Janet Tessier fulfilled her mother's dying wish by helping to solve a 50-year-old cold case, documented in the book Footsteps in the Snow.
Janet Tessier didn't think anyone would listen. She had tried before, to no avail, in calls to local police and the FBI.
But in 2008, the Madison resident made one final attempt to tell authorities about the secret her dying mother had saddled her with 14 years earlier: "John did it. You have to tell someone. You have to do something."
"John" was Janet's half-brother, who changed his name to Jack McCullough. "It" was the murder of a 7-year-old girl named Maria Ridulph, who lived in the same neighborhood as the Tessiers in Sycamore, Ill. Maria, who had been playing in the street with a friend, was abducted on Dec. 3, 1957. Her body was found the following April.
It was one of the most notorious murders of its time, drawing dozens of FBI agents and the interest of then-President Dwight Eisenhower. John Tessier, an 18-year-old who fit the description given by Maria's playmate, was investigated as a suspect but deemed to have an iron-clad alibi. So iron-clad that the playmate, Kathy, was never even shown his photograph.
Janet, who was an infant when Maria was murdered, made unsuccessful attempts to interest authorities in her mother's deathbed statements. She moved to Madison in 1995, where she worked as a taxi driver and dispatcher.
In 2002, when I was news editor of Isthmus, I wrote a story about how Janet Tessier, then an employee at Madison Taxi, had been placed in handcuffs for badmouthing a police officer following a traffic accident. The officer, Steven Chvala, was given an 11-day suspension for violating MPD rules against "oppressive, overbearing and tyrannical conduct."
In 2008, after a brief move away, Janet was back in the Madison area, driving cab and providing in-home care for an elderly woman. The woman's son, Mark Lemberger, wrote the 1993 book Crime of Magnitude, about another notorious murder of a 7-year-old girl. The girl, Annie Lemberger, who would have been Mark's aunt, was abducted from her Madison home in 1911.
The book's conclusion: Annie was snatched up and killed by a perverted neighbor.
Lemberger learned of Janet's family secret and encouraged her to try again to fulfill her mother's wish. She sent a plaintive email to the Illinois state police. "I've done this a few times," it noted. "Nothing is ever done."
This time, something was. The investigation into Maria's murder was revived, and McCullough was charged. In 2012, he was convicted in a bench trial, 55 years after the fact. It has been called the oldest solved cold case in U.S. history.
Now author and television producer Charles Lachman has reconstructed the case in a haunting new book, Footsteps in the Snow. The story is also told in a Lifetime documentary directed by Lachman's wife, Nancy Glass.
Janet Tessier, who now lives in Kentucky, is credited in the book with cracking the case, through her persistence. But all of John's siblings were united against him, believing him capable of this heinous crime. One sister, who became a college professor and hospital chaplain, accused him of sexual assault, a charge for which he was also tried but acquitted.
Janet Tessier, in an interview, calls her brother, who she doesn't know well, "creepy." The one time she stayed with him, in Washington state, he frightened her, transforming instantly from "fine and chatty" to enraged and "demonic."
Lachman's straightforward but gripping account documents McCullough's oddness and duplicity, and confirms that his parents lied about events on the night of Maria's abduction. But it also makes clear that the case against McCullough was largely circumstantial and open to question.
McCullough served in Vietnam and worked as a police officer in two communities, although he was fired from one of them for having sexual conduct with a 15-year-old runaway. His fourth wife and her daughter defend him as a dear and decent man.
Kathy, Maria's childhood playmate, identified McCullough in 2010 from an arguably flawed photo array. Concerns were raised because about two weeks after the abduction, at an FBI lineup in Madison, she had positively identified another man, who was later excluded as a suspect.
McCullough's mother implicated her son at a time when she was diagnosed with psychosis. Janet never pumped her for particulars or summoned witnesses, which she now regrets: "I wasn't thinking like a journalist, or a lawyer, or a detective. She was so upset. All I could think of was to calm her down."
With witnesses gone and old FBI records declared inadmissible, McCullough was shorn of his alibi, which centered on a phone call that placed him miles away when Maria was abducted. The prosecution never even had to present its theory that an alternative timeline made his involvement still possible.
And while hours of harsh police interrogation techniques had failed to get McCullough to confess, three jail inmates came forward to claim that he had separately blurted out details of his crime to them. "They made up this story," McCullough's defense lawyer alleged, not implausibly.
Janet, whose role in the case earned her an appearance on Dr. Phil, says sitting through the trial made her more inclined to believe that her brother killed Maria -- something that had never occurred to her before her mother brought it up. She sees his protestations of innocence as part of a lifelong pattern of avoiding consequences for misbehavior: "At the bottom is his enormous ego that makes him think he can get away with it."
And yet she admits it's possible he is a creepy pathological liar who is not guilty of this particular crime: "If somebody presented me with evidence he was innocent, I'd say 'okay.'"
On Dec. 3, 57 years to the day after Maria disappeared, an Illinois appellate court heard oral arguments in McCullough's effort to overturn his conviction.
The court upheld McCullough's conviction for murdering Maria Ridolph. While the court did overturn some lesser charges and ruled that the deathbed statements reported by Jan Tessier should not have been admitted as evidence, it said this was not enough to overturn the conviction because the judge did not rely heavily on these statements.
“I am relieved, and I’m glad it’s over,” Tessler told the Daily Chronicle of DeKalb, Illinois. “He’s where he needs to be.”
This article was updated on Feb. 14, to include information about the Illinois appellate court hearing on McCullough's conviction.