCullough described kidnapping and killing Maria in great detail.

McCullough’s attorneys had asked Hallock to bar the state from calling the informant as a witness, but the judge denied that request.

McCullough was indicted Aug. 19, 2011, by a grand jury on charges of murder, kidnapping and abduction of an infant. The charges are based on laws as they were written in 1957.

The trial is scheduled to resume today.

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