Telling Their Story

The Disappearance and Murder of Maria Elizabeth Ridulph


Emili Currey, Editor In Chief 2020-2021

Maria Elizabeth Ridulph was a very playful 7 year old who loved playing with her 8 year old best friend, Kathy Sigman. They loved playing outside until the streetlights came on. It was a snowy day in 1957, in her small town of Sycamore, Illinois. Kathy and Maria were playing outside, as usual, when a strange man approached them. He began talking to them and asked them if they had any pretty dollies or if they wanted a piggyback ride. This man will later be known as “The Piggyback Killer.” Maria really wanted to show her “new friend” her dolls, so she  ran excitedly back to her house to pick them up. When she returned with them, she showed them she showed him and proceeded to accept the offer for a piggyback ride. While Maria was laughing and playing, Kathy Maria’s best friends remembered wanting her mittens because her hands were cold, so she ran home as fast as she could to get them, because she didn’t want to miss out on any of the fun. But by the time she returned, there was no sign of Maria or this strange man. 

Kathy ran home to tell her parents who soon told Maria’s parents, and it wasn’t too long before the whole neighborhood had joined in on the search. The neighbors began looking for clues and found the doll and some footprints that resembled a man and a child’s, they believed these to belong to Maria and this mysterious man. Kathy began calling him “Johnny” and describing him as a blonde 20-30 year old with “strange teeth,” and a child-like voice. When Maria’s parents had reported her missing, the police did not take it lightly. They had thousands of volunteers and police dogs sniffing for any sign of her, even including FBI agents. 

Their first suspect appeared very early in the case by an anonymous tip. He was an 18 year-old high school dropout named John Tessier. He was a military man who had just joined the Air Force and would later change his branch of Military to the Army where he rose quickly to a captain. He had a clean slate with the police until his first charge, which was for statutory rape, later getting it reduced to a misdemeanor. “He was different,” said his parents.  This was due to an accident that had happened when he was younger and fit, which matched what Kathy had been telling the police. At this point the police still believed Maria was alive and they were still looking for clues as to where she was being kept. This had not yet turned into a kidnap or a murder case, but time was of the essence. All of this changed when a couple of mushroom gatherers stumbled upon a child’s remains in Woodbine, Illinois, almost 100 miles away from Sycamore. The body was identified as Maria Elizabeth Ridulph, she was found almost 5 months after her disappearance. 

Due to the state of decompose and the lack of technology the coroners were not able to determine Maria’s cause of death. Nearly 50 years later after the case was reopened new more advanced tests were done on her body by a forensic anthropologist and the autopsy declared that Maria’s cause of death was the stabbing to the throat several times. She was found in her familiar brown socks, a blouse, and an undershirt. Her parents were only able to identify her by her familiar brown socks. She was unrecognizable and by the time the mushroom pickers had  found her, because of the state of decompose using birthmarks or facial features was out of the picture.

John Tessier had given the police an alibi that seemed to check out, telling the police that he was in the far away town of Rockford. From Sycamore, he rode the train to Chicago to get a physical for the Air Force While on his way back, he got off at Rockford, Illinois, where he proceeded to call his parents and ask for a ride home to Sycamore. He even agreed to participate in a lie detector test, which he passed. With no choice to move on, the police dropped him as a suspect. After this dead end, the case went cold and no other leads were found until John’s mother was on her deathbed.

Eileen Tessier, John Tessier’s mother, was in her last minutes of her life in 1994 when she did something very unexpected. Elieen and her daughter, Janet,  were in the hospital room when Eileen pulled Janet close and confessed her doubts about her son John. She believed that he was guilty of the kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph. Eileen even continued to say she thinks he may have killed a number of other little girls. Soon after this statement, Eileen passed away and Janet spent years trying to convince the Illinois state police to look into John again. 2008 was the year Janet finally convinced the Illinois police to look into what her mom had said. They made the executive decision to reopen the cold case of Maria Ridulph. 

Neighbor testimonies began flooding in, describing John’s erratic behavior around young girls, once remembering that he had given a young girl a piggyback ride and refused to put her back down. These neighbors knew about the rape charges and began shunning him, always seeing him as a weird outsider that they didn’t want their children around. The police finally got on the same page with Janet and her deceased mother’s accusations when Kathy, the young girl that Maria was playing with at the time of her disappearance, picked John out of a crowd and said, “That’s him”. Although John’s alibi had been solid, until police began thinking about the timeline, they believed that John would have had enough time to kidnap Maria at 6:20 pm and drive all the way to Rockford, which was 40 miles away, by 7:15.  

Police had questioned John, who had recently changed his name to Jack, while they questioned him and he reciprocated in a hostile manner. Now that Forensics had developed more since 1957 they tried to test Maria’s body for DNA, and because it was so long ago nothing was found. John (Jack) had been heard discussing Maria’s death while he was being held in prison before his trial, although the death he described wasn’t correct. During his Trial parts of his alibi were withheld and he was convicted of the kidnap and murder of Maria Ridulph. John was 73 years old when he was finally convicted, he was going to die in prison. 

A breakthrough in the case was found when John appealed in court for release, when his attorney discovered that it would be physically impossible for him to kidnap Maria and be in Rockford at the time of the collect call. With this information all charges were dropped and John Tessier was declared an innocent man.

No other suspects were questioned or thought to be guilty, and this case of Maria Elizabeth Ridulph remains unsolved. What do you think? Did John tessier commit this crime? Was the attorney wrong? Maria will always live in the hearts of her family and her best friend Kathy who was the last to see her.