Seattle man arrested in 54-year-old Sycamore murder case hospitalized, officials say

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeSycamoreSeattleHomicideKidnapping

Jack Daniel McCullough, the Seattle man recently arrested on charges that he kidnapped and murdered a 7-year-old Sycamore, Ill., girl in 1957, was hospitalized Saturday for undisclosed reasons.

McCullough, 71, was scheduled to appear Saturday in a King County, Wash., district court on charges that he killed Maria Ridulph, whose skeletal remains were found near a railroad overpass about 100 miles west of Sycamore five months after she had been kidnapped.

The 54-year-old murder case, which devastated the northern Illinois town and drew attention from President Dwight Eisenhower, was revived last week when police acting on new information arrested McCullough at his Seattle home.

The kidnapping happened Dec. 3, 1957. That evening, Maria and her 8-year-old friend, Kathy Sigman, were playing in their Sycamore neighborhood when a young man who said his name was Johnny approached and offered a piggyback ride.

Kathy, whose married name is now Chapman, went to fetch her mittens. When she returned, the man and Maria were gone.

What followed was a massive search, drawing as many as 2,000 people, with crews pumping a nearby man-made lake empty and 20 scuba divers looking for Maria's body in a water-filled gravel pit.

McCullough — who had been known as John Tessier before he changed his name — was an early suspect before the case went cold.

Chapman and an ex-girlfriend of Tessier's provided detectives with key evidence that undermined his alibi 54 years ago. They also recently led detectives back to the ex-police officer who was now working as a night watchman at a north Seattle nursing home.

Awaiting extradition to Illinois on murder and fugitive charges, McCullough is being held in King County, where a judge there rescheduled his bail hearing for Monday.

Chapman, now living in St. Charles, said she was "elated" by the arrest.

"He didn't get away with it," she said, "and nobody gave up on it. That's the good thing about it."

"I always thought about why Maria was chosen and I wasn't," Chapman said. "He took away my best friend."

Interviews with law enforcement officials and a probable cause affidavit posted on the Seattle Times website show how close authorities were to arresting John Tessier, and how deftly he avoided being caught.

The DeKalb County sheriff's police got an anonymous tip three days after she went missing that led them to Tessier, who lived nearby, according to the affidavit.

He told investigators that he knew Maria, but that he had nothing to do with her disappearance, the affidavit states.

Tessier told police he participated in what was a frantic search for Maria on the night of her disappearance and the next day, according to the affidavit.

But another man whom Tessier said he was with in those searches called him a liar, saying he did not see Tessier on either of those days.

Tessier also told police that on the day of Maria's disappearance, he went to Rockford to try to enlist in the Army, taking a train to Chicago for a physical exam and returning to Sycamore after 9 p.m. that day.

That alibi allowed Tessier to leave Sycamore when he was accepted into the Air Force and later changed his name, according to the affidavit.

After the Air Force, McCullough worked as a police officer in a Washington town until the mid-1980s, when he was arrested and later convicted for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, Sycamore Police Chief Donald Thomas said.

McCullough's train alibi fell apart in 2010, when a woman he dated in 1957 was approached by police who were again looking into the slaying. While digging up an old photo of Tessier for investigators, the ex-girlfriend stumbled on an unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago on the date of the crime, authorities said.

That eventually led authorities to McCullough's door, Thomas said.

Through follow-up interviews, including with McCullough, "we were able to determine he was the person who had killed Maria Ridulph," said Thomas, whose department cooperated with Illinois State Police and the Seattle Police Department in the renewed effort.

Thomas declined to say whether McCullough confessed. He also said DNA played no role in the case.

Chapman said authorities approached her last year with a photo lineup that included a picture of McCullough when he was about 18 years old. She said she pointed to him as the young man who approached Maria and her that winter day.

The arrest has stirred up chilling memories among current and former Sycamore residents.

James Cliffe was 12 years old when Maria disappeared. On Saturday, he said Tessier would ask neighborhood kids to pose for photographs for him as they walked by his house.

"He said he was an artist or something," Cliffe said, calling Tessier "a weird duck."

As the days went by with no sign of Maria, tension mounted in Sycamore, Cliffe recalled.

"I remember driving around town with my dad, and there were people going door to door like vigilantes, demanding to be let in to search neighbors' houses," he said.

In Seattle on Saturday, four family members of McCullough's attended a court hearing that, in his absence, authorized the murder charges levied against him. None of them spoke in court, but outside the courthouse a man who identified himself as a friend of the family said McCullough had triple bypass surgery a few years ago.

After learning of his arrest, McCullough's stepdaughter Janey O'Connor said she grieved for Maria's family, but added that McCullough had been "an outstanding father and amazing grandfather for the 23 years I've known him."

'He's just your average guy … just an optimistic life-works-out kind of person," said O'Connor, who lives in the Seattle area.

McCullough's niece, Jenn Howton, was in shock after learning that her favorite uncle had been arrested.

She acknowledged that "other people have said crazy things about his past, but I never saw it."

"I was alone with him umpteen-million times," Howton said. "Never was he inappropriate in any way."

In Sycamore, Charles Ridulph, Maria's older brother, said he and his family were worried about having to relive the crime that took away their sibling, he said. Maria's parents, Michael and Frances Ridulph, are both deceased.

"They don't have to live through this," Charles Ridulph said. 'We struggled with this so long, but now it is happening all over again."

Reuters and Tribune reporters John Byrne, Art Barnum, Joe Mahr and John Hector contributed.

tgregory@tribune.com

mwalberg@tribune.com

cgutowksi@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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