Footsteps in the Snow

Footsteps in the Snow

4.4 9
by Charles Lachman
     
 

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NOW A LIFETIME MOVIE CHANNEL DOCUMENTARY

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

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Overview

NOW A LIFETIME MOVIE CHANNEL DOCUMENTARY

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.
 INCLUDES PHOTOGRAPHS

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/29/2014
Lachman (The Last Lincolns: The Rise and Fall of a Great American Family) does an outstanding job of making the resolution of a horrific cold-case murder into a gripping page-turner. The murder case dates back to December 1957, in the small Illinois town of Sycamore. Two young girls, Maria Ridulph and Kathy Sigman, were playing just outside their homes when a stranger approached them, introducing himself as Johnny and offering to give the girls piggyback rides. Kathy ran inside to retrieve her mittens; when she returned, Maria and Johnny were gone. The search for the missing Maria engulfed the community, but ended tragically with the discovery of the seven-year-old’s corpse months later. It took decades for the killer to be identified, under circumstances that sound like fiction, with a dramatic deathbed revelation that set the stage for a prosecution more than 50 years after the crime. Despite the book’s length, Lachman paces it perfectly, carrying the reader along on a narrative full of twists, while delving into the tragedy’s impact on Sycamore and its residents. Photos. Agent: Paul Fedorko, N.S. Bienstock Inc. (Nov.)
Library Journal
11/15/2014
Lachman (executive producer, Inside Edition; A Secret Life) details the "coldest case in U.S. history," from the kidnapping of Maria Ridulph in 1957 to the conviction of her killer 55 years later, in 2012. Maria was just seven years old when she disappeared from her Sycamore, IL, neighborhood. She and her best friend, Kathy Sigman, had been playing in the snow when they encountered a man called Johnny, who offered the girls a piggyback ride. Maria vanished after Kathy ran home for her mittens. Their neighbor Jack Daniel McCullough, née John "Johnny" Tessier was able to provide an alibi and was not a suspect at the time. On her deathbed in 1994, Johnny's mother confessed to two of his sisters that she and her husband had provided the alibi for him. In 2008, Janet Tessier emailed the Illinois State Police who then reopened the case. Based on the depth and breadth of Lachman's reporting, it is obvious that the author worked closely with the surviving Ridulph and Tessier family members. A related Lifetime documentary is planned, so there may be some demand for this book. VERDICT Recommended for popular true crime collections. A fascinating and well-documented account of a (very) cold case and the repercussions of a horrible crime.—Karen Sandlin Silverman, Scarborough H.S. Lib., ME

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780425272886
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/04/2014
Pages:
512
Sales rank:
106,006
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

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.

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Acknowledgments

BOOK I

1

• • • • • • • • •

SYCAMORE, ILLINOIS

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.

• • • • • • • • •

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.

2

• • • • • • • • •

THE SEARCH

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.

• • • • • • • • •

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 she to leave the house.

Next to the State Theater was the Pantry, an old-fashioned family-style restaurant run by Ed Berg and his mother-in-law, who everyone called Gram. Gram made all the pies—apple, cherry, peach, and blueberry her specialties. On the evening of December 3, Nancy Jackson, the only waitress left in the Pantry, was cleaning up and preparing to close. She was anxious to get home. It was the eve of her seventeenth birthday, and she knew her mom would be in the kitchen baking a marble cake with chocolate icing.

Nancy, a pretty girl with glasses, which she had worn since kindergarten, was wearing a white waitress’s uniform and apron, saddle shoes, and ankle-length bobby socks. Her long hair was tied in a ponytail. She didn’t have much makeup on, just a touch of drugstore lipstick called Sweet Talk, a soft pink shade. Suddenly, she was startled by the police sirens and bright lights that had descended on State Street. A crowd was gathering, and the sirens kept screaming. Then someone came in and told her that a little girl was missing. Her name was Maria Ridulph.

Nancy knew Maria’s sister Pat, and on school mornings, she had occasionally given her a lift in her 1947 coupe. Sometimes, she’d see little Maria playing with dolls and thought she was adorable. Now Maria was missing. It was hard to grasp: these things just didn’t happen in Sycamore. Child abduction was a big-city crime, in places like Chicago, sixty-five miles away—but not in Sycamore. Nancy locked up, went out into the freezing night, got in her car, and drove home as quickly as she could.

• • • • • • • • •

Tom Braddy, his son Dale, and Kathy Sigman’s father, Bud, were walking south on Center Cross Street when they discovered a trail of footsteps in the snow, leading in a southwesterly direction, in the field behind the Ridulphs’ house. It hinted at something terrible. In the dusting of snow that covered Sycamore, they found the footsteps of a man, and to the right of them, a second set of footsteps: those of a child. Braddy planted his foot next to the adult’s footstep and compared. It looked like a size 9, maybe a 10. The footsteps went up about a hundred yards, then the adult’s pivoted sharply to the right. It reminded Braddy of somebody making a sudden move. The footsteps led straight to the Johnsons’ barn. The kidnapper must be hiding behind the barn, the men thought.

“Go around and we’ll have him,” Braddy told Dale and Bud Sigman.

There was nobody there.

Then Braddy noticed a fresh set of tire tracks. They were regular tread, not snow tires. Somebody had pulled out in the last hour or so and driven north on to Route 64.

Even these amateur sleuths could figure out the chain of events: Johnny had taken Maria on a piggyback ride, and when they got to the barn where his car was parked, he had put her down, walked with her to the car, put her in it, and driven away.

3

• • • • • • • • •

“A GIRL IS MISSING!”

A citizens’ army bundled up against the subzero temperature fanned out across the town, the men adrenaline-charged by rage. Determination was etched on their faces—to find Maria and to hunt down her abductor. Shock gripped the entire community but also a measure of shame that this could have happened here.

Police reinterviewed Kathy Sigman. Under tremendous pressure to recall everything, she was able to come up with some important new details. Johnny, she said, was about twenty to twenty-four years old, maybe as old as thirty-five, and stood about five feet eight and weighed 180 pounds. She said she had never seen him before. Strangely, given the weather, he wasn’t wearing a coat, just a heavy crewneck sweater knitted with green, blue, and yellow wool. He absolutely had blond hair, Kathy said. She was sure because he’d taken off his cap, which was gray. He spoke in a “thin high voice,” and he had “long teeth” and possibly a tooth missing on the upper row. He had on blue jeans, with a narrow belt and a shiny buckle. He was clean-shaven and didn’t look seedy.

Children generally make terrible witnesses in criminal cases. In police work, it’s a fundamental reality. But in Kathy Sigman, the police believed they had an exception to the rule.

The Ridulphs assured the police that there was no way Maria was a runaway. Mike Ridulph’s response was unequivocal: “She has never run away from home before, and she wouldn’t now. Someone must have taken her.” On this point, his wife, Frances, agreed. Stating the obvious, Sycamore police chief William Hindenburg declared, “It definitely looks like a kidnapping.”

As Hindenburg’s department consisted of only eight officers and seven reserve personnel, and the sheriff’s office of four deputies, he notified the state police that a child from Sycamore was missing. Roadblocks were set up around Sycamore. A bloodhound named Duke was brought in and given the scent of Maria’s clothes. He sniffed along the path of the footsteps in the snow but was unable to pick up the trail. Chief Hindenburg told the state police that the Sycamore cops had not been called until seventy minutes after Maria’s disappearance. “Seventy minutes could have meant seventy miles,” Hindenburg said. In other words, by now, Maria could well be beyond the DeKalb County borders.

Just as television viewers were settling in to watch the popular quiz show The $64,000 Question on CBS, a police car equipped with a public-address system got the word out to the rest of Sycamore.

“Attention! Attention! A girl is missing!” went the announcement.

Home owners were told to step outside and inspect their properties. Porch lights all over the city were switched on, and as snow cascaded down, people in pajamas put on winter coats and combed through their garages, backyards, and, just in case, cesspools. Home owners who failed to do their civic duty had their addresses jotted down and reported to the police chief. Many years later, a man who had been a youngster in 1957 could still recall how a company of volunteers had come to his house and told his father, “We’re searching your house.” It was not a polite, neighborly appeal. Some of the men looked as if they had been drinking, and in a town where just about every adult male was a hunter, it was not surprising that they all carried sidearms or rifles. The man who related the story pronounced the night of December 3, 1957, the scariest of his life.

By 9:00 P.M., the entire city had been mobilized.

At 10:30 P.M., Pat and Kay Ridulph made a remarkable discovery. The sisters were roaming the neighborhood with Randy Strombom’s mother when they found Maria’s rubber doll in the snow on the southern edge of Mrs. Cliffe’s property. Pat and Kay looked at each other and burst into tears. What made their find so remarkable was that the land, indeed that very spot, had been thoroughly scoured earlier in the evening by a DeKalb County deputy sheriff and three Sycamore city police officers, all of whom were carrying powerful flashlights. One cop who had actually stood on a rock right next to where Pat and Kay and Mrs. Strombom later came upon the doll swore it had not been there when he’d searched the spot.

The assistant state’s attorney, James Boyle, was at the scene when the doll was discovered. He was perplexed.

“Every inch of the grounds of the Ridulph home and the other homes on that block had been searched,” Boyle said. “They found nothing. Yet, one hour later, lying in plain view a few feet from the door of a garage of the house two doors east—there they found Maria’s doll with its red-and-white dress.” Someone must have put the doll there.

Kay Ridulph stayed out until 3:30 in the morning searching the neighborhood for her missing sister. When she got home, she went to her room, but before she turned out the lights she recorded her thoughts in her diary. “It didn’t really hit me until they found her doll at the garage. I’m sure she’ll return alive.” It was 4:00 A.M. when Kay finally fell asleep. Her father spent the night with the other searchers until, at 5:00 A.M., they all went home, utterly exhausted. Human endurance, said Chief Hindenburg, “could stand no more.”

On Wednesday, December 4, when daylight came, a fresh crop of volunteers resumed the search. Kay woke up at seven, after just three hours of sleep, and turned on the radio. Maria’s kidnapping was the lead story on every station. Hearing her sister’s name on the news made her physically ill. Her boyfriend, Lawrence “Larry” Hickey, came over to comfort her. Reporters from the Chicago newspapers and TV stations descended on Sycamore to interview Frances.

Frances Ridulph was forty-four years old, a petite and intelligent brunette who wore glasses and had a keen head for business. She had been born Frances Fenner on a farm in Iowa and had a junior-college education. She and her husband, Mike, who was fifty-one, had four children: Patricia, who went by Pat, had been born in 1941. Kay came next, in 1942, then Charles, who was nicknamed Chuck, in 1946. Finally there was Maria, born in 1950.

Maria’s shell-shocked mother did her best to articulate her youngest daughter’s special charm. She showed them Maria’s spelling tests—she got 100 in all but one. She took them to Maria’s Corner, where all her playthings were. She said Maria had never missed a day of Sunday school and faithfully studied her catechism.

Mike Ridulph, a machine operator at the Diamond Wire and Cable Company, was drained by his night of searching for his daughter through ditches and along railroad tracks, and he could barely speak through his grief. The house was packed with police, reporters, and relatives and neighbors who had come by with trays of food, and he could only run his fingers, swollen from a lifetime of hard physical labor in the factory, through his thick crop of graying black hair, breathing deeply and sighing from exhaustion.

After he’d had a few hours’ sleep, Mike went to police headquarters, taking Chuck, his eleven-year-old, with him to await breaking developments. Of the four Ridulph siblings, Chuck was closest to Maria, in age and devotion. He shared a bedroom with her. Her abduction crushed him.

Frances was certain that the kidnapper was not from around Sycamore. She understood her daughter and thought she could explain how Maria might have been tricked: “Whoever took her away hit her weak spot. He played with her.” Publicly, she said, “Too many people are saying she might be dead. I don’t like to hear that kind of talk, and I don’t think it’s true. I want folks to help look for my little girl.” Privately, however, Frances was saying, “I know she’s dead.”

In one way or another, virtually the entire city abandoned its regular pursuits to pitch in. Work at Sycamore’s three largest factories—Anaconda Wire and Cable, Ideal Industries, and Diamond Wire and Cable Company, which employed Mike Ridulph—essentially came to a halt as workers took the day off to lend a hand. Everyone was assured they would not be docked any pay. Downtown Sycamore was all but deserted. Mothers stayed home and kept their children indoors.

Over at Sycamore High School, education took a backseat; the principal dismissed the senior class so the boys could join in the hunt. Twenty-one Explorer Scouts volunteered. So did the mayor and the entire board of selectmen. A pair of girl’s slacks were discovered in a ditch, but when they were shown to Mrs. Ridulph, she said they didn’t belong to Maria. She was presented with a bloodstained petticoat that had been found on a farm in Malta, ten miles southwest of Sycamore. It was another dead end; Maria did not wear petticoats. “When they start finding her clothes, we’ll know it’s too late,” Mrs. Ridulph said.

The crime scene at Archie Place was anything but preserved. Nothing had been cordoned off, and overnight, the footprints of Maria and the kidnapper that had been left behind in the snow had been obliterated by the scores of volunteers trudging through the scene. Every trace of the tire tracks made by the getaway vehicle had also disappeared. Surveying the chaotic mess before him, Assistant State’s Attorney Boyle said a herd of elephants could not have been more destructive. Maria’s doll, which had been found discarded in the snow, was now forensically worthless. By Wednesday morning, so many people had handled it that the chances of obtaining the kidnapper’s fingerprints from it were miniscule. Even the mayor, Harold “Red” Johnson, had been photographed turning the doll around this way and that. Nevertheless, after all this fumbling, the doll was placed in a plastic evidence bag and preserved for the crime lab.

Boyle was fixated on the doll. He thought it was the key to everything. On his order, a deputy sheriff drove through the Ridulphs’ neighborhood and broadcast another important message over the vehicle’s public address system: “We are appealing to the person who placed the Ridulph doll at the point where it was found Tuesday night to identify himself to the state’s attorney’s office immediately.”

Behind the appeal was a distressing question: had somebody planted the doll on the Cliffe property in an effort to divert police away from the true route taken by Maria’s kidnapper? Was it possible that “Johnny” had been among the early band of searchers combing the vicinity? It was too chilling to imagine that the abductor could have been, could be living among them—and searching for Maria with them. Another less sinister premise was that a neighbor, to avoid getting involved, had discovered the doll on his property and dumped it elsewhere when nobody was looking.

4

• • • • • • • • •

A FEDERAL CASE

It wasn’t long before local authorities realized that a case of this magnitude necessitated federal resources. On Wednesday afternoon, December 4, a team of agents out of the Chicago FBI field office, headed by Special Agent in Charge Richard Auerbach, arrived in Sycamore as “observers.” At 7:00 P.M.—twenty-four hours after the reported abduction, on the presumption that Maria had been transported across state lines, making it a federal crime, they officially took over “Operation Find Maria,” as it was now called.

By Wednesday night, every drainage ditch, bush, culvert, bridge, and gully within the radius of Sycamore had been thoroughly explored. Unfortunately, nothing of consequence was found, just a few stomach-churning items like the gouged out eyeballs of a rabbit and a burlap gunny sack containing the carcasses of several kittens that some sick person had unloaded on the side of the road. None of these oddities amounted to a single helpful clue to Maria’s abduction.

A squadron of eight airplanes from the Civil Air Patrol was ordered to systematically sweep over the abductor’s most likely escape routes, Route 64 to the west and Route 23 to the south.

Whirlybirds skimmed the treetops, as did a U.S. Army Piasecki H-21 helicopter nicknamed the Flying Banana for its elongated design.

A light-artillery observation plane from Fort Sheridan, capable of flying as slowly as thirty miles per hour without stalling, also crisscrossed the skies above DeKalb County. Because the temperature on the night of the kidnapping had been 20 degrees, police ruled out the probability of a hastily dug grave because the earth was frozen.

People were encouraged to report any strange occurrence that had taken place in recent weeks that might prove remotely helpful to the investigation. Mildred Whitaker, who lived three blocks from the Ridulphs, informed police that, about a month before, she had caught a Peeping Tom near her house who resembled this Johnny character. Another neighbor said that, on the day of Maria’s abduction, he had seen a suspicious 1951 tan Chrysler with “shiny” white sidewalls and a dent under the right front headlight roaming the streets.

Maria’s teacher at West Elementary School was Mary Ann Christianson. Only twenty-two years old, she had been teaching for a mere three months and was faced with the task of comforting her class of thirty second-graders now that one of their own was missing.

At 1:30 Wednesday afternoon, Chief Hindenburg took time off from the search to address Maria’s schoolmates and distribute a safety pamphlet to them. It warned them, with illustrations, to learn the four don’ts:

   • Don’t go with strangers.
   • Don’t get in a car with a stranger.
   • Don’t accept candy, money, or gifts from strangers.
   • Don’t allow strangers to touch you or pick you up.

Hindenburg couldn’t help but note how sad the timing was. If only he had given his lecture on December 3.

“It looks like I was a day too late,” he said.

That night, Maria’s sister Pat watched the local TV newscast that, in those days, started at 7:00 P.M. and lasted fifteen minutes before network news came on (Jim Daley on ABC, Douglas Edwards on CBS, Huntley-Brinkley on NBC). Maria’s kidnapping was the lead story, of course, and Pat had a hard time watching her mother on TV making a heartfelt appeal to “Johnny” to return her daughter.

“If the person who kidnapped Maria is listening, it couldn’t have been done in malice,” Frances Ridulph said on camera. “It was a little mistake. God forgives mistakes. We would, too.” Then she spoke directly to her missing daughter, as only a mother could: “Don’t cry, Maria. Above all don’t cry. Don’t make a fuss. We’ll be with you soon.” Frances knew her Maria was a “screamer,” and her nightmare was that the kidnapper would choke her daughter to death just to keep her quiet.

After the broadcast, Pat went up to her bedroom, opened her diary, and with a fountain pen, wrote: “Lord help us.” At ten that night, she turned off the lights and tried to sleep.

By Thursday, the third day of “Operation Find Maria,” Boyle was profoundly discouraged. “So far we have checked all known sexual deviates and men with records. We have chased down countless clues and we have found exactly nothing.”

“I hope it’s not a sex crime,” Chief Hindenburg said, “but I’m afraid it is.”

Sycamore had been gone over “inch by inch,” he said, and not a single substantive piece of evidence had been uncovered. The city’s frustration reached the level of folly when Hindenburg, accompanied by Mrs. Ridulph and Mayor Johnson, visited a fortune-teller, who made the pointless prediction that Maria would be found dead. For Mike Ridulph, it was all too much. “For God’s sake, quit saying she’s dead. I know she is alive. No one would have any reason to kill her.”

5

• • • • • • • • •

THE DOOR KNOCK

Two FBI agents moved into the Ridulph house. They set up a twenty-four-hour command post and slept on a pull-out bed in the den. They also tapped the family’s phone. Next to the phone, they left a set of instructions for Mike and Frances on what they should say in the event that the kidnapper called demanding a ransom. The Ridulph children could not believe that G-men were actually living in their home. When Special Agent Bob Wilson told Kay she looked just like the FBI switchboard operator back in Chicago, she tingled. “And Bob said she [the operator] was very pretty,” Kay confided to her diary that night. It delighted her to be compared to a sophisticated grown-up from the big city.

Kay wondered whether divine providence was at work. Could it be that Maria’s kidnapping was a test of faith? “If only God would bring her back alive,” she wrote in her diary. “I think he will as soon as we all begin to show a little faith.” Her father was already promising to go to church every Sunday and sit next to Maria. “Boy, if she ever comes back will things be different,” Kay wrote. “Now I really appreciate a little sister when I might not have one. Please, God, bring her back and give us another chance. That’s my prayer.”

The Ridulph house was a whirlwind of comings and goings, what with Pat’s and Kay’s boyfriends hanging around and neighbors stopping by to see how the family was holding up. It was all too much for Agent Wilson. He also had the legitimate concern that sensitive information might leak out and impede the investigation. Finally, he had had enough, and asked Mike and Frances to stop visitors from coming to the house.

On Friday, December 6, the Ridulph kids were told it was time to go back to school. Kay would have preferred to stay at home. Everybody at Sycamore High seemed to be staring at her. “I felt like Exhibit A all day,” she complained. One teacher stopped Kay in the hallway and asked if there was anything new in the case. Kay said there was nothing she could really talk about.

“You’ve lost all hope, haven’t you?” the teacher asked.

Kay could only respond with a firm shake of her head, but she was irked.

As a fresh week of school began, Pat struggled to deal with their little sister’s fate, and confided her worries to her diary.

MONDAY DECEMBER 9

The school day sure seems hard. I haven’t got much time to do homework and I seem to get further and further behind. I walked home from school today and after supper I went to choir.

TUESDAY DECEMBER 10

Today was dress-up day. I took the car to school. After supper they fingerprinted us.

WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 11

Still no clues today. We saw two movies in history. Went bowling after school. I bowled a 98. I addressed a few Christmas cards. Did homework.

THURSDAY DECEMBER 12

They called for junior and senior boys to go on another search this afternoon. As far as I know there are no real clues. At 8:00 P.M., I went to Teen Town but it was dead.

It also was time for Mike Ridulph to return to work. On his drive to the factory his first day back, he ran into a state-police roadblock. He pulled over, and like hundreds of others driving to and from Sycamore, he had his trunk opened and searched by the police, none of whom recognized him as the father of the missing child they were all looking for. When he arrived at Diamond Wire and Cable Company, his coworkers on the factory floor gathered around him to wish him well, but Mike was inconsolable.

“I’m almost positive Maria will be found dead,” Mike told them. “The only thing you fellows can do is teach your kids to be more careful.”

In all, sixty FBI agents from Chicago and various field offices across the Midwest were assigned to the Maria Ridulph case. Most of them were staying at the Golden Harvest Motel, just outside Sycamore. Richard Auerbach was in overall command. He was forty-six years old and had a distinguished pedigree, having studied at Harvard before receiving a law degree from Boston University.

Auerbach happened to be politically savvy, having served as executive assistant to the U.S. senator from New Hampshire before he joined the FBI in 1940 as a special agent. Then he climbed up the ranks to special agent in charge, first in Richmond, Virginia; then Seattle, Washington; before his promotion to the Chicago field office. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had instructed him to transmit daily updates to him on the Maria Ridulph investigation, and interest in the case had reached the White House. President Eisenhower, who had suffered a mild stroke on November 25 that had left him temporarily incapable of articulating a complete sentence, was now back in the Oval Office putting in a full day. He requested that Hoover keep him informed about the case.

This was the halcyon era of the FBI, when the bureau was deemed to be the world’s greatest detective agency and its agents were seen as zealous crime fighters, defending the country against the Communist menace. Around Sycamore, the agents were easy to spot in their gray flannel suits—and the hat every one of them wore. They were well mannered, persistent, and crisply professional. When these “men in black” ran an industrial outdoor vacuum cleaner around Archie Place, where Maria had last been seen, it was quite a spectacle to see them literally sucking up any evidence the local cops might have missed. Auerbach called it “spade work.”

They went to every restaurant, tavern, filling station, garage, and the bus depot—local hangouts for teenagers and troublemakers—looking for a lead. Recently released patients from Illinois’s mental asylums and parolees from the penitentiary and state reformatory who lived in DeKalb County came under investigation. Guests who registered in hotels and motels were checked out. Dentists in Sycamore were asked if they had a patient with strange teeth like Johnny’s.

Finally, there was a break in the case. It came through a whiff of information that took two FBI agents to 227 Center Cross Street, the home of Ralph and Eileen Tessier.

The call came to the DeKalb County sheriff’s office from a woman who said she had information about the Maria Ridulph kidnapping that she thought the police ought to know about. There was a boy from the neighborhood who definitely needed to be looked into. Deputy Sheriff George Gould took down the information. The boy’s name was Treschner, or something like that. The caller didn’t know exactly how to spell it. Treschner, she said, was about twenty years old and he had blond hair and lived in the vicinity of Maria Ridulph. Gould tried to elicit more particulars, but that was all the caller would say. He asked her for her name but she said she wanted to remain anonymous. Click.

Gould was under standing orders to pass all Maria Ridulph leads straight to the FBI. He immediately called Special Agent Jerome Nolan and relayed what he’d just received. Nolan was thirty-three and had such a pleasant personality his friends called him Sunny Skies. He had played high school football in Wisconsin, was a zealous Green Bay Packers fan, and had seen action in World War II in the Pacific theater, in New Guinea and the Philippines. He had joined the FBI six months after his graduation from the University of Wisconsin and was assigned to the Rockford, Illinois, bureau, so he knew the lay of the land in the northern part of the state.

It didn’t take very long for the FBI to figure out that the name “Treschner” had to be Tessier, because a John Tessier lived on Center Cross Street, about a block and a half from the Ridulphs. John was eighteen years old and had blond hair. In the wave of tips coming in, this one was deemed interesting and worth checking out.

The knock on the Tessiers’ door came two days later. It was December 8, a Sunday, when Ralph Tessier opened the door and faced two FBI special agents, Frank Mellott and David Burton. He told the agents he was not surprised by their visit. By now, everyone in Sycamore knew that Maria Ridulph had been abducted by a man calling himself Johnny. It had been in all the papers. Since they lived so close to Maria’s house and their son John fit the general description, Ralph and his wife, Eileen, had discussed the possibility that he might “fall under suspicion.” Given that, and the name factor, it was inevitable that the FBI would come calling.

Ralph invited the agents in.

Ralph was a big galoot, born and raised in Sycamore. Everybody in town knew him from the Ace Hardware store. Eileen Tessier, petite, smart, and articulate, had grown up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and only had an eighth grade education but she loved books. Mysteries were her favorite. Anything Agatha Christie wrote, she consumed.

Ten-year-old Jeanne Tessier and her sister Katheran, age twelve, were on the couch in the living room where their parents’ conversation with the FBI took place.

The agents said they had a few questions about John: where, they wanted to know, had he been on the night Maria had disappeared? The two girls listened to their parents tell the FBI that on the evening of December 3, John was forty miles from Sycamore, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force at the armed-forces induction center in Rockford. Ralph added that John could prove his whereabouts because he had called collect from Rockford at about 7:10 P.M. to say he was “ready to come home” and needed a lift. Frances told the agents that her husband had driven to Rockford and picked John up at approximately 8:00 P.M. and they had come straight home. They were back in Sycamore around 9:00. So John was not in Sycamore when Maria disappeared.

The agents asked to see John’s room. The Tessiers obliged, led them there, and gave them permission to rummage through their son’s closet. Were they looking for a sweater like the one Maria’s kidnapper had been wearing?

After about ten minutes of looking around, Mellott and Burton asked where John was. His parents said they didn’t know, and the agents left, saying they’d be back the following day. They needed to talk to John, and he might have to take a polygraph.

Later that night, when John came home, he found his mother in tears.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her.

“The FBI was here, and they want to talk to you.” She told him that Mellott and Burton had asked them about his comings and goings on December 3. “They want you to take a lie-detector test.”

Many years later, John would recall his reaction—cocky indifference. “OK. Well, good. Then we’ll get that taken care of.”

His mother hadn’t wanted him to go near a lie detector. “No, don’t do that. Don’t talk to them.”

“Mom, I don’t have anything to hide,” he says he told her. “I should go and get it over with.”

6

• • • • • • • • •

MORNING, DECEMBER 9

Special Agent David Burton arrived at the house and eyeballed John in the flesh for the first time. The teenager was five feet ten or so and had blondish hair with a DA cut. When he smiled, which was often because he was always making wisecracks and joking around, Burton noted a gap in his front teeth. He recalled little Kathy Sigman’s description of the kidnapper: she’d said he had peculiar teeth, which may—or may not—conform with what he’d observed. So far so good.

Burton asked John if he was ready to go. He said yes, climbed into the FBI vehicle, and asked where they were going. To the Golden Harvest Motel, the command post for the FBI team looking for Maria Ridulph, Burton said.

On the ride over, John chatted with Agent Burton: “He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. A family man, just real nice,” John recalled, and they had a pleasant conversation. John said he didn’t really know Maria Ridulph. He had seen her around the neighborhood, of course, but the only time he had ever spoken to her was maybe four years before when she was a tot of three. On that occasion, she had been playing on Archie Place, and he was concerned because she was getting close to the corner where his dog, a mixed collie named Laddie the Wonder Dog, had been run over and killed the year before. John told Maria it was too dangerous to be out, and she should go back home. She was a “precious” girl, he said of Maria. “If people could have seen her as I saw her the last time, they would only say one thing: ‘Awww.’ Because she was just a beautiful big-eyed little child.”

John remembered that he knew Maria’s sisters, Pat and Kay, but not very well. He had been over to the Ridulph house just once, about two years before Maria’s abduction, when Pat and Kay had put on a play and invited the neighbors in to see it. About the only other encounter he had had with the Ridulph girls was when he was walking by their house one day and the two girls were playing jump rope in the driveway. When they spotted him, they launched into a nursery rhyme.

Johnny over the ocean

Johnny over the sea

Johnny broke a bottle

And blamed it on me

I told Ma

Ma told Pa

Johnny got a lickin’

Ha, Ha, Ha

John said he was sure they were mocking him, and it ticked him off. Everybody used to call him Johnny, but he says when he turned thirteen his mother told him, “Johnny’s too young for you,” and from then on he’d called himself John.

John Tessier had to wonder how much the FBI knew about him. Stories were going around that were on the sinister side. James Cliffe was a handsome youngster who had been voted “Most Photogenic Boy” in DeKalb County and won $50. James often found himself on Center Cross Street getting his hair cut by a man who lived next door to the Tessiers and had a barber chair in his house. A lot of the neighborhood kids went there for a buzz cut because it was so cheap. Center Cross Street was also on James’s newspaper route, so he biked through there every afternoon to deliver the Rockford Register-Republic. More than once, he claimed, he’d seen John Tessier standing in his bedroom window in his underwear at dusk, just staring out (though John Tessier later denied such incidents ever happened).

“He was a weird cat,” James said. John Tessier was into photography, and when he’d expressed an interest in photographing James’s sisters, he told them, “Don’t go anywhere near that house.”

This kind of talk could be dismissed as inconsequential neighborhood gossip. What street in America doesn’t have an eccentric in its midst? But it was a more disturbing episode involving John Tessier that had come to the attention of the FBI.

Pam Smith was a pretty and petite tomboy whose father, Roy Smith, was a big deal in Sycamore. Smith owned two Marathon gas stations and also sold air conditioners and home heating systems. The Smiths lived in a nice house with a large backyard at the corner of Exchange and Sacramento Streets. One summer, when Pam was around eight years old, she was playing on the screened-in porch when John Tessier walked up to her and allegedly uttered these words: “Do you want to go for a piggyback ride?”

More than fifty years later, Pam Smith, now Pam Long, could still shake her head at how foolhardy it had been for her to say yes.

“Why I did it, I don’t know.”

The next thing she knew, John was running down the street at a pretty good clip with little Pam clinging to his back. When “he wouldn’t put me down,” she said, she panicked and started crying. John kept running for another four blocks until a neighbor, Vince Mulligan, saw what was happening and called Pam’s father at the gas station. Roy Smith flew out of his office, jumped into his Chrysler Imperial, and drove around until he caught up with the teenager with his weeping daughter on his back. Smith pulled over, yanked Pam off John’s back, then proceeded to give her the scolding of her life.

“Don’t you ever do that again! What were you thinking?”

While tears streamed down Pam’s face, Smith turned his wrath on John, whom he recognized as the grandson of Eugene Tessier, who owned the house that abutted the Smith property. Eugene was a grumpy old coot, and maybe had a right to be; on too many occasions, baseballs hit by one of the four rambunctious Smith boys had come sailing through one of his windows.

“Never, ever go near my daughter again,” Roy Smith warned John. “If I see you do that again, so help me . . .”

John scurried off.

Years later, when asked whether he ever gave Pam Smith a piggyback ride, John Tessier said, “That’s just a total fabrication. I would never have done that.”

• • • • • • • • •

December 3, 1957. Five years had passed since Pam’s horrible piggyback ride on John Tessier’s back. She was now thirteen, and this being a Tuesday night, she was at Teen Town, a wholesome community center where Sycamore’s young people got together. They listened to rock and roll and doo-wop on the jukebox, and sometimes, on special occasions, there’d be live music.

That evening, Pam walked home—Teen Town was just two blocks away—and saw that her father’s regular Tuesday-night poker game was going on in the dining room. All his poker buddies were at the table: the town’s general practitioner, Dr. Harold Trapp; Jack Haka, who owned the local distributorship for the Schlitz Brewing Company; their neighbor, Vince Mulligan; and several other leading citizens of Sycamore. Pam’s mother, Cora, had prepared fried chicken and deviled eggs for the guys and covered the dining-room table with a black oilcloth. Pam said good night to everyone and went straight to her room.

Suddenly, police sirens were wailing, followed by a voice from a police car’s loudspeaker notifying the citizenry that a girl was missing and asking them to check every basement and garage on the block. Pam ran downstairs to see that the poker game had broken up and the men had rushed home to see what they could do to help with the search. It wasn’t until the following morning that Pam learned the missing girl was Maria Ridulph. It made her sick to her stomach. She knew Maria. Billy, her brother, used to date Maria’s sister Kay, and when she visited the Smiths she’d sometimes bring Maria along to play with a litter of rabbits the Smiths were raising in the backyard. They’d been orphaned when the family dog had slaughtered their mother, and it was a struggle to keep them alive. Pam had taught Maria how to use eyedroppers to feed them milk and water. Maria loved those rabbits.

Pam’s father told her that until further notice, under no circumstances could she walk the streets of Sycamore alone.

Like everyone in town, the Smith family devoured any and all news about Maria’s kidnapping, but one eerie item in the newspapers hit Roy Smith like a punch to the solar plexus: the kidnapper, this “Johnny,” to lure Maria away had given her a piggyback ride. That bizarre piggyback ride John Tessier had given Pam a few years back still riled him. Could John Tessier possibly be the culprit? Smith called the police. They’d clearly taken his call seriously; a few days later Pam was at school when her English teacher, Jim Ballotti, pulled her out of class. Waiting for her in the hallway were two men wearing fedora hats.

The men introduced themselves to Pam and told her they were FBI agents.

“Did you ever get a piggyback ride with a guy named Johnny?” one agent asked.

“Yes. And I got into lots of trouble for it.”

They wanted to know when she had last seen John Tessier. At a slumber party not too long ago, she told them. All the girls had gone to the Devil’s Drive-in Theater, on Sycamore Road, to see a movie. During intermission, Pam had headed over to the concession stand—and run into John Tessier. She’d rushed right back and told her friends, “Oh, my gosh, that’s that creep who used to hang around our neighborhood.” John Tessier had a face you could not forget, Pam told the FBI men, and teeth that she could only describe as “odd . . . scary . . . weird.”

When Pam got home that night, her father was in high gear. He was positive that John Tessier was Maria’s kidnapper.

“They got the SOB,” he bellowed. “I just know he did it.”

7

• • • • • • • • •

GRILLED

December 9: Agent Burton showed John Tessier into the room at the Golden Harvest Motel that had been set aside for his interrogation. That was when John realized this was serious. Another agent, who would later administer the lie-detector examination, was waiting for them.

He got right on John’s case. “I know you did it.”

John was stunned. He almost said, You’re full of shit, but thought better of it. Nobody cursed out the FBI, and all he managed to muster was a lame, “I didn’t do a damn thing.”

For the next hour or so, John recounted every moment of his time from December 2 through December 4 to the agents. They played good cop, bad cop, the bad cop repeatedly getting in John’s face screaming, “I know you did it,” while John emphatically shook his head. They demanded to know what he had done with Maria, and they kept at it. Finally, he was hooked up to the polygraph, and Agent Bad Cop told him how the machine worked. He warned John that he had better answer truthfully because the polygraph could detect lies.

The Q&A began, and John stared straight ahead. As he answered every question, he could hear the stylus snaking across the scrolling roll of graph paper. When the session was over, Burton and the other agent must have looked at each other in complete bewilderment. There was no room for ambiguity. The official FBI report typed up later that day and placed in the files read as follows:

The recorded reactions on the polygraph charts do not reflect evidence of guilty knowledge or implication by TESSIER in this matter. It is believed that he was a proper subject for such a test and would have reacted significantly if he had been involved.

They had been so certain that they had their man.

They had nothing on John. He was free to go. Burton offered him a ride home and, on the way there, was at a loss for words, almost apologetic. He even wondered if the young man could offer any leads for the FBI to pursue. Were there any other suspects in Sycamore they should be looking at? John said that if he thought of anybody interesting he’d be eager to get back to the FBI. When Burton pulled up to 227 Center Cross Street, John said there were no hard feelings. He got out of the car and strode into his house. His mother was enormously relieved to see him.

• • • • • • • • •

Despite a polygraph that screamed “not guilty,” the FBI was not quite ready to dismiss John Tessier as a suspect. Over the next few days, a team of agents proceeded to check into every aspect of his story.

During his interrogation at the Golden Harvest Motel, he had told the FBI that on December 2—the day before Maria’s kidnapping—he was in Chicago getting a physical at the air force induction center on West Van Buren Street. What should have been a routine medical examination ended in disappointment when an X-ray turned up a spot on his lung. He told the air force doctor that he had contracted tuberculosis when he was three but assured the examining physician that the condition was benign. He was told to come back the next day for another round of X-rays. The air force, eager to sign a recruit, handed him a voucher for a night’s stay in Chicago. That evening, John found the cheapest place available—a room at the YMCA.

The next morning, December 3, the day of Maria’s kidnapping, John said he’d returned to the induction center for more X-rays. The spot on his lung was still present. He saw his future in the military going up in smoke.

“What can I do to fix this?” he asked the recruiting officer. “It has never been a problem.”

He was told that if his family physician wrote a letter attesting to the fact that he did not have an active case of TB, his enlistment papers should sail through. He assured the recruiter that obtaining the letter would be a cinch. It was noon. John’s train, so his story went, wasn’t leaving until 5:15 P.M. With plenty of time to kill, he caught the sights.

Chicago terrified John, a hick from Sycamore who had just turned eighteen. He had been to the city a few times with Ralph but never before on his own. Not knowing his way around, and petrified he’d get lost, a wide-eyed John says he stuck to the Loop, Chicago’s main commercial district. At some point, his wanderings took him to State Street, where he says he stepped into an old-fashioned burlesque house and watched a campy vaudeville show featuring slapstick comedians and bawdy dancers. He says he’d never seen anything like it. “That was where I learned the magical things that girls can do with tassels,” he recalled with a chortle.

Finally, it was time to catch the train. According to Tessier’s account, he headed over to Union Station, which was all decked out for Christmas, and boarded a westbound Illinois Central train to Rockford, the state’s third largest city. It left on time, at 5:15, and pulled into Rockford at exactly 6:45. He exited the depot on Main Street and walked to the post office. There, from a phone booth, he placed a collect call to his house in Sycamore (a four-digit telephone number: 3257) and spoke to Ralph, his father.

“I told him I’m in Rockford, I had a problem at the induction center, and if he wasn’t busy could he give me a ride home.”

John Tessier told the FBI that there were multiple witnesses who could verify his story. Foremost among them was U.S. Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Liebovich, who was in charge of the recruiting office in Rockford. John had run into Liebovich on the steps of the post office building after making the collect call to his father. He told Liebovich that he had just come from having a physical in Chicago and he wanted to “turn in my paperwork.”

He said he followed Liebovich up the steps to the air force recruitment office on the third floor. Technical Sergeant John Froom was just closing up for the night. John Tessier handed him his enlistment papers, explained the hiccup with the X-ray, and said he’d be back the next day with a letter from his family doctor. Apparently, he made an unfavorable impression. Froom thought he looked “bewildered” and “acted like a ‘lost sheep.’” They shot the breeze for a while; then John said good night and was on his way. The time was around 7:30 P.M. Forty-five miles away in Sycamore, the alarm that Maria Ridulph had disappeared had already been sounded.

John said his next stop in Rockford was a diner across the street from the post office. He ordered a slice of pie and chatted with the waitress. Finally, he told the FBI it was time to head back to Sycamore. On his arrival, he came upon pandemonium in the streets.

That, at least, is the story he related to the FBI. Was it believable?

Special Agent John Roberts Jr. was assigned the task of tracking down the witnesses who could vouch for John Tessier’s time frame. On December 10, Roberts put a call in to the Rockford armed-forces recruitment office and spoke to a staff sergeant named Jon Oswald. Based on his conversation with Oswald, everything regarding John Tessier checked out: the physical in Chicago, the spot on his lung, the overnight stay at the Y, John’s reexamination the morning of December 3.

Then Agent Roberts also reached out to Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Liebovich (misspelled in FBI files as “Liberwitz”), who thought aspects of John Tessier’s story were “difficult to believe.” For one thing, John claimed to have been ordered by military personnel in Chicago to report to the recruiting office in Rockford when his train came in, at 6:45. Strange, because no recruitment office stayed open that late, and the people at the Chicago induction center would have known that. Then there was John Tessier’s overall conduct. The young man “gave the appearance of being a ‘narcotic,’” Liebovich told the FBI. According to the colonel, Tessier confided to him that he had been previously rejected from military service “because he was unstable.”

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