Chapter 1: A child is taken
Maria was the pretty one, slight and graceful at 7 with big brown eyes that shined with warmth and intelligence. Everyone said the second-grader was special and Kathy, who was a year older, felt honored to be her friend.
They lived a few doors away from each other on a side street called Archie Place. It was their whole world in 1957, a time when children played hide-and-seek outside instead of watching television. People didn't lock their doors in this Midwestern farm town because everyone knew everybody else.
Sycamore and its 7,000 souls felt safe on the morning of December 3, 1957, but the feeling wouldn't last.
That first Tuesday in December started like any other for Maria Ridulph and Kathy Sigman, with a short walk across the street to West Elementary School. It was cold, with a promise of snow in the air. After school, they went to Maria's house to cut out paper snowflakes.
A few blocks away, a man in an overcoat spotted two other girls walking along State Street by the public library and tried to strike up a conversation. It was 4:15 p.m. The girls felt uneasy, so they ducked into a restaurant. When they emerged, the man was gone -- but he'd left something disturbing behind. Scattered on the sidewalk were half a dozen photographs of nude women.
That wasn't Sycamore's only peculiar hint of the dirty and forbidden. Since Halloween, someone had been scrawling obscenities in chalk on a tree and stop sign at the intersection of Center Cross Street and Archie Place. Maria and Kathy made plans to play there after dinner. It was a favorite spot they hadn't been to since summer.
At 5 p.m. sharp, Kathy went home. Maria's family gathered around the table for her favorite supper: rabbit, carrots, potatoes and milk. She finished off two rabbit legs, but barely touched her vegetables. She pleaded to go back outside as the first flurries of the season started to swirl in the night sky.
Excited, she called Kathy on the phone: I can go outside tonight, can you?
Kathy lived in a white cottage at the end of a long driveway, and her family was the first on the block to own a clothes dryer. Her freshly laundered jeans still felt warm as she met Maria at mid-block and they raced in the dark to the massive elm tree on the corner. They were playing "duck the cars" -- scurrying back and forth between the tree and a street pole, trying to avoid the headlights from oncoming cars -- when a good-looking young man approached. He wore his blond hair swept back in a ducktail. Kathy remembers his narrow face, big teeth and high, thin voice. She'd never seen him before.
Hello, little girls, he said. Are you having fun?
He asked whether they wanted piggyback rides and gave his name as "Johnny." He told Kathy and Maria that he was 24 and wasn't married.
Do you like dollies?
The girls nodded.
By the time these events were recalled in a Sycamore courtroom 55 years later, memories had faded and many details noted in police and FBI reports were lost to time.
But nobody could forget the piggyback ride. That was how Johnny won Maria over.
Down he trotted, 20 feet to the south along Center Cross Street and back again, Maria giggling with glee on his shoulders. When it was over, she ran to her house, three doors away at 616 Archie Place, to fetch a doll for the next piggyback ride.
Kathy waited on the sidewalk with Johnny. He asked whether she wanted to take a walk around the block or go on a trip in a truck, car or bus. No, she told him. He told her she was pretty, but she sensed it was Maria he liked more.
Maria burst into her house to find her father, Michael, in the living room watching a Western. Her mother, Frances, was reading a newspaper. Maria picked out a favorite doll from the toys piled by the door, but her mother suggested she take an older rubber doll out into the snow instead.
Kathy felt a chill as Maria joined them on the sidewalk. Now it was Kathy's turn to run home, to fetch her mittens. She asked Maria to come along, but she didn't want to go.
When Kathy returned a few minutes later, Maria and Johnny were gone.
The trouble with cold cases
The kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph is the nation's oldest cold case to go to trial. It required family members to turn against one of their own and haunted a small town for 55 years. Even now, the case may not be over.
Maria was taken in a more innocent time -- decades before Amber Alerts and photos of missing children on milk cartons became part of our cultural landscape. In 1957, the kidnapping of a little girl shattered everyone's sense of safety. It was huge news.
Reporters flocked to Sycamore from the big city papers in Chicago and New York and from the fledgling television networks. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover demanded daily updates from his men and sent teletypes with detailed instructions. President Dwight D. Eisenhower followed the case. But the weeks of urgent activity were followed by half a century of silence.