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PiggyBack Ride - The Disappearance of Maria Ridulph

Written By: Naomi

Trigger Warning: Death of a child, molestation and sexual assault.


It’s the winter of 1957, only a few weeks until Christmas and the town is already glittering with lights and the feeling of joy that permeates everything this time of year is thick in the air. Light is fading fast but 8 year old Kathy Sigman begs her mother for some extra time outside with her friend. With a heavy sigh but a warm smile she tells her to go ahead and yells after her to grab her coat as she runs towards the door. For hours Kathy and her friend Maria chase each other and play a game of “duck the cars” in the street around their homes avoiding the headlights of cars that would pass. They both knew not to go too far but it was fun regardless as they both howled with laughter. A young man in a bright sweater passes by and smiles at both girls seeming interested in their game, he plays with them for a while and the man who introduced himself as “Johnny” lets Maria ride on his back then the girl runs to her house to get a doll to show their new friend. When Maria returns it is Kathy’s turn to run home for some mittens. When she ran back into the street she spun in circles looking for her friends, but neither Maria nor Johnny were anywhere to be seen. Within hours police are called and there is a hunt through town, armed civilians and police are searching desperately for Maria who disappeared from her own street and the man named “Johnny”. The only thing left behind was Maria’s dolls, feet away from where they had been playing and disappeared into the chilly night air.

Maria Elizabeth Ridulph was born March 12th, 1950 in Sycamore, Illinois to Michael and Frances Ridulph. She stood out even though she was the youngest of her siblings, two older sisters and an older brother, since she was an honor student and even had an award from her perfect attendance to Sunday school. Maria was a nervous child, she screamed when afraid and was afraid of the dark. If she was reprimanded for anything it would panic the young girl, her mother was the only person that could calm her down when she got like this.

On December 3rd, 1957 Maria wanted to play outside with her best friend Kathy Sigman who lived on the same street as her since it was beginning to snow. While playing their game they were approached by a man who Kathy describes as, “in his early 20’s, tall and slender with light hair and a gap in his teeth.” He introduced himself to the girls as “Johnny”, 24, and not married. He proceeded to ask the girls if they liked dolls and piggyback rides. Maria takes “Johnny” up on his offer of a piggy back ride before she runs to her house to get the doll and Kathy goes to get her mittens. When Kathy discovered that Maria is gone she goes to Maria’s house assuming they had gone there and were hiding. The door is answered by Maria’s 11 year old brother who goes out to search for his sister since she was not in the house but when he can not find her he calls the police. Within the hour there are police and armed town members searching for Maria and “Johnny”. Roadblocks were set up, cars were stopped and searched, and helicopters scoured the area.

The FBI became involved within 2 days when it was believed that she had been kidnapped across state lines making it a federal crime so they could provide assistance to the local police. Witnesses claim to have seen the two girls playing by themselves between 6pm and 6:30pm leading the FBI to conclude that Maria had been abducted between 6:45pm and 7pm. Since Kathy had seen “Johnny” she was placed under protective custody to ensure the man did not come back to finish the job. Kathy would be given photos of suspects or felons who resembled the man Kathy had described. Kathy was even taken to a lineup and positively identified a man by the name of Thomas Joseph Rivard but Rivard had an alibi since he was in jail at the time of the kidnapping. Rivard did not match the description Kathy had given originally at all since he was older and shorter than “Johnny” and police had only placed him in the line up to fill space and they had actually suspected it was someone else in the lineup, year later when asked about this particular line up Kathy doesn't even remember picking Rivard out.

This case became so big it appeared on national news and both the FBI Director and President Eisenhower were interested in the case. Maria’s parents would appear on TV begging for their daughter to return home and the public help her return home. Police investigated every lead they could within the area, looking into sex offenders and any tips they got but were not able to find any solid leads.

It was not until April 26th of the following year that her skeletal remains were found by two tourists along US Route 20. She was wearing only a shirt, undershirt, and socks and was hidden under a fallen tree in Woodbine, Illinois which is 100 mile away from where she had disappeared. Since the decomposition was so far along it told police the body had been there for several months and it was her dental records and a lock of hair that told them it was Maria, the clothes on the body were the same as the ones she had the night she went missing except for her coat, pants, socks, shoes, and underwear which were not found. Pictures were never taken of the body to prevent them from being leaked to the press. The decomposition of the body was so far along that the initial autopsy could not determine a cause of death.

Because the crime had stayed within Illinois and did not cross state borders the FBI withdrew from the case and left it to local and state police. Unfortunately the case went cold after this and remained unsolved until 1997 when the case was closed by lieutenant Patrick Solar who believed a man named William Henry Redmond who was a former truck driver and carnival worker as the man who had likely abducted and killed Maria. He had been charged in 1988 with the murder of an 8 year old in 1951 but the case had been dismissed and he also was a suspect in another 1951 case that involved the disappearance of a 10 year old . When in Jail he told an inmate that he had committed a crime with similar details to the Ridulph but naming this suspect earned Solar criticism not only became William died in 1992 but because there was no supporting evidence tying William to the case. Solar agrees with the criticism though and feels that the evidence there is against William was only circumstantial and it would be difficult to convict him if he was even still alive unless he confessed. For this reason the case was considered closed, but not solved and trial judges have ruled William out as a credible suspect at all.

It was not until 50 years later that a tip came in 2008 from a woman named Janet Tessier that the case would be reopened. Janet claimed that her mother, Eileen Tessier, had said on her death bed in January 1994 that Janet’s half-brother John had done it.

“Those two little girls, and the one that disappeared, John did it. John did it, and you have to tell someone.”

John Cherry was born November 27th, 1939 in Belfast Northern Ireland to British sergeant Samuel and Eileen Cherry. Samuel died early in WWII and Eileen was one of the first female airplane spotters for the UK’s Royal Air Force. She met Ralph Tessier who was serving in the US Army-Airforce and was based in England and they married in November 1944 when John was 5 and their name was changed to Tessier. Two years later after the war they moved with Ralph to Sycamore, Illinois and had six more children over the years just two blocks away from the Ridulph home. At the time of Maria’s disappearance John was 18 and was planning on joining the AirForce. The police had actually followed up on a tip on John back when Maria went missing since he was a person of interest but the family back then had said that John had been home all night on December 3rd so the police dismissed it - the details on who made this tip differs, some say it was a local while others say it was John’s own parents since he matched the description of “Johnny”. Later the family backtracks on this and says it was not true and Janet recalls when she calls in the tip that her older sisters told her that they had lied the night investigators had come to the home and later agreed that they thought John was responsible for the disappearance and murder. After Maria’s body was found the investigators went back to the Tessier home, John and his parents told them that John had been in Rockford, Illinois on December 3rd which is 40 miles away from Sycamore to enlist in the air force - contradicting what they originally told police when they had come the first time. On the 2nd and 3rd he had been in Chicago doing physical exams for enlistment and later in the day on the 3rd had been at the Chicago recruiting station which was corroborated by records. He then spent the day sightseeing before returning to rockford by train in the evening. He arrived at 6:45pm and placed a call on a payphone for his parents to pick him up which was backed up by phone records still placing him in the area at 6:57pm. John then goes to the Rockford recruiting station and drops off more enlistment paperwork and officers remember seeing him at 7:15pm but note some concerns about his behavior and conduct. Remember, police had placed the time Maria disappeared between 6:45 and 7pm, John is 40 miles away. John was taken into the station for a lie detector test by the investigators and he passes, with this result and the alibi he is removed as a suspect and his file is closed out by the FBI. Kathy Sigman was never shown a picture of him or asked to identify him with other suspects and he left the day after investigators talked to him to go to training at Lackland Air Force Base.

John is in the US Military for thirteen years before moving to Seattle, Washington where he went to law enforcement academy and graduated in 1974. He served in the Lacy and Milton police forces but the chief of police in Milton attempted to fire him, citing a long list of complaints about his work and conduct but he stayed on the force. In 1982 John takes in a 15 year old runaway by the name of Michelle Weinman and her friend, they both new that John was a police officer but Michelle later testifies that shortly after they started to live with John, who was 43 at this time, he has molested her and assault her. John was charged with statutory rape to which was changed to communication with a minor for immoral purposes after a plea negotiation, changing the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor which he pled guilty to and received one year of probation and termination from the police department.

In 1994 when his mother dies of cancer he changes is name to Jack Daniel McCullough, taking his mother’s maiden name in her honor even through he was estranged from the family and told not to come to her funeral. Since their mother had cancer she was on morphine and considered delusional when she confides to her daughter that John, soon after to be Jack, was the killer as mentioned earlier. But the sister’s still agree with their mother citing that when they were younger John had threatened to kill his half-sister Janet with a gun and had also sexually molested his half-sister Jeanne when she was a minor. Over the next 14 years Janet would try multiple times to get the police to investigate and reopen the case or look into their mother’s statement. It was at this time that Lieutenant Patrick Solar tried to name William Redmond as the suspect and told the news that Janet never had come to him with the information on her half-brother but even then would not look into John since he new the Tessier family since their father had done work for the police and was close to the police chief and John had been cleared by the FBI in 1957. As a last effort Janet Emails the Illinois State Police tip line in 2008 which finally results in the cold case unit investigating Jack’s background and alibi again.

Jeanne told investigators that not only had Jack molested her but revealed he had done so to other young girls and another woman told investigators that he had given her a piggyback ride when she was a child and would not let her get off until her father intervene, a similar story is later told in court by another one of Maria’s friends that Jack had offered her a piggyback ride as well. Police reviewed the alibi and made a new timeline in which Jack would of been able to kidnap Maria and still made it back to Rockford in time to place the call and meet with officers for his paperwork. With this new timeline they determined that Maria was likely kidnapped around 6:20 pm since the police had actually already been searching for her at 7pm, their original timeline had been completely off. This was supported by another one of Jack’s half-sisters since she had come home from a party at 7pm that night to find the search for Maria already underway.

Police then asked Maria’s friend who had been with her that night, Kathy, to review the photo line up that now had Jack in it, pointing him out as “Johnny”. It is noteworthy here that they tried to find a yearbook picture of him from this time frame and were unable to since he was expelled for attacking a teacher so police had to obtain a picture from an old girlfriend of Jack’s. Along with the photo she provided police with an unused, military issued train ticket from Rockford to Chicago. This told police that Jack did not take the train to Chicago like he claimed but instead drove there , meaning he had a vehicle to kidnap Maria the night of the 3rd and still have driven back to Rockford in time to make the call and meet with officers. A friend of Jack’s at the time even said they say his distinctly painted car in Sycamore that afternoon and he never let anyone else drive his car.

In July 2011 Jack was brought in for questioning and they used a professional interrogator since Jack has law enforcement experience. At first Jack was calm and cooperative until they began to ask about Maria at which point he became aggressive and invasive of their questions before refusing to answer further. He was arrested for her kidnapping and murder and extradited to Illinois. State attorney Clay Campbell was hesitant to take the now 54 year old case due to it’s age and the lack of physical evidence tying Jack to the crime but pleading of both the Ridulp and Tessier familiar that both believed Jack was guilty led to him taking the case and formally charging Jack with the kidnapping and murder of Maria. The trial took place in September 2012 and prosecutors presented the case that Jack had been attracted to Maria thus kidnapping her but then killing her, citing new information from when Maria’s body was exhumed in 2011 as the case was reopened to check for DNA evidence and for an additional autopsy in which it was determined Maria had likely been killed by being stabbed multiple times in the throat with a long sharp object as shown by nicks in her neck vertebrae and her sternum. The prosecutor also tried to argue that Jack had molested Maria but were unable to prove it so it was not brought up in court. The defense argued that prosecutors and police only were implicating Jack since there were pressure from the two families to solve the case and there was no physical evidence, motive, or indication that Jack was in the area when Maria was kidnapped, but Jack did not take the stand in his own defense at the advice of his attorneys. Later that month, at the age of 73, Jack was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph and received a life sentence with the possibility or parole after 20 years.

Jack made an appeal in February 2015, the court upheld his murder conviction but vacated his conviction for kidnapping and abduction since they had been outside the three year statue of limitation for the 1957 laws. It had no affect on his life sentence. Jack filled out a petition for his murder conviction to also be vacated which was originally dismissed but the public defender for his original case was still working with Jack even though he was no longer appointed to him and was doing additional research over the years and asked the court to consider the petition. The evidence of the case was reviewed by the new state attorney and decided that Jack could not have been committed the crime and was innocent, claiming that the evidence was kept out of trial that supported Jack’s alibi and that the icy road conditions that night would of made it impossible for Jack to have traveled as quickly as claimed by the prosecutor. A 2016 court hearing vacated the murder conviction and ordered a new trial. Jack was released on bond until the new trial date and a week later the judge dismissed the charges completely but without prejudice meaning Jack could be tried again for the murder should another prosecutor wish to do so. In 2017 he was declared innocent of the crime.

There is a memorial for Maria Ridulph outside the Sycamore Municipal Building and the “Maria Ridulph Memorial Fund” which is a scholarship, compassion and summer camp fund for local children in need.

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