CHICAGO – A 73-year-old man who was convicted this fall of kidnapping and murdering a little girl more than a half-century ago is expected to return to court today for sentencing.
Jack McCullough faces a maximum sentence of life in prison when he stands before a judge in the DeKalb County community of Sycamore, the same town where 7-year-old Maria Ridulph's life ended in December 1957.
The sentencing in one of the oldest unsolved crimes in American history to go to trial will likely be watched by members of Ridulph's family and McCullough's family, as well as 63-year-old Kathy Chapman, who was playing with Maria on the last day of her life.
Sentencing hearings typically include statements from relatives of the victim. Whoever gets a chance to speak, whether they are members of Maria's family or McCullough's, they will likely say the same thing: He deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
"He is as evil as prosecutors painted – and some," said Janet Tessier, McCullough's half-sister, after he was convicted in September. Her decision to tell police about incriminating comments McCullough's and Tessier's mother made just before she died in 1994 played a crucial role in McCullough's 2011 arrest and subsequent conviction.
During the trial, prosecutors contended that on Dec. 3, 1957, a 17-year-old McCullough, who was known as John Tessier at the time, approached Maria and another girl playing in front of Maria's house. He played with them for a bit and when the other girl ran home to get her mittens, prosecutors said he dragged Maria into an alley choked her with a wire, and then stabbed her in the throat and chest. Then, prosecutors said, he loaded her body into his car and drove more than 100 miles away, where he dumped it into a wooded area.
Her disappearance and the subsequent massive search made national headlines, and it was said that President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover were asking for regular updates on the case. Maria's body was found in April 1958.
McCullough was one of more than 100 people who were briefly suspects, but he had what seemed like a solid alibi. On the day of the girl vanished, he told investigators, he'd been traveling to Chicago for a medical exam before joining the Air Force.
McCullough ultimately settled in Seattle and was a Washington state police officer.
Once a new investigation was launched, authorities went to Chapman and showed her an old photograph of McCullough. She told them the picture showed the teenager who came up to her and Maria that snowy day and identified himself as "Johnny."
After his conviction, McCullough wrote a letter addressed to Sycamore residents claiming FBI documents that he said backed his alibi had been barred from the trial.
The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle reported that McCullough wrote: "If all parties had read the documents, it should have caused a reasonable person to conclude that I could not have been `Johnny,' because at the exact time of the kidnapping, I was in Rockford, 40 miles away."
McCullough did not testify during his trial. He will have a chance to speak at Monday's sentencing.