Unused train ticket cracks alibi of Seattle man accused of killing Maria Ridulph
SYCAMORE – It was an unused train ticket – tucked behind an old photograph of the suspect – that authorities say helped them charge a Seattle man with the 1957 kidnapping and murder of a Sycamore girl.
The accused – former police officer Jack Daniel McCullough – lived just a few blocks from the family of Maria Ridulph in 1957 and was known at the time as John Tessier. He was a suspect at that time, was questioned days after 7-year-old Maria disappeared Dec. 3, 1957, and, according to court documents, has been accused of sexually abusing children in the past.
He had an alibi in 1957, but Sycamore Police Chief Don Thomas said authorities recently received new information that caused them to focus on McCullough. One of the people they re-interviewed in 2010 was a former girlfriend of the suspect.
When detectives asked her about a photograph of her and John Tessier, she retrieved it from a photo in a frame, according to the statement of probable cause filed in
King County Court in Washington state, which is posted on the website of the Seattle Times.
When she pulled the photo out, she found an unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago that McCullough had given her from the day Maria disappeared.
“That was one of the things that reopened the case,” Thomas said.
McCullough, 71, was arrested Wednesday and charged with kidnapping and killing Maria Ridulph. He is being held on $3 million bond.
A hearing scheduled for Saturday was reset for today after McCullough was taken to a hospital. Details of why he went to the hospital are not clear. Illinois authorities are expected to ask that he be extradited to the state.
Dec. 3, 1957
The train ticket contradicted the whereabouts of McCullough at the time Maria disappeared. McCullough, then John Tessier, told authorities in 1957 he had been in Chicago and Rockford while trying to enlist in the military.
But authorities now believe that shortly after 6 p.m. on Dec. 3, 1957, he was near the corner of Center Cross Street and Archie Place in Sycamore, where Maria Ridulph and her best friend, Kathy Sigman, 8, were playing near their homes.
The pair were enjoying the first snowfall of the year, Kathy Sigman – now Kathy Chapman – recalled Sunday during an interview at her St. Charles home. It was a safe neighborhood, Chapman said of Sycamore in 1957, and neither of them nor their parents could have dreamed of the horror that began that day.
The girls were approached by a man wearing a multicolored sweater who called himself Johnny and asked if they wanted a piggyback ride, according to court documents. Maria said she did, and Johnny gave her a ride. Johnny asked the girls if they had dolls; Maria said she did and went to her home to get one.
Kathy, who is listed in court documents as Cathy Sigman, reported that when she was alone with Johnny, he touched her arm and thigh and told her something about being pretty, according to court documents. Once Maria came back carrying her doll, Chapman went home to get mittens. When she returned, Maria and Johnny were gone.
Worried, Chapman said she alerted Maria’s mother, who Chapman said assumed her daughter was playing hide-and-seek. Once Chapman reported the disappearance a second time, a massive search began involving police and local residents that continued into the next morning. The FBI became involved within a few days, assisting in the investigation and conducting witness interviews, according to court documents.
Maria’s skeletal remains were found April 26, 1958, in rural Jo Daviess County by a couple looking for mushrooms. They were so badly decomposed that a cause of death could not be determined, but authorities said it was foul play.
Chapman remembers an FBI and police presence after her friend’s disappearance and said her parents became more protective. She wasn’t even allowed to cross the street to her school alone anymore, she said.
“It changed my life forever,” Chapman said. “My childhood was never the same since.”
Suspect interviewed in 1957
On Dec. 6, 1957, an anonymous caller to the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office said a boy named “Treschner,” about 20 years old, lived in the neighborhood and matched Johnny’s description, according to the court documents. Deputies found that “Treschner” was John Tessier, who lived at 227 Center Cross St., close to where Maria disappeared.
FBI agents made contact with Ralph Tessier, John Tessier’s stepfather, who said the family was worried 18-year-old John Tessier may be a suspect because he matched the description given by Chapman, according to court documents. His parents told the agent John Tessier had been at a military recruiting station in Rockford the night Maria disappeared.
Ralph Tessier claimed he received a collect phone call from John Tessier about 7:10 p.m. that night from Rockford, according to court documents. Agents interviewed John Tessier on Dec. 8, 1957. He said he had no knowledge about Maria’s disappearance, but said he knew both the girls.
He told agents that on Dec. 3, 1957, he was trying to enlist in the Army and had been in Rockford. He said he had gone to Chicago to take a physical exam and had been given a train ticket from Rockford to Chicago.
John Tessier said he was given a slip of paper to take to his recruiter in Rockford after he was dismissed from his exam by noon, according to court documents. He claimed he went to several burlesque shows in Chicago before getting a 5:15 p.m. train to Rockford.
The train arrived at 6:45 p.m., but the recruiting office was closed, according to court documents. He told authorities he made a collect call to his stepfather to be picked up, then said he called his girlfriend at the time and made a date for about 9 p.m.
Others disagreed that he wasn’t in Sycamore that day. According to court documents, a friend of John Tessier was interviewed in 2010 and remembers seeing Tessier’s distinctive car being driven in the city between 2-3 p.m. on the day Maria disappeared. While the friend could not tell who was driving the vehicle, he told authorities Tessier never let anyone else drive the vehicle.
His then-girlfriend told police she didn’t remember seeing Tessier that night because her parents wouldn’t let her out of the house because of the kidnapping, according to court documents.
Tessier also told authorities he helped search for Maria the night she disappeared, as well as searched the next day for her with a friend. When interviewed in 2010, that friend told authorities he did not remember seeing Tessier that day while he took part in the search.
Piecing case together
Shortly after the disappearance, Tessier left Sycamore after being accepted into the Air Force, according to court documents. He changed his name to Jack Daniel McCullough, and was eventually transferred to the Army. After getting out of the Army, he was hired by the Lacey Police Department in Washington and later transferred to the Milton Police Department.
After the investigation resumed, Thomas said several interviews were done, including John Tessier’s sister, listed in court documents as Kathy. She told them the night Maria disappeared, she had a 4-H meeting and that Ralph Tessier dropped her off at the meeting, which was in DeKalb, about 7 p.m., according to court documents. Her father picked her up an hour later, which would not have allowed him to drive to Rockford to pick up John, authorities say.
The sister also remembered John Tessier having a multicolored sweater – hand-knitted by their mother – that he often wore, according to the court documents. But she doesn’t recall ever seeing it again after Maria disappeared.
The court documents also allege that as a teenager, John Tessier sexually abused several girls in the Sycamore area. Court documents also show he admitted when questioned in 1957 that he had engaged in “sex play” with a girl when he was younger, as well as claims from a girl that he “habitually molested her outdoors behind tall bushes,” according to the affidavit.
That same girl reportedly told authorities that McCullough was “doing that to other neighborhood girls as well, because he would bring her along to act as a lookout while he did so,” according to court documents.
The Seattle Times blacked out what appears to be several names, calling it “sensitive information,” in the court documents posted on the newspaper’s website. Attempts Sunday by the Daily Chronicle to get unchanged court documents were unsuccessful.
McCullough also was accused in 1983 of sexually assaulting a runaway girl in Washington. McCullough was arrested and charged in Pierce County, Wash., for that crime, according to court documents, and eventually pleaded to an unlawful communication charge and was fired from the Milton Police Department.
Other allegations of abuse are included in the court documents, including being emotionally abusive to a former wife, of having prostitutes coming over to the house that he would photograph naked and making sexually suggestive comments to a young female family member.
The reinvigorated investigation, led by the Illinois State Police, caused authorities to talk in September to Chapman. She said they showed her a photo montage of images from an old high school yearbook.
“She immediately pointed to the photo of Tessier, 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,’ “ according to court documents.
Authorities received a warrant for McCullough’s residence in Seattle on Wednesday and arrested him, according to court documents. During the course of an interview, he made statements about the incident that were inconsistent with statements he had made about the incident.
When contacted by telephone, Kathleen Tessier – sister-in-law of McCullough from Cadiz, Ky. – said she and her husband, Bob – McCullough’s younger brother – had no comment.
Family stunned by news
Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy remembers the 1957 crime as one that shocked the community. He was 11 when Maria was kidnapped – the same age as Maria’s brother, Charles Ridulph. Mundy said he’s been in touch with the family members, offering comfort as they relive the painful details of the decadesold case.
“I said to [Charles], hopefully this is the right suspect so you and your family will never have to reopen these wounds again,” he said. “... It’s hard for a family, even if it was decades ago.”
Outside his home Sunday in unincorporated Sycamore, Lawrence Hickey Jr. – son of Maria’s older sister, Kay – declined to comment. Charles Ridulph has also declined to comment to the Daily Chronicle, but in a Saturday interview with The Associated Press, he said he assumed the person who took his sister was a stranger and likely was dead or in prison for another crime.
Charles Ridulph said he was stunned by the news that a neighbor has been accused of the crime. With McCullough’s arrest, he worries about a drawn-out legal process that will dredge up bad memories but also perhaps answer some nagging, stomach-churning questions about what happened to the little girl.
“I just can’t believe that after all these years they’d be able to find this guy,” Charles Ridulph told The Associated Press.
Chapman didn’t know until news of McCullough’s arrest Friday that she had chosen the right photo in September.
“I had high hopes, but I never thought it would come to this,” she said of the arrest.
The news is still soaking in, she said. To find out it was someone she knew is difficult to believe, she said.
She’s also learned something that has lessened her survivor’s guilt: She wasn’t his target.
“It was always Maria,” she said.
• Daily Chronicle reporters Caitlin Mullen and Nicole Weskerna, Shaw Suburban Media reporter Ashley Rhodebeck and The Associated Press contributed to this report.