Can a childhood memory help solve 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph?
- Extra: Jack McCullough: "I'm not a murderer"
- Extra: Were piggyback rides the pattern of Maria Ridulph's killer?
Maria Ridulph, left and her friend, Kathy Chapman
As years turned to decades and there was still no arrest in the kidnapping and murder of little Maria Ridulph, it seemed the mystery of her death would haunt the town of Sycamore forever.
"I think a lot of people look at Sycamore, Ill., and they say, 'Oh, the perfect American town, the great place to raise kids.' There were a lot of dark secrets in that town, too, weren't there?" Erin Moriarty asked Jeanne Tessier.
"Oh, well, there certainly were in my family," she replied.
Fifty-years after Maria's mysterious murder, one of those dark Tessier family secrets would shock their tiny town.
"[It] stirred up many old wounds. And ... dragged me against my will back into a past that I was glad to have survived," said Jeanne.
The year was 1994, and Jeanne's mom was on her deathbed -- about to make a stunning confession about her son. Tessier sisters Jan and Mary were at their mother's bedside.
"I knew she was taking to her grave so many demons," said Mary Tessier.
"She seemed like she was fighting dying," Jan Tessier said. "All of a sudden I hear, 'Janet.' ... she grabbed my wrist in -- in the strongest grip ... and she said, 'Those two little girls and the one disappeared. John did it. John did it. And you have to tell someone.'"
"Was what she said to you that clear? 'John did it.' It was that clear?" Moriarty asked.
"Yeah. Very clear," Jan replied. "... she was frantically adamant that I do something."
Jan says she was so focused on calming her dying mother that she never asked why Eileen Tessier suspected her own son of snatching and killing Maria Ridulph.
"I promised her I would take care of it. ... I said, 'Mom, don't worry, I'll take care of it," Jan explained. "And finally she just, kinda -- put her head back on the pillow and said, 'Oh,' you know, and closed her eyes."
Eileen Tessier died weeks later. Jan says she didn't trust her father to be honest about this, so she made it her mission to find the truth.
"I was kinda the family screw up for a lot of my life. And-- if I touched something it broke. And I think -- in a way it was me fulfilling an obligation finally, you know, living up to my promise," she told Moriarty.
While Jan's sibling's had their doubts, they all decided to support her in her quest for justice and risk revealing even more painful family secrets.
"We all realized that this is what we had to do," said Jeanne.
"We had to open up all --" said Jan.
"-- all the secrets," Jeanne said. "And -- this nightmare of a past. Who wanted to do that? And put it out for the world to see?"
Jan called the FBI and the Sycamore Police Department, but her brother appeared to have an alibi, placing him miles away from the crime. John Tessier even passed a polygraph. So, both agencies chose not to investigate and Jan gave up. Then, 10 years later, a friend got Jan thinking again...about the promise she made to her mother.
"He says, 'You never know. You may find a real bulldog of an investigator.' And for some reason those words hung in my head," said Jan.
The one law enforcement agency that Jan hadn't contacted yet -- the Illinois State Police -- was about to get an email.
"I hit 'send'. And then I went outside -- to have a cigarette. And I looked up at the sky and I said, 'Mom, listen, you and God better get something rolling here because I can't keep doin' this,' she said. "And two days later I get a phone call. ... I remember lookin' up and going, 'Well, that was pretty good, Ma.'"
Special Agent Brion Hanley wanted to hear more.
"Why? What was so significant about what ... Jan had to tell you about this case," Moriarty asked.
"She came to us and ... told us that her brother committed this murder," said Hanley.
"And that this is going to be something that drags the whole family into the spotlight?"
"Correct," he said.
"I knew that it would be like ripping the scab off of this -- very deep wound," said Jeanne.
Jeanne Tessier didn't hold back when Hanley interviewed her, starting with the lie she says her mother told the FBI about her brother.
"All I knew was that John didn't come home that night that Maria disappeared and that mom lied to the FBI and said he had," she told Moriarty.
Jeanne says she also wanted Hanley to know just how evil her brother could be. So, for the first time ever, she revealed what she says is a long buried family secret.
"He asked me something about -- what I knew about John's -- sexual proclivities. And -- and I told him that John had abused me," she continued.
Throughout her childhood, Jeanne says her brother sexually abused her ... and so did her father. She says her own mother knew, but kept it secret.
"I love my mother. I love my father. I love John. But they all did great harm to me," she said.
By this time, Jeanne's father has also died. There was only one person who could say for sure if John Tessier was the "Johnny" who kidnapped and killed Maria Ridulph.
"Boy, my eyes lit up. A suspect, after all these years? I thought the case was closed," said Maria's playmate, Kathy Chapman.
Chapman was by then a 61-year-old grandmother when Hanley showed her a photo lineup of six pictures of young men who lived in Sycamore in 1957. One of them was John Tessier.
"She picks this one and says, 'No,'" Hanley said of the photo lineup.
"And -- points to this one..."
"That was Johnny," said Chapman.
"Immediately, you knew it?" Moriarty asked.
"Immediately," she replied.
"And, so, in the back of your mind, what are you thinking?" Moriarty asked Hanley.
"I'm thinkin' we've got the right guy," he said.
Agent Hanley tracked John Tessier to Seattle, Wash., but his name was now Jack McCullough. He says he took his late mother's maiden name to honor her family and then married Janey O'Conner's mother.
"When my mother called me to tell me that Jack had been arrested, I laughed. ... it was unbelievable. I mean, it-- those aren't words I ever expected to hear," O'Conner said. "I've known Jack since I was 8 years old. I grew up with him. I can't -- I can't see that."
But Hanley and two veteran Washington State cold case detectives saw something different in "Janey's stepfather." Especially when they showed him the photo lineup that Kathy Chapman saw.
"I don't know any of these guys. I don't think any of these guys are from Sycamore," McCullough told detectives.
Like it or not, Jack McCullough was about to come face to face with John Tessier and his alleged dark past.