I’ve always been interested in old, unsolved crimes — the so-called “cold cases.” Partly it’s the historian in me (by inclination and education), partly it’s natural curiosity about a puzzle (“Who dunnit?” And why?), and also it’s that unsatisfying feeling of Justice left undone, that no one has been held to account for what they did. I’ve even co-written a spec script for the now-canceled CBS series Cold Case about a 50-year old crime of mistaken identity and murder. (And we did a darned fine job, if I say so, myself.)
So you can imagine my interest in the news regarding the murder of little Maria Ridulph in 1957. Imagine: two young girls are playing outside in a town that could have come straight out of the world of Norman Rockwell, a time when you didn’t have to lock your doors and children could play out of sight of their parents. Then a young man comes up to them and offers to play with them. Maria’s friend runs home to get some mittens and, when she comes back, both the young man and Maria are gone.
It was a case that captured national attention — even J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower received daily updates. But Maria wasn’t found in time; her remains were discovered months later, over 100 miles away.
What had happened to her? Who dunnit?
Now, at last, we may get some answers:
Police suspected [Jack Daniel] McCullough, who lived less than two blocks from the Ridulphs and who fit the description of the man said to have approached the girls, Thomas said Friday. But McCullough seemed to have an alibi, claiming he took the train from Rockford to Chicago the day of the abduction.
His story fell apart last year after investigators reinterviewed a woman who dated him in 1957 and asked her to search through some personal items, the Seattle Times reported, citing court documents. She found an unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago dated the day the girl went missing.
“Once his alibi crumbled, we found about a dozen other facts that helped us build our case,” Thomas said.
McCullough is now 71 and is awaiting extradition to Illinois. Ironically, this accused murderer went on to become a police officer, in which role he apparently went on to victimize others.
But it’s fascinating both how the case broke –an unused train ticket saved by an old girlfriend destroyed his alibi– and that investigators kept looking into this year after year, for over two generations, never completely giving up on the quest to do right by a 7-year old who never had the chance to grow up and have children of her own.
Of course, this won’t bring her back to life, nor give back to her friends and family what was ripped from them so long ago. But, even decades later, it’s right that the truth may at last have come out and her killer finally may be called to account.
Of Interest: An old article on LAPD’s cold case unit.