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Trial of 1957 schoolgirl's murder nears end

SYCAMORE – Testimony ended Thursday in the trial of a man charged in the 1957 murder of a Sycamore girl, and both sides rested after four days focused on childhood memories and a deathbed accusation.

Seven-year-old Maria Ridulph was abducted while playing outside, and her death horrified the community and unsettled parents nationwide. Even then-President Dwight Eisenhower asked to be kept up to date on the case.

Just before public defenders rested Thursday afternoon, the judge asked Jack McCullough, the 72-year-old defendant from Seattle, if he had decided to testify.

McCullough, in a high, strained voice, said he would not.

The trial in Sycamore, some 60 miles west of Chicago, is one of the oldest cold-case murders to go to trial. Such trials are complicated by faded memories and, in McCullough's case, an absence of physical evidence.

McCullough was around 17 at the time of the killing and lived a few blocks from the Ridulph family home. The former Washington state police officer has denied kidnapping Maria on Dec. 3, 1957, killing her and dumping her body in a forest 120 miles away.

Judge James Hallock, who will decide the verdict after the defense opted for a bench trial, is expected to hear closing arguments Friday morning, and a decision could come the same day.

The defense's case lasted less than two hours and focused entirely on state testimony from one of McCullough's half-sisters. The woman said their mother, Eileen Tessier, had said on her death bed in 1994 that she believed McCullough murdered Maria.

Defense lawyers called another half-sister to the stand Thursday to say she was also at the hospital bedside that day. But Mary Hunt said she only heard her mother say, "He did it," but didn't hear her mother specify what she was talking about.

A visibly uncomfortable Hunt — who, like her sister, has expressed support for the prosecution's case — was asked during cross-examination if she knew what her mother was trying to say.

"Yes," Hunt immediately answered.

Minutes later during a break, a teary-eyed Hunt hugged Ridulph's childhood friend, Kathy Chapman, the state's star witness. Chapman identified McCullough as the man who approached the girls just before Maria vanished. Ridulph's siblings and several of her childhood friends have attended the trial.

An inmate held in the same jail as McCullough testified earlier Thursday for the state. Kirk Swaggerty said McCullough told him he killed Ridulph but that it was accidental.

McCullough said he was giving the girl a piggyback ride when she fell and started screaming, Swaggerty said. McCullough said he smothered her as he tried to quiet her, Swaggerty said.

Earlier this week, Chapman identified McCullough in an old photograph as the young man who called himself "Johnny" and approached the girls. In 1957, McCullough's name was John Tessier. Chapman told the court she went home to grab mittens, and when she returned, her friend and the man were gone.

McCullough was on an early list of suspects in 1957. But he had an alibi, saying that on the day, he had traveled to Chicago to get a medical exam before enlisting in the Air Force.

Investigators reopened the case a few years ago, after McCullough's former girlfriend told them she found his unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago on the day Maria vanished. He was arrested on July 1, 2011 at a retirement home in Washington state where he worked as a security guard.

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Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm

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