What is the oldest cold case ever solved?

By: Alia Hoyt
Crimes against children were much less reported in the U.S. in the 1950s. No wonder the Maria Ridulph case was such a sensation (not pictured).
© Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis

"Hello, little girls. Are you having fun?"

"Would you like a piggyback ride?"


Those were the words spoken by the killer of Maria Ridulph to the 7-year-old and her little friend shortly before Ridulph was abducted and murdered. The crime occurred in 1957 but was not solved until 2012, making it the current contender for the oldest solved cold case.

Today, "stranger danger" is something parents and other caregivers relentlessly discuss with children. Names like Adam Walsh, Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard have made headlines, inspired Amber Alerts and forced us to live in a more paranoid, doors-locked, alarms-on society. But back in the 1950s, child kidnapping and murder were comparatively rare, so Maria Ridulph's killing stunned and terrified the United States, especially since it occurred in a small town: Sycamore, Illinois.

On Dec. 3, 1957, Maria Ridulph and her best friend, Kathy Sigman met to play at the corner of their street after dinnertime. They frolicked in the snow until a young man who identified himself as "Johnny" approached them. Ridulph was immediately thrilled by the offer of a piggyback ride, as Sigman looked on. Ridulph then ran into her house to grab a doll for another ride, which Johnny was only too happy to give. While she was gone, Johnny asked Sigman if she'd like "another type of ride," specifically on a bus or train. She nervously declined. Ridulph returned with her doll and the dipping temperature sent Sigman inside her own home to fetch her mittens. When she came back a few minutes later, the man and her friend had vanished, with the child never to be seen alive again.

The realization that Ridulph had likely been kidnapped by an unknown man incited a frantic search involving community members, local law enforcement and even the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover (then-FBI head) demanded daily updates. Everyone was on the hunt for the precocious little girl and the man who Sigman described as being good-looking, with big teeth, blond hair worn in a ducktail and a narrow face.

On April 26, 1958, Ridulph's body was found about 120 miles (193 kilometers) away from her home by a man hunting for mushrooms. She was little more than a skeleton and a few rags of clothing by that point [sources: Callahan, O'Neill].

Despite weeks of interrogations, searches and suspicions, the investigation sputtered, died and eventually was closed. Not until 55 years later, would the case be solved.


Reopening the Ridulph Case

Jack Daniel McCullough, accused of the 1957 abduction and murder of Maria Ridulph appears in King County Superior Court in Seattle, Washington in 2011 to waive his right to an extradition hearing.
© MARCUS DONNER/Reuters/Corbis

From practically the very beginning of the investigation, a young man named John Tessier was near the top of the suspect list. A neighbor of the Ridulph family, he was the oldest of seven children, and community members described as being "unstable" and "creepy." The fact that he matched Sigman's physical description of the kidnapper didn't help his chances either [source: Callahan].

What he did have, however, was a seemingly solid alibi. Although it looks pretty questionable in hindsight, his parents offered up not one, but two. First, his mother claimed that he was home all night long. Except for when she asserted that he had been 40 miles (64 kilometers) away in Rockford, Illinois, enlisting in the United States Air Force. Investigators found a collect call had been placed from Rockford to the Tessier home by John Tessier at 6:57 p.m. Two Air Force recruiters verified he had shown up at the recruiting station (which had closed) between 7:15 and 7:30 p.m., and they told him to come back in the morning. Tessier was essentially let off the hook. He left Sycamore immediately [source: O'Neill].


But in 1993, Tessier's heretofore-devoted mother Eileen gave a deathbed confession to her daughter Janet, naming John as the killer of Maria Ridulph. "You have to tell someone," insisted Eileen [source: Callahan]. Janet reached out to law enforcement several times over the years with no results. Finally, in 2008 she sent an email that struck a chord with a police commander, and the case was reopened [source: Callahan].

The new investigators noticed that they only had the kidnapper's word for it that the kidnapping happened around 7 p.m. (Sigman had asked him what time it was before she went to fetch her mittens.) What if in fact the abduction had happened closer to 6? Tessier could have had time to take Ridulph and still make it to the recruiting station 40 miles away. Studying past interviews with witnesses supported the earlier timeline. In 2010, Kathy Sigman was brought in to see if she could ID Tessier from a lineup [source: O'Neill].

On Dec. 10, 2012, 73-year-old Jack McCullough (formerly John Tessier) was sentenced to life in prison for Ridulph's murder. Prosecutors said he dragged Ridulph into an alley, choked her with a wire and stabbed her before disposing of her body miles away [source: Newcomb].

Although no physical evidence was available to contribute to the conviction, the prosecutors convinced a judge of his guilt, using Sigman's photo lineup identification, several testimonies from jailhouse informants alleging that he'd confessed to them separately and a history of sexual deviance. (Tessier waived his right to a jury). Earlier, Tessier had pled down a statutory rape charge to avoid prison. He also had a history of offering and giving piggyback rides to other young girls in the neighborhood before Ridulph's disappearance [sources: Callahan, O'Neill].

There was no damning DNA evidence to put the nail in the coffin of this case, a lack of which has drawn the ire of McCullough, some of his family and some legal experts.


Justice Is Served in the Ridulph Case ... or Is It?

McCullough insists that he's innocent of the crime, and certain members of his family and his defense attorney back him up. Among the alleged holes in the case is a lack of forensic evidence tying him to the crime. Ridulph's doll, which was handled by the killer and recovered hours after the search for the child began, has long since been lost, taking with it the potential for any DNA or fingerprint evidence. His mother's confession has also been called into question, and is impossible to verify since she is long since deceased. The defense also claims that his sister Janet's apparent hatred for Tessier is motive for her to want to see him behind bars. McCullough insists that the photo lineup given to Kathy Sigman was intentionally skewed to get her to select his image over the other men shown, since their pictures were all relatively similar in appearance and his was somewhat different. Some experts also point to the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and jailhouse informants, who often are looking for some type of leniency in exchange for cooperation [sources: O'Neill, Goode].

Although many crime procedural shows (and apparently McCullough's defense) would have us believe that DNA and forensic evidence are the most common catalysts for cold case convictions, at least one scientific study shows otherwise. Published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 2014, the study found that, of the cold cases researchers examined, a mere 3 percent of cases were solved using DNA or other forensic evidence, as compared with 63 percent of cases involving testimony of new witnesses [sources: Vergano, Davis et al..]. In this case, Tessier/McCullough's mother provided new witness information that changed the scope of the original investigation, and the prosecution gathered enough other evidence to adequately prove his guilt, at least in the opinion of the presiding judge.


Plus, it's not exactly new territory for an accused/convicted criminal to claim they're being wrongfully targeted. Just ask anyone who believed serial killer Ted Bundy when he maintained his innocence, only for him to eventually confess to at least 30 murders [sources: Pinsky, Bergeron].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: What's the oldest cold case ever solved?

No matter your opinion on the outcome of this old cold case, it must be encouraging to families dealing with similar crimes that there is always hope for a new lead, evidence or even conviction. Helplessness is not a pleasant feeling.

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More Great Links

  • Bergeron, Ryan. "Killer love: why people fall in love with murderers." CNN. July 9, 2015 (July 15, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/08/entertainment/serial-killer-lovers-the-seventies/index.html
  • Callahan, Maureen. "The murder that became the oldest solved cold case in America." New York Post. Nov. 16, 2014 (July 13, 2015) http://nypost.com/2014/11/16/the-murder-that-became-the-oldest-solved-cold-case-in-america/
  • Davis, M.S., Robert C; Carl J. Jensen III Ph.D., Lane Burgette Ph.D., and Sigmann Burnett M.A. "Working Smarter on Cold Cases: Identifying Factors Associated With Successful Cold Case Investigations." Journal of Forensic Sciences. Feb. 6, 2014 (July 16, 2015) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1556-4029.12384/abstract
  • Goode, Erica. "55 Years After Girl's Death, Her Killer Gets a Life Term." The New York Times. Dec. 10, 2012 (July 15, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/us/maria-ridulphs-killer-gets-life-55-years-after-her-death.html?_r=1
  • Newcomb, Alyssa. "Ex-Cop Jack McCullough Sentenced to Life in Prison for Girl's 1957 Murder." ABC News. Dec. 10, 2012 (July 13, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/US/cop-jack-mccullough-sentenced-life-prison-girls-1957/story?id=17925894
  • O'Neill, Ann. "Taken. The Coldest Case Ever Solved." CNN. 2015 (July 13, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/08/us/oldest-cold-case/
  • Pinsky, Mark I. "Ted Bundy's Death Closes Chapter, but Not Wounds." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 30, 1989 (July 15, 2015) http://articles.latimes.com/1989-01-30/local/me-1072_1_ted-bundy
  • Vergano, Dan. "Solving Cold Cases Depends on New Witnesses, Not DNA." National Geographic. March 7, 2014 (July 15, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140306-cold-cases-murder-csi-forensic-science/