SYCAMORE, Ill. (AP) — A former Washington state policeman was sentenced Monday to life in prison for kidnapping and killing a 7-year-old girl more than 50 years ago in the small Illinois town where he grew up.
Jack McCullough, 73, was convicted in September in one of the oldest unsolved crimes in American history to make it to trial. He was sentenced in a small town courtroom a few blocks from where Maria Ridulph played with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, before she was grabbed, choked and stabbed to death in an alley. Her body was found months later, dumped in woods more than 100 miles away.
Many of the little girl's friends and relatives had long since given up hope that her killer would be found, and they didn't utter a sound or betray the slightest emotion as a silver-haired Jack McCullough stood, turned to them and proclaimed his innocence.
"I did not, did not, kill Maria Ridulph," said McCullough, who grew up in Sycamore and was 17 when Ridulph died. "It was a crime I did not, would not, could not have done."
Judge James Hallock admonished McCullough to face him, not the spectators, and a sheriff's deputy stood behind McCullough to block his view of Ridulph's relatives and the childhood friend who was left behind.
"He can say all he wants to say," Kathy Chapman, now 63, said afterward. "This finally puts this part of my life to a resting point."
Chapman had been playing with Ridulph in the snow when she ran home to get her mittens, leaving her friend with a teenager who had been giving them piggyback rides. When she returned, both were gone.
While Chapman and others had waited 55 years for justice for Ridulph, and they made it clear they weren't going to let McCullough hurt or affect them again. When the sentencing was over, they simply left their seats and walked out of court.
"I'm satisfied," said Charles Ridulph, Maria's older brother.
"This is all we could expect," Chapman added, referring to the life sentence. Illinois abolished the death penalty last year. "Now Maria is finally at peace."
Monday's hearing was the latest chapter in a case that started during a more trusting and innocent era, when people across the country and particularly in small towns like Sycamore, left doors unlocked and parents didn't give much thought to their children hopping on bikes and riding off with friends — or playing in their front yard.
No crime like this had ever happened in Sycamore, and the abduction of a child was rare enough anywhere that the before the massive search ended with the girl's body found in a forest the following April it was said President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover asked for daily updates on the investigation.