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It was a shocking true crime that left two families shattered, and became the coldest case in U.S. history.
Who really killed little Maria? The question fueled a real-life nightmare in Sycamore, Illinois...
1957. Sycamore, Illinois. Christmas was three weeks away, and seven-year-old Maria Ridulph went out to play. Soon after, a figure emerged out of the falling snow. He was very friendly. Minutes later, Maria vanished, leaving behind an abandoned doll and footsteps in the snow.
In April, a spring thaw gave up Maria’s body in a nearby wooded area. The case attracted national attention, including that of the FBI and President Eisenhower. In all, seventy-four men and three women fell under suspicion. But no one was ever charged with the crime.
Incredibly, fifty-five years later, the coldest case in the history of American jurisprudence would be reopened. It happened after a seventy-four-year-old former neighbor of the Ridulphs named Eileen Tessier made a stunning deathbed confession to her family about a dark past, and a darker secret they knew nothing about. Two families would be joined by despair and retribution, and in an astounding turn of events, Maria Ridulph’s killer would finally be brought to justice.
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Charles Lachman is executive producer of the television news magazine show, Inside Edition. Previously, he was managing editor of the nightly news broadcasts at WNYW-TV in New York City and was a reporter for the New York Post. Lachman is the author of In the Name of the Law, The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family, and most recently, A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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Evening, December 3, 1957
It was an ordinary night in a small town very few Americans outside its boundaries even knew existed.
It was snowing, just a dusting, and Maria Ridulph, seven years old, was eager to experience the first snowfall of the winter. She had just eaten dinner, and her mother, Frances Ridulph, had given her permission to play outside. Maria ran to the phone and called her best friend from five houses away, Kathy Sigman.
“I can go out! Can you?”
Kathy said she’d be right there.
Maria wanted to wear her new winter coat, but Frances told her no, put on the old one. It was a tan three-quarter-length wool overcoat. One button was missing, and the point of the collar on the right side had been chewed down. Maria hated the coat because it was a shabby hand-me-down from her brother, Chuck, who was eleven.
Maria and Kathy met at the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street and started a game of Duck the Cars, a pastime of their own invention. Whenever a car drove by, they had to duck behind a towering elm tree, and if the headlights hit one of the girls, she’d lose.
At 6 P.M., Frances had to drive her fifteen-year-old daughter, Kay, for a music lesson, and as she backed out of the driveway, she saw Maria on the corner with little Kathy. Frances gave Maria a quick wave, and, ten minutes later, having dropped Kay off, when she got back, she saw that Maria and Kathy were still on the corner jumping up and down.
Inside 616 Archie Place, a modest wood-framed bungalow, Mike Ridulph, the man of the house, was watching a TV western, Cheyenne. He was looking forward to a big night on television—Tallulah Bankhead was going to be the guest star on the Lucille Ball show. Pat, the studious eldest Ridulph daughter, was doing homework in the dining room. Chuck, the athlete of the family, was in the den with his best buddy, Randy Strombom, who lived next door. They were going through their baseball-card collections while listening to Elvis Presley on the hi-fi. Frances went to her bedroom and settled down with the evening newspaper, the Sycamore True Republican.
Great events were taking place in the world. Sputnik had been launched by the Soviet Union, and the space race was on. These were momentous times. But in Sycamore, the news was strictly small-town America. Three local boys had been inducted into the armed forces; Operation Madball, starring Ernie Kovacs and Jack Lemmon, was playing downtown; lettuce was ten cents a head at the Piggly Wiggly.
Just an ordinary night.
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The street was dark and empty; then, out of nowhere, a man they didn’t know appeared.
“Hello, little girls,” he said, stooping down so his eyes met theirs. “Are you having fun?”
He took off his hat, and the girls saw that he had blond hair in a DA cut, that is, combed back along the sides of the head and parted at the nape of the neck so it looked like a duck’s ass. “Would you like a piggyback ride?” he asked, crouching, waiting for one of them to say yes.
The girls looked at each other. Maria’s parents had taught her to be wary of strangers; just the same, she climbed onto the man’s back. When he rose to his full height, her legs dangling over his chest, he took off in a trot up Center Cross Street, carrying her for some forty feet as snow swirled around them. Kathy stayed there on the corner in the cold under the streetlamp, watching, a little envious that Maria was having all the fun. When they came back, the man bent down, and Maria climbed off his back. She was grinning.
“My name is Johnny,” he said. “I’m twenty-four years old, and I’m not married.”
He asked their names and they told him. He seemed so nice.
“I’d give you another piggyback ride,” Johnny said to Maria, “if you had a dolly.”
Maria said she had lots of dolls, and she’d be right back with her favorite one.
Kathy found herself standing there alone with Johnny, watching Maria race to her house.
“Kathy, I like you,” he said.
Not knowing what else to say, she said, “I like you, too.”
Johnny put his hand on her arm and asked her whether she’d like to go for a walk around the block with him, then, “What would you like, a bus ride or train ride?”
“I don’t want any ride,” she told him.
For Maria, it was a short dash to 616 Archie Place. She flew into the house, her face flushed from the excitement and night air, found her mother in the bedroom, and asked her if she could take her favorite doll outside. Frances told her to take the cheap rubber one instead because it was still snowing. Frances recalled later that her daughter’s eyes were “beaming,” and she was giddy with excitement.
Maria headed straight for Maria’s Corner, where she kept her doll collection. Her father heard her rummaging around until she grabbed an inexpensive six-inch rubber baby. It was dressed in a red-and-white skirt that had tiny pockets at the hem, with a neatly folded peewee handkerchief inside one of them. Then Mike heard his daughter streak out the front door. His eyes never left the TV.
After a minute or two, Maria, clutching the doll, got back to where Johnny and Kathy were waiting for her. She showed it to Johnny, who expressed his delight with it.
What a pretty dress, he told her, what a pretty doll. As promised, he let her climb onto his back again for her second ride, this time with her doll.
When they got back it was supposed to be Kathy’s turn, but she told Johnny that her fingers were getting numb from the cold, and she needed to run home and put on her mittens. She asked him the time. Johnny said it was seven o’clock, and off she went. A few minutes later, she expected to see Johnny and Maria waiting for her. She was looking forward to the nice man’s piggyback ride, but the corner where she’d left them was deserted. Where were they?
She went to the Ridulph house and knocked on the side door. Maria’s brother Chuck opened it, and Kathy asked him if Maria was there.
No, Chuck told her. “She must be hiding from you,” he said.
Kathy left to look for Maria again. She went up and down Archie Place, calling out, “Mah-reeee-ah! Mah-reeee-ah!”
Five minutes later she was back at the Ridulphs’ door.
“I can’t find Maria,” she told Chuck.
Chuck found his mother in the bedroom and told her what was going on. Then Frances told her husband, Mike, and he grabbed a police whistle that he sometimes used to summon the children. Mike and Frances went outside looking for their youngest daughter. They walked to the corner and called out Maria’s name. They searched the backyard. Mike blew his whistle.
Chuck grabbed a flashlight and went looking too, with his friend Randy. They walked down Archie Place and circled the block calling out Maria’s name. They stopped at a house on DeKalb Avenue where a friend of Maria’s lived, just in case she had gone there, but she hadn’t. A squad car drove by, and Chuck wondered whether he should hail it down, but he decided that he and Randy should just keep looking.
With mounting panic, Frances returned home and called Kathy Sigman’s mother, Edna. Only then did Frances hear a disturbing story about a stranger who had come out of nowhere to play with the girls. She ran out, hopped in her car, and found Mike, still searching the neighborhood. She told him what she’d just heard from Edna Sigman and said she wanted to call the police, but Mike told her absolutely not. Maria had probably strayed, and they’d find her any minute. It would be “embarrassing” and cause a “commotion” if they called the cops.
The Ridulphs drove to a dead-end street, Roosevelt Court, where Maria sometimes played. Mike got out of his car and blew his police whistle again. A light coming from a house drew his attention. Maybe Maria had come here. Peeking into the living room, all he saw were two elderly ladies watching TV, and he backed off.
When Mike and Frances got back to Archie Place, Frances called Mrs. Sigman one more time. The story was coming out in bits and pieces. Now, little Kathy was saying that the stranger who played with the girls had given Maria a piggyback ride. The full impact of what had happened finally registered, with all its strands of worrisome detail. Dear God, Frances was thinking, what happened to my daughter? Frances hung up. Whether her husband approved or not, she was going to tell the police. She charged out the house and drove off.
It was 7:25 P.M.
Kay Ridulph had walked home from her music lesson and found a neighborhood in chaos. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her little sister Maria was missing. She grabbed her brother, Chuck, and together they marched to the Sigmans’ house to speak directly to Kathy. The little girl told them about Johnny and the piggyback ride. She described him as a white man, about twenty-four. She said he told them he wasn’t married, and one other interesting thing: that Johnny talked “like we used to.”
From this, Kay gathered that the kidnapper must be a “hillbilly.”
Kay turned to Mrs. Sigman, “Did you tell my mother all this?”
Mrs. Sigman assured her that she had.
Kay hurried back to 616 Archie Place and found her father alone in the house. The time had come to notify the police—Kay insisted—and now even Mike had to agree. He jumped into the family’s second car and drove to the Sycamore police department to report a missing child. He didn’t need to.
Frances was already there.
· · · · · · · · ·
A clarion call had shot through the neighborhood, and it seemed like every man and woman who lived on Archie Place was out searching for Maria.
Maria had bright brown eyes and wore her long brown hair in bangs. She stood forty-four inches tall and weighed fifty-three pounds. She’d been wearing black corduroy slacks and a black-and-white checked blouse. Her hand-knit rust-colored mittens had red borders at the top. Her white saddle shoes were trimmed in black and had side zippers with leather tassels. Her socks were brown and fit somewhat loosely. She was in the second grade.
Stanley Wells was a contractor who lived across the street from the Ridulphs. He had been home all night sick with the flu. He’d heard a child’s “fading” scream sometime after dinner.
“I’d wish I’d gotten up,” he was now saying.
Another neighbor, Mrs. Thomas Cliffe, had been watching TV and hadn’t heard a thing. Her husband, who had been in the basement doing the laundry, also said he’d heard nothing out of the ordinary.
Tom Braddy had delivered oil to the Cliffe house earlier in the evening. He was home, about three blocks away, when his phone rang. It was Mrs. Cliffe.
“Did you see any stranger with the Ridulph girl when you were here making the oil delivery? Kathy said some man was with them.”
Braddy said he had definitely seen Maria and Kathy under the streetlight at Archie and Center Cross Street. He had heard them “squealing,” he said, as they chased each other around the tree. But he hadn’t seen any stranger walking around. He returned to Archie Place with his son, Dale, and joined the search.
· · · · · · · · ·
The 4-H Club was the hub of social activity for Sycamore’s preteens. On the night of December 3, twelve-year-old Katheran Tessier stood up with the other 4-H girls and recited the club pledge:
I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service,
my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country and my world.
Katheran was there until 7:00 P.M., when her father, World War II veteran Ralph Tessier, who worked at Hagen’s Ace Hardware store, arrived to take her home.
The Tessier family lived at 227 Center Cross Street. They were neighbors of the Ridulphs. Katheran was the eldest Tessier daughter.
Coming down DeKalb Avenue, Katheran was struck by the presence of so many DeKalb County sheriffs’ vehicles and Sycamore police cars with lights flashing and sirens howling. When her father made a left turn on Center Cross Street, she could not believe the scale of law-enforcement activity.
“What happened? Why are all these police cars here?”
Ralph didn’t really have an answer. The neighborhood had been tranquil when he’d left to pick her up, he told her. Now there was pandemonium.
When they got home, Katheran could tell that her mother was extremely upset. The little Ridulph girl was missing, Eileen said, but before Katheran could get the full story, some neighbors turned up, wanting Ralph Tessier to open his hardware store. They said they needed every available flashlight, lantern, and flare he had in stock.
Ralph and Eileen put on their coats. The womenfolk of Sycamore were gathering at the armory to make coffee and sandwiches for the men who were out searching for Maria, and Eileen was expected to do her part. Before they left for the armory, Ralph took a two-by-four and jammed it against the back door to make sure no one could break in. Then he told Katheran and her ten-year-old sister, Jeanne, to lock the front door behind them when they left and make sure they stayed up to let him and their mother back in. Sycamore was so safe that it was the first time the Tessiers had ever used the lock. They couldn’t even remember where they’d put the key.
Panic spread like contagion.
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Over at the hobby shop on State Street, with Christmas only three weeks away, two high school students were putting up holiday ornaments in the store window. Jan Edwards, a pretty junior who attended Sycamore High School, had promised her brother, Derryl, she’d decorate the family store that evening and had asked her friend Cheryl Wiley to come over and lend a hand. Cheryl, a Sycamore High sophomore who in the summer months worked in the fields detasseling corn, was happy to help out. The Edwards’ hobby shop sold marbles and model airplanes and model cars, and it was in a prime location, right next to Sycamore’s only movie house, the State Theater.
Cheryl and Jan figured they had three hours of work ahead of them and had arranged to have Jan’s boyfriend, John Tessier, pick them up and drive Cheryl home in time for her 10:00 P.M. curfew.
The girls were working on the window when, suddenly, police cars were driving up State Street, sirens blaring and searchlights flashing, broadcasting a terrifying announcement: a child was missing, and everyone was needed to search for her. A moment later, the phone rang. It was Cheryl’s father, frantic, calling to say that a girl from Sycamore had been abducted. He wanted Cheryl to lock the doors of the hobby shop now; he’d be right there to pick her up. In minutes, his car pulled up as Jan was closing the shop, and she and Cheryl climbed in. They dropped Jan off at her house on Somonauk Street, then drove home. Wiley told Cheryl that under no circumstances was ...
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