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Dying mother named son as killer, woman testifies in 1957 murder case

Jack Daniel McCullough

Jack Daniel McCullough

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Updated: October 14, 2012 1:33PM

Jack McCullough’s guilt-ridden mother admitted on her deathbed that she knew her son was involved in Maria Ridulph’s 1957 disappearance, one of McCullough’s half-sisters testified Tuesday.

“John did it, John did it — and you have to tell someone,” Janet Tessier said, quoting what her mother allegedly told her in 1994.

Two other half-sisters said McCullough — who in 1957 was named John Tessier — never returned home the night the 7-year-old Sycamore girl vanished from their neighborhood. But both claimed their mother, Eileen Tessier, told police he had.

And Ridulph’s childhood friend offered dramatic testimony, identifying McCullough in a black-and-white, 1950s photo as the man she saw with Maria just before the little girl disappeared.

“This photo, right there,” Kathy Sigman Chapman said quietly, tapping McCullough’s picture with her finger.

The four witnesses offered powerful testimony for DeKalb County prosecutors trying to convict McCullough of kidnapping and killing Ridulph nearly 55 years ago.

Her disappearance on Dec. 3, 1957 triggered massive searches, an FBI investigation and even prompted then-President Dwight Eisenhower to ask for updates on the case.

Though Ridulph’s body was discovered five months later in rural Jo Daviess County, McCullough, now 72, was charged only last year after Illinois State Police launched a new investigation into her death.

That new probe was triggered by a disturbing claim purportedly made by McCullough’s mother in January 1994 as she was dying of cancer in a DeKalb hospital.

She abruptly brought up Ridulph’s disappearance — and then said her son was responsible, Janet Tessier testified.

Though her mother died within two weeks, she was “lucid” when she made the claim, Tessier said, contending her mother grabbed her wrist and looked into her face as she talked.

“She was very agitated and emotional and she expressed a great deal of guilt,” Tessier told Judge James Hallock, who is hearing the trial without a jury.

Questioned by McCullough’s court-appointed attorney, Tessier acknowledged her mother had been struggling emotionally as she battled her illness.

And Tessier admitted she never asked how her mother knew McCullough allegedly was involved.

“I’m not a cop, I’m her daughter,” snapped Tessier, 56, when pushed on the issue by her brother’s attorney.

Tessier said she contacted several police agencies in the years after her mother made the claim, including the Sycamore police and the FBI.

Illinois State Police began reviewing Ridulph’s death after she contacted them in 2008, Tessier and DeKalb County prosecutors said.

Another of McCullough’s half-sisters said she stayed up until at least 11:30 p.m. on the night Ridulph vanished, but never saw her brother come home.

Katheran Caulfield testified her mother a day or so later told police he had been in the house on the night Ridulph disappeared.

“She said he had been home,” Caulfield testified, breaking down briefly in tears.

Another half-sister, Jeanne Tessier, said she dozed inside the family’s locked house until her parents returned from helping search for Ridulph, but also testified she didn’t see McCullough come home.

Jeanne Tessier said she didn’t see McCullough until later the next day.

Earlier this year, McCullough was acquitted of charges he sexually assaulted Jeanne Tessier in 1962. That charge stemmed from allegations made by the woman to police while being questioned about Ridulph’s disappearance.

Judge Robbin Stuckert ruled in that case the evidence against McCullough was too weak to support a conviction.

Earlier Tuesday, Chapman recounted how she was playing outside with Ridulph when a young man walked up and introduced himself as “Johnny.”

“He asked if we liked dolls and would we like a piggyback ride?” recalled Chapman, now 63.

Chapman said she left her friend alone with the man while she ran home to get her mittens.

She came back minutes later, but her friend was gone, Chapman said.

“I went to the corner, looking for Maria — she should still be there,” Chapman said, her voice breaking momentarily. “She was not there.”

She didn’t see the man again until 2010 — when state police investigators first showed her the vintage photo of McCullough, Chapman said.

“It was the picture of Johnny,” Chapman said.

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