SYCAMORE – Loud cheers erupted from the courtroom gallery Friday as a judge found Jack D. McCullough guilty.
McCullough, 72, was convicted of murder, kidnapping and abduction of an infant in the Dec. 3, 1957, disappearance and death of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph of Sycamore, who was abducted from the corner of Center Cross Street and Archie Place, just a few doors from her home.
McCullough showed no emotion as Kane County Associate Judge James Hallock delivered his verdict at the DeKalb County Courthouse. Sentencing is set for Nov. 30.
After an hour and a half of closing arguments, Hallock gave his verdict, saying he found the state’s witnesses – including jail inmates, Maria’s childhood friend and a forensic anthropologist – credible.
Memories are clouded with the passage of time, he said, “but that’s to be expected after these many years.”
McCullough was known as John Tessier in 1957 when Maria was taken, but his half-sisters provided key testimony for the prosecution.
Prosecutors and investigators hugged members of the Tessier and Ridulph families, who were elated with the verdict.
Many of the courtroom seats were filled by family members and spectators during the week-long trial; on Friday, it was standing-room only.
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell said after the verdict that he wouldn’t speculate on sentencing at this point, but said McCullough can choose whether to be sentenced under 1957 or current-day statutes.
During closing arguments Friday morning, prosecutors recounted the events of Dec. 3, 1957, when Maria and her friend, Kathy Chapman, were playing on the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street.
A man named Johnny approached the girls and talked to them about dolls and offered piggyback rides.
“These are things little girls, not grown men, like to discuss,” said Prosecutor Victor Escarcida.
At one point, Chapman went home to get her mittens. When she returned, Maria and the man were gone. Prosecutors said McCullough kidnapped her, killed her and dumped her body in a wooded area off Route 20 in Jo Daviess County.
Escarcida said Maria never got to see eight candles on her birthday cake and never enjoyed a full life.
“Judge, this is an angel,” Escarcida said while holding up a photo of Maria.
“This is murder,” he said while holding another photo of her remains, discovered in April 1958. ... It is never too late for justice,” Escarcida said.
Interim Public Defender Tom McCulloch questioned the state’s “buffet-style approach” to Maria’s cause of death, with witnesses offering multiple choices for how McCullough was said to have killed Maria, including suffocation, strangulation or stabbing.
McCulloch challenged the credibility of the jailhouse inmates who testified this week and claimed McCullough shared with them details of Maria’s death and the case against him.
McCulloch also questioned whether Chapman’s identification of McCullough in a photo lineup could carry much weight, as it came decades after she saw the man named Johnny approach her and her friend.
“Why is it that 50 years later, this process becomes more accurate or reliable?” McCulloch asked.
He said there were too many missing or broken links in the state’s story, with “stupid” claims from jail inmates and contradicting accounts from Tessier’s sisters regarding their mother’s statement before her death.
McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, testified that their mother, Eileen, implicated McCullough in 1994.
“She grabbed my wrist and said, ‘Those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it,’ ” Janet Tessier said. “ ‘You’ve got to tell somebody.’ ”
Prosecutor Julie Trevarthen brought up the difference between describing a face and recognizing one, which is what Chapman was able to do so many years later.
“Kathy waited over 50 years to have the answer to that multiple choice question put in front of her,” Trevarthen said.
As for the testimony from jail inmates Christopher Diaz, Kirk Swaggerty and an anonymous John Doe witness, she said McCullough chose those witnesses, not the state.
“Crimes conceived in hell don’t have angels as witnesses,” Trevarthen said.
For their testimony to be false, she added, the three would have to have telepathy to share some of the same details because all three men were never together.
“Today isn’t about the defendant,” she said in closing. “Today is about Maria.”
The defense’s case was brief during the five-day bench trial, as McCullough did not take the stand in his defense. There were only three witnesses, including one of McCullough’s half-sisters, Mary Hunt, who was very short with the defense when questioned.
Arguing what was largely a circumstantial case with no DNA evidence, the prosecution rested its case Thursday morning.
Witnesses testified that they did not recall seeing McCullough in Sycamore around the time Maria disappeared, although most people in town were searching for her.
Maria’s brother, Charles Ridulph, provided emotional testimony Monday as the state’s first witness. Ridulph described his younger sister, the neighborhood where the family lived and the searches that ensued after Maria went missing Dec. 3, 1957.
Forensic anthropologist Krista Latham testified that three deep cuts to bones of Maria’s throat and chest area looked to have been made by a knife blade.