Monday, July 4, 2011

Police: Train ticket helps crack 1957 Ill. killing

Charles "Chuck" Ridulph always assumed the person who stole his little sister from the neighborhood corner where she played and dumped her body in a wooded stretch some 100 miles away was a trucker or passing stranger — surely not anyone from the hometown he remembers as one big, friendly playground.

And, after more than a half century passed since her death, he assumed the culprit also had died or was in prison for some other crime.

On Saturday, he said he was stunned by the news that a one-time neighbor had been charged in the kidnapping and killing that captured national attention, including that of the president and FBI chief. Prosecutors in bucolic Sycamore, a city of 15,000 that's home to a yearly pumpkin festival, charged a former police officer Friday in the 1957 abduction of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph after an ex-girlfriend's discovery of an unused train ticket blew a hole in his alibi.

Jack Daniel McCullough, 71, has been held in Seattle on $3 million bail. A judge overseeing a Saturday court appearance for him said he had been taken to a regional trauma center but did not elaborate. She rescheduled his bail hearing for 12:30 p.m. Monday.

"I just can't believe that after all these years they'd be able to find this guy," Chuck Ridulph told The Associated Press at his duplex in Sycamore, about 50 miles west of Chicago.

A 65-year-old minister who mainly serves his area's senior citizens, Ridulph once shared a bedroom with his sister and already has his headstone placed on a burial plot next to her grave. 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 who loved to play dress up.

"It's in my every thought, even in my dreams," he said of his sister's death. "It was just like it was yesterday. It comes up all the time in conversation."

Sycamore Police Chief Donald Thomas was reluctant to discuss the case when found at home Saturday. But he said, "we believe we know who did it. We believe we have a strong case."

His department's breakthrough was a long time coming.

Maria disappeared Dec. 3, 1957, while doing what kids in Sycamore did then — playing. Maria's friend, Kathy Chapman, who was 8 at the time, recalled that she and Maria were under a corner streetlight when a young man she knew as "Johnny" offered them a piggyback ride. Chapman, now 61 and living in St. Charles, Ill., told the AP she ran home to get mittens and that when she returned, Maria and the man were gone.

"She was my best friend," Chapman told the AP on Saturday. "We played every day. We were always together."

The search for Maria grew to involve more than 1,000 law enforcement officers and numerous other community members, ultimately catching the eye of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who requested daily updates.

"Things never went back to normal," Chapman said. "It was always a struggle. I didn't have a normal childhood after that."

Christmas came and went, with a pogo stick wrapped as a gift for Maria remaining unopened, her brother remembered. Then in April 1958, two people foraging for mushrooms found her remains.

Police suspected McCullough, who lived less than two blocks from the Ridulphs and who fit the description of the man said to have approached the girls, Thomas said Friday. But McCullough seemed to have an alibi, claiming he took the train from Rockford to Chicago the day of the abduction.

His story fell apart last year after investigators reinterviewed a woman who dated him in 1957 and asked her to search through some personal items, the Seattle Times reported, citing court documents. She found an unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago dated the day the girl went missing.

"Once his alibi crumbled, we found about a dozen other facts that helped us build our case," Thomas said.

The Times reported investigators also determined a collect phone call McCullough purportedly made to his then-girlfriend from Chicago actually came from his Sycamore home the day Maria vanished — and he gave a ride to a relative when he should have been on the train.

Chapman said police never showed her a photo of McCullough in the days and months after Maria was kidnapped. But in September of last year, she said investigators came to her with a photo of a teenage McCullough. She identified him as the "Johnny" who approached her and Maria the night her friend vanished. At the time, McCullough's name was John Tessier.

Chapman was shocked to learn the case was still being investigated. She said she had received information some years before about it being closed.

When she got the news that McCullough was charged, she said she was "just ecstatic, could not be happier."

"We've been waiting a long, long time for this," said Chapman, who has three children and three grandchildren.

By Saturday, word of McCullough's arrest had swept throughout Sycamore, its main street adorned by American flags tethered to parking meters and lined by mom-and-pop shops. The prospect of reliving one of the most upsetting moments in the town's history during a trial was already weighing on Dick Larson, a rural mail carrier who went to school with Chuck Ridulph.

"It breaks my heart to think we have to go through this again. This is 54 years ago. It just brings back a whole river flow of memories," the 65-year-old said before crying.

He doesn't believe a conviction will bring closure or help the town heal.

"That's a standard way of thinking, that there's justice and closure," he said. "The people who go through it, they deal with it forever."

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