TRUE CRIME: The Oldest “Solved” Cold Case and How It Went Unsolved Again
It was December 3rd 1957 when seven-year-old Maria Ridulph went missing on a street corner in Sycamore, Illinois and five months later Maria’s remains were found 100 miles from Sycamore in Woodbine, Illinois. It wouldn’t be until more than 50 years later that the case had what was initially thought of as closure — this turned out to be false closure.
The case was seemingly solved in September 2012 when the police would convict a murderer for the abduction and murder of Maria. This would then be overturned in March 2016 and Maria’s neighbor Jack McCullough would be declared an innocent man in April 2017.
To date the murder remains unsolved and the mystery of Maria Ridulph continues to baffle the Chicago area…
It will more than likely forever be a cold case.
A Piggyback Ride
Seven-year old Maria Ridulph was playing with best-friend Kathy on the first snowfall of the year; when a mysterious man offered Maria a piggyback ride…
Maria’s friend Kathy was the last to see Maria Ridulph alive and the last she saw of Maria was a strange man hoisting her on his back and trotting off down the street. Kathy had gone inside to get some gloves to fight against the harsh cold and when she came back outside on the street, both the man and Maria were gone.
Kathy afterwards went to the Ridulph house to tell them that Maria was missing. Initially the family thought that Maria was hiding and sent Maria’s older brother Charles out to search for her.
It was an hour later that the Ridulph family realized that something was up, and the police were notified beginning a police search and the FBI being called in. Soon, it seemed like the whole of Illinois was searching for the missing seven-year old.
And while Kathy was elated some 54 years later at the news that the man was finally apprehended, she must now continue with the inner torment that she watched someone in plain sight “take away my best friend”. At the time of the abduction the sun was setting, and it was near dark as the two girls were playing “duck the cars.” Investigators pin this time down as around 6.30 pm.
The man was called “Johnny” (or so he told the little girls).
According to Kathy; “Johnny” was 24 and not married. Kathy stated that “Johnny” had blonde hair, bad teeth and a high-pitched voice.
John Tessier in circa 1955
Going back to a time before Amber alerts and faces on the back of milk carts, the search for Maria had even caught the attention of FBI Chief J Edgar Hoover, USA President Eisenhower and garnered national media attention — somewhat unprecedented in those days for a missing child (at least in comparison to today). There were various public appeals from the Ridulph family and widespread investigations across Illinois which including all known sex offenders, transients and another man that had previously offered piggyback rides to children.
Maria was later found by mushroom-picking tourists almost half a year after that fateful piggyback ride; Maria was found wearing a shirt, undershirt and socks. At this point Maria was decomposed and skeletal. Maria had to be identified by her parents because of her familiar brown-socks.
It was not until 50 years later that an autopsy could determine the cause of death as being that of Maria being stabbed in the throat various times.
John Tessier was at the top of the suspect list from the very beginning of Maria’s disappearance.
A neighbour of the Ridulph family, and one of seven children, John was considered an outsider and had been described as “creepy” by the community. In 1957 Tessier passed a lie detector test and the file was closed with the report noting: “No further investigation is being conducted regarding the above suspect.”
At the time the police did not have a schoolbook photograph and therefore Kathy was not asked to identify John Tessier.
That’s The Man
John was born in Northern Ireland in 1939 to a British sergeant — John moved to the USA at the age of seven and grew up in Illinois. Between the Maria case, John lived a fairly quiet life. Serving in the military for thirteen years where he rose to the rank of captain, he was also a police officer and worked in security. It was in 1982 where John first fell afoul of the law when he was charged with statutory rape which was later down graded into a misdemeanor.
In 1994 John Tessier changed his name to Jack McCullough. Apparently a tribute to his deceased mother.
The case was actually re-opened as a result of John’s own mother who believed John to be guilty. Eileen Tessier said in 1994, while on her deathbed, that John had killed a number of little girls and asked John’s half sister Janet to tell someone. Another of John’s sisters Mary confirmed that she had heard her mother say: “He did it”.
John however had a fragmented and broken relationship with his mother, which includes incidents of threatening and violent behavior from the mother and John had chosen not to attend her funeral when she died. There is every possibility that the “confession” was made by John’s mother out of either spite or in a drug-induced delirium.
Janet in the meantime had made multiple attempts to get law enforcement to investigate her own half-brother, constantly contacting state police to look into John.
It wasn’t until 2008; when Janet sent a lengthy email to the Illinois State Police did, they decide to re-open the cold case.
State Police reviewed the evidence and found testimony from neighbors of John’s seemingly erratic and strange behavior around young girls (which included giving another young girl a piggyback and refusing to put the girl back down); which probably did not sit well next to the previous conviction and rape charges. John is just one of the many “outsiders” targeted by law enforcement as a perfect suspect. That being said; there were definite factors that could have had John fingered.
Everything seemed to go against John upon the re-opening of the case when Kathy personally picked out John from a picture line up and stated: “that’s the man”.
Despite all of this, John had a strong alibi. John Tessier was enlisting in the United States Airforce in Rockford, Illinois on the day in question.
It was confirmed by recruitment officers that they had spoken with John at that time. A collect call was traced in Rockford, Illinois which was 40 miles from the abduction site and an unused train ticket to Rockford was found in John’s possession.
The timeline recommended by state investigators was one where Tessier kidnapped Maria and then drove (the unused ticket) to Rockford in time to make the call at 6.57 pm and meet with the same recruiting officers at 7.15 pm. Under this timeline it was determined that Maria was kidnapped at 6.20 pm.
John was called in for questioning with the police. The interview can be seen here which highlighted some of the discrepancies in John’s (now Jack) initial story and his seemingly hostile manner.
Maria’s body was then exhumed but there was no DNA evidence that could be found on Maria’s remains and nothing to link John using forensics.
With different inmates testifying that John had discussed killing Maria to them (with two different accounts of the cause of death — neither similar to Maria’s actual death) and with the details of John’s alibi withheld during trial, it seemed that John Tessier was doomed at trial.
John was convicted by a jury for the abduction and murder of Maria and given a life sentence. He was sentenced at 73 years old; so was set to die in prison as a guilty man.
Acting for himself John filed a petition against his murder conviction. This was dismissed as frivolous.
It wasn’t until the new State’s Attorney Richard Schmack reviewed the evidence extensively that he discovered that for Tessier to kill Maria was impossible, this included reviewing the collect call and the distance from Rockford to Sycamore.
In April 2016 the murder charge was dismissed without prejudice and on 12th April 2017 John Tessier was officially declared an innocent man and released from prison.
The Maria Ridulph murder had gone from unsolved to cold to solved and back to unsolved. And now we remain back at unsolved.
And while there was a feeling of tremendous relief for the likes of Kathy, the last witness to see Maria alive, and the remaining Ridulph family at the conviction of John, there is a large sense of injustice that John Tessier was convicted when all evidence seemed to point away from him.
Maria Ridulph’s murder had been the eldest solved cold case in the USA and is now just that “unsolved.”
Johnny is now living in a retired community where he once worked and is currently in the process of suing law enforcement for the unfair conviction.
THE OTHER SUSPECT
William Henry Redmond was a ‘carny’ with an ability to make young girls vanish in his presence. There was numerous stories of girls seemingly going missing whenever Redmond was around which included a ten-year-old in Ohio and an eight-year-old in Pennsylvania (and yet no convictions).
A likely sounding suspect; Redmond is now dead, and the evidence appears entirely circumstantial, with very little to go on against Redmond except that he looked like Kathy’s description of Johnny and has a suspicious history around children.
IN POPULAR CULTURE
The case is one of the most famous unsolved murders in American history and has been subject to many depictions in culture which include a CNN web series called “Taken” and a true-crime book released in 2014 by Charles Lachman called Footsteps in the Snow.