By Tricia Goecks


BELVIDERE – On Dec. 3, 1957 two girls were playing in front of their homes. On the busy Center Cross Street in Sycamore, the best friends were dodging and hiding behind a tree to prevent headlights from touching them as passing cars rounded the corner.

A man named Johnny talked to the girls and gave seven year old Maria Ridulph a piggy back ride up and down the street and talked to the girls about dolls. Maria went into the house to get one of her dolls to show Johnny.

A little while later, 8 year old Kathy Sigman went home to get a pair of mittens. As Kathy walked home, she looked back and saw Maria and Johnny still talking at the corner.

When Kathy returned to the corner, Johnny and Maria were gone. Maria’s body was found near Galena on Apr. 26, 1958.

An anonymous tip from a neighbor immediately after the kidnapping suggested that the police investigate Johnny Tessier. Police spoke to the 18 year old on Dec. 8 and again on Dec. 9, 1957 and dismissed him as a suspect because he had an alibi and passed a lie detector test.

In 2008, Tessier’s half-sister contacted the police and implicated him in the murder. She said that on her mother’s deathbed in 1997, her mother sat upright and told her that Tessier had killed Maria.

Tessier was subsequently arrested and eventually convicted of Maria’s murder. The case was the oldest cold case in history to be tried.

The kidnapping and murder of Maria generated national attention. President Eisenhower asked for daily updates as did FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

The case also drew the attention of Belvidere author Jeff Doty who wrote a true crime chronicle of the murder and trial.  “When I started into the story I was friends with both the public defender and the assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted him. It was through talking to them that I became interested in the story,” Doty said. “What sparked my interest was when they told me it was the oldest cold case in history to be prosecuted. It was 55 years after the crime when the conviction came.”

“I looked at it as a historical book.”

Maria’s murder represented a loss of America’s innocence. In 1957 Sycamore, families did not lock the doors to their homes. Children played after dark without adult supervision. People trusted each other.

“While there had been other kidnappings, this was it could happen to us.  I think as terrible and horrific as the loss of a child is, the national attention that it grabbed probably saved thousands of life since,” Doty said. “By the time I was growing up we had films on stranger danger and our parents told us don’t talk to strangers. I think it was her case that probably generated it.”

“One of my friends told me his whole world changed when that happened. You went from being carefree to where you could not be anywhere alone anymore.”

In writing the book, Doty became convinced of Tessier’s innocence.

Tessier changed his name about 20 years ago to McCullough when he married his fourth wife. The former Seattle police officer lost his job when he admitted to illegal contact with a minor. He was tried and acquitted in 2012 for the gang rape of his half-sister.

“Jack sits in prison now not because he is guilty but because he is convenient. He is a guy who looks guilty,” Doty said. “He has had enough trouble with women and girls in the past that haunts him. He has changed his name so that makes people think he is hiding something. He is a different guy. He is a character. He is an odd duck. He is never completely socially comfortable.”

Doty, who lives in Belvidere with his wife Jean and his Irish twins Johnathan and Heather, leads a writers’ group at the Keen Age Center.

The 6 – 10 writers meet at 9 a.m. at the Keen Age Center in Belvidere on the last Wednesday of each month. The group is working on a book that celebrates growing old and should be available by Heritage Days in June.

Doty’s book, Piggyback is available online through Amazon, Barnes and Noble as well as Kindle.

Tessier’s case is under appeal.

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