SYCAMORE, Ill. (AP) — The murder of a 7-year-old Illinois girl that haunted the nation more than 50 years ago went to trial Monday, starting with a prosecutor accusing the defendant of discarding the body like "a piece of garbage."
Jack McCullough, 72 and a former Washington state police officer, has pleaded not guilty to the 1957 kidnapping and slaying of Maria Ridulph, of Sycamore. It's one of the oldest cold-case murders brought to trial in the United States.
Maria's friend, Kathy Sigman, told authorities that a young man calling himself "Johnny" had approached them while they were playing outside on Dec. 3, 1957, and offered to give the girls piggyback rides. Sigman left to get mittens and when she returned, Maria and the man were gone.
Prosecutors say McCullough, whose name was John Tessier in the 1950s, was "Johnny."
"This ordinary night would end in horror," said DeKalb County State's Attorney Clay Campbell. "It would end with this defendant dumping her body in the cold, dark woods like a piece of garbage."
Ridulph's abduction captured national attention, and even then-President Dwight Eisenhower asked to be kept up-to-date. Her badly decomposed body was found months later 120 miles away from Sycamore.
Forensics examinations indicate that Ridulph was stabbed at least three times in the throat and the chest, prosecutors said Monday.
The slain girl's friend, now in her 60s, is expected to be called to the stand to identify McCullough, who was arrested last year in Seattle and brought to Illinois.
"The defendant thought he could get away with it," Campbell said Monday. "What he couldn't count on was that Kathy Sigman could never forget his face."
Public defender Thomas McCulloch says there's no evidence linking his client to the crime.
"Jack McCullough did not commit this murder," he said. "The reality is it has not been solved by charging Jack McCullough."
The girl's older brother, Charles Ridulph, was the first witness for prosecutors Monday, describing his younger sister as a smart and outgoing girl.
The defense opted for a bench trial, meaning that the judge rather than a jury will assess the evidence and decide on a verdict.
McCullough lived a few block from the Ridulph family home and was on an early list of suspects. But he had an alibi, saying that on the day the girl vanished, he traveled to Chicago to get a medical exam before enlisting in the Air Force.
He later moved out of the area, served in the Armed Forces and ultimately worked as a police officer in Washington and a security guard at a retirement home — where he was arrested on July 1, 2011.
Investigators reopened the case several years ago, after McCullough's former girlfriend told them she found his unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago from Dec. 3, 1957, the day Maria vanished.