On Dec. 3, 1957, Maria Ridulph, 7, accepted a piggyback ride from a stranger.
Five months later, a couple hunting for mushrooms found her body. She was stuffed under a tree trunk in a forest about 100 miles from her home in Sycamore, Ill.
Her best friend and neighbor, Kathy Sigman, 8, was the last person who saw her alive. The girls were playing on the street corner in front of their homes around 6:30 p.m., when a young man approached.
“Hello, little girls,” he said.
His name was Johnny, he told them, and he was 24 and not married, Sigman later recalled.
“Do you have any dollies?” he asked. “Would you like a piggyback ride?”
Maria ran home to and returned with a rubber baby doll with a red dress. The stranger hoisted her on his back and trotted up and down the street with his passenger. It was snowing and Kathy’s fingers were getting cold, so she went into her house for a pair of mittens.
When she came back outside, there was no sign of her friend or the stranger.
Before long, the entire neighborhood was frantically searching for the missing girl. They found the doll discarded near a garage. A neighbor recalled hearing something that sounded like a little girl’s scream. In the snow, searchers found the footprints of a man and child. Then the trail ended.
Kathy described Johnny as being in his 20s or early 30s with blond hair, strange teeth, and a high voice.
Roadblocks, house-to-house searches, hundreds of volunteers, planes, dogs, and dozens of FBI agents failed to find anything. It became a national news frenzy. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and President Dwight Eisenhower received daily updates on the investigation.
Local police started rounding up likely suspects in what newspapers were calling the “Piggyback Kidnap.”
An anonymous tip led investigators to a high-school dropout from the neighborhood, John Tessier, 18, who lived within two blocks of the Ridulphs. He fit Kathy’s description, and had a reputation as a strange character. When he was 8, he suffered a head injury after being struck by a taxi. His family said he was never quite right after that.
But Tessier had an alibi. At the time of the kidnapping, he said he was in Rockford, Ill., 40 miles away. His story was that he had traveled by train to Chicago that day for an Air Force physical. On his way home, he got off at Rockford and made a collect call to his parents, asking for a lift to Sycamore.
His alibi checked out, and he was dropped as a possible suspect. When police showed Kathy hundreds of photos of local troublemakers, Tessier’s picture was not among them.
In April, the mushroom hunters found Maria’s skeletal remains.
After that, the case went cold.
It would take nearly four decades for it to heat up again, wrote Charles Lachman in his book, “Footsteps in the Snow.”
In 1994 Tessier’s mother, on her deathbed, blurted out, “Those two little girls, and the one disappeared. John did it.” One of her daughters, Janet, contacted police. But her mother died before police could talk to her. The case froze again.
In 2008, Janet made another attempt. This time, Sycamore police opened an investigation into the long-ago murder. They examined old records and reinterviewed people involved in the case. It was difficult because so many primary sources had died.
But one source, Tessier’s high-school girlfriend, gave them an item that seemed to poke a hole in his alibi. Police had asked her for a photo of Tessier. In digging through storage, she found an unused train ticket to Chicago, a government-issued ticket so Tessier could travel to his Air Force physical.
Tessier had given his girlfriend the ticket for safekeeping the day before Maria disappeared. It suggested that Tessier had been lying about how he traveled.
By train, it would have been impossible for him to be in Sycamore at the time of Maria’s abduction. But by car, he could have committed the crime and still make it to Rockford to make the call.
Tessier’s old girlfriend also found a photo. Police showed it to Kathy Sigman Chapman, now a grandmother, who said she recognized the face as the man who had given Maria the piggyback ride so many years ago.
Investigators tracked down the 72-year-old in a Seattle retirement community. Estranged from his family, he had moved west after a 13-year Air Force career and had become a police officer in a small Washington town. He had also changed his name, to Jack Daniel McCullough.
He did not testify at his trial.
“McCullough Guilty,” screamed the headline across the front page of the DeKalb County “Daily Chronicle,” on Sept. 15, 2012. His sentence was life in prison.
Books, movies, and documentaries followed, lauding the conviction as the coldest case ever solved and a triumph for justice. But that would be short-lived.
McCullough’s attorneys appealed, saying that the prosecution case was based not on physical evidence, but on hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and decades-old recollections. In April 2016, a judge vacated the conviction.
Later, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack reviewed new evidence and some that had been ruled inadmissible at the trial. To Schmack, it suggested that McCullough had been wrongly convicted.
After five years in prison, McCullough was declared innocent and freed. The case, while growing colder with each passing day, remains open.