Can a childhood memory help solve 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph?
Maria Ridulph, left and her friend, Kathy Chapman
Can a childhood memory of a friend's murder solve a 55-year-old case? Correspondent Erin Moriarty goes inside the investigation of what authorities say is the oldest cold case ever prosecuted in the U.S.
Produced by Greg Fisher, Judy Rybak and Peter Henderson
December 3, 1957. It was the day that changed Kathy [Sigman] Chapman's life forever.
Chapman was just 8 years old that December and like nearly every child in Sycamore, Ill., she couldn't wait for the first snowfall. Chuck Ridulph, then 11 years old, remembers his little sister, 7-year-old Maria, rushing out to play with Kathy around 6 p.m., just as flurries and the dark night settled over the idyllic Midwestern town.
"Today, I'm sure a lot of parents ... are sayin', 'How could that young girl have been out after dark on that corner?' Well, this was a norm," Chuck Ridulph explained.
No one ever locked doors in Sycamore or thought twice about letting little girls out to play a game they called "duck the cars."
"We would go around the pole until a car would come up the street and then ... you had to ... get behind [a] tree before the car lights hit you," Chapman said, smiling at the memory.
Retired Sycamore Police Lieutenant Patrick Solar has studied the cold case extensively.
"The unknown subject would've approached from ...south on ... Center Cross Street. Probably had a vehicle parked on the road. He may have gone by and seen the girls playing," said Solar.
"Had you ever seen him?" Moriarty asked Kathy.
"I had ... never see him before," she replied. "Not at all."
"And were you nervous at all with someone walking up towards you?"
"No ... we didn't even think twice about it," Chapman explained. "He stopped to talk to us ... told us that his name, his name was Johnny. ... Maria took the piggyback ride and he went maybe 20 feet away with her and then ... came back, and asked if we liked dolls. ... And Maria went home to get a doll.
"She went home and brought her doll back. And I said I was gonna go home and get my mittens. I was cold," Chapman continued. "I left both of them standing there on the corner ... and when I got back they were gone. ...No sign of her doll, no sign of her, no sign of anybody."
"Kathy came to the door and asked if Maria was there. I didn't think anything of it. I just said, 'No, she's still outside,'" Chuck Ridulph recalled. "It was a few minutes later -- she came back. 'I can't find Maria.'"
When Chuck searched for Maria and couldn't find her, he finally told his parents. According to public records, it was another hour before the Ridulphs called police, who joined an already frantic search for Maria and the man who called himself Johnny.
"If you can imagine ... armed citizens walking the streets with shotguns and rifles and handguns tucked in their waistband, knockin' on your door. 'We need to search your home. There's a girl missing,'" Solar said. "They set up -- roadblocks on rural roads ... They stopped every car. Searched every trunk."
"Some men came to the back door of our house and -- knocked and asked for dad," said Jeanne Tessier.
Jeanne, then 10 years old, lived with her large family just down the street from the Ridulphs. Her baby sister, Jan, was just a year old. Their father ran the hardware store and was asked to open it up. "... so they could get flashlights and lanterns," Jeanne explained.
"We didn't have a lock on our back door ... dad cut a two-by-four and jammed it into the door ... so that it wouldn't open," she continued.
"Were you scared?" Moriarty asked.
"Yeah, I was scared," Jeanne replied. "The thought of having to lock a door against an intruder was -- was new..."
No one knows exactly when Maria was taken, but two neighbors reported hearing a scream around 7 p.m. In an alley not far from where Maria disappeared, her doll was found.
"The doll was found ... between the fence and a garage which is set back on Center Cross Street," said Ridulph.
Within days, the FBI took over. Dozens of G-men descended on Sycamore and turned a small motel into their local headquarters. But there was little to go on. The crime scene had been trampled before any physical evidence could be gathered. All that investigators had was one eyewitness who was 8 years old.
"I did have to go to the police station and view lineups of different individuals. I had to go through mug shot books," Chapman explained.
"Now, do you know how many pictures you looked at? Do you have any idea?" Moriarty asked.
"Lots and lots and lots," said Chapman.
"Hundreds?" Moriarty wondered.
"Yes," Chapman replied.
"They talked to probably 1,000 people in our community," Solar explained, "but they had a short list of about a dozen individuals who were on their A-list, so to speak."
"There were a lot of suspects in that ... little town of Sycamore," Ridulph said. "It's surprising how many people were on lists of sexual predators. Of course, being ... a sexual predator at that time could have been a young man caught peeping into a window".
Three weeks later, when Christmas came around, Maria was still missing.
"I remember Maria's wrapped gifts still under the tree," said Ridulph.
"And your mom hoping she was still somehow alive," said Moriarty.
"That's right. That's right. Hoping she would be home for Christmas," he said.
"How long did it take before you found out what had happened to Maria?" Moriarty asked Chapman.
"Five months. She was found five months later," she replied.
On April 26, 1958, the case went from a kidnapping to a murder when Maria's tiny body was found partially clothed 90 miles away, near Galena, Ill.
"A farmer and his wife ... wound up finding the body partially concealed under a downed tree," said Solar.
Because Maria had not been taken across state lines, the FBI handed the investigation over to the Illinois State Police (ISP). Two years later, the ISP ran out of new leads and the case went cold. Kathy Chapman never stopped looking for the face that only she had seen.
"I never stopped looking for him, never," she told Moriarty.
"This is still hard for you, isn't it, Kathy?"
"Yeah, it is. It's been a long struggle," an emotional Chapman replied.
But Kathy hasn't been alone. Jeanne Tessier has also been haunted by the night Maria disappeared, but for a very different reason. Days later, her brother, John Tessier, became a suspect in Maria's murder after investigators received an anonymous phone call.
"At some point, the FBI came to your home," Moriarty noted to Jeanne.
"They did," she said. "...they were scary men in suits ... and they asked my mom whether John had come home that night. And she said 'yes.'"
But according to Jeanne, that was a lie.
"Why do you think your mom lied about your brother being home when you knew he wasn't,' Moriarty asked Jeanne.
"I thought she must be protecting him because she had, to my knowledge, lied to protect him before..."
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