SYCAMORE, Ill. — For most of five decades, it seemed no one would ever be held accountable for the murder of a 7-year-old Illinois girl who was snatched from a small-town street corner as she played.
Fifty-five years after Maria Ridulph vanished from the streets of Sycamore, her friends and family let out a deafening cheer Friday as a judge pronounced a former neighborhood teen — now a 72-year-old man — guilty of the murder and kidnapping.
The cheers and applause soon gave way to loud sobs from those who knew the little girl whose body was found after a monthslong search that haunted the nation. Jack McCullough, who was 17-year-old John Tessier at the time, showed no emotion as the judge convicted him in one of the oldest crimes to make it to trial in the United States.
‘‘A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,’’ said Kathy Chapman, 63, who was playing with Maria on the night of Dec. 3, 1957, before she vanished. ‘‘Maria finally has the justice she deserves.’’
Chapman testified that McCullough won Maria’s trust by talking about dolls and giving her piggyback rides. At some point, authorities say he dragged her into an alley, choked her with a wire, then stabbed her.
McCullough was one of more than 100 potential suspects, but he had an alibi. He told investigators he had been traveling to Chicago to get a medical exam before joining the Air Force. He ultimately settled in Seattle, where he worked as a Washington State Police officer.
A deathbed accusation by his mother in 1994 led to his conviction.
His mother, Eileen Tessier, had lied to police canvassing the neighborhood in 1957 about her son’s whereabouts, buttressing his alibi, prosecutor Julie Trevartchen said.
‘‘She knew what she did and she didn’t want to die with that on her conscience.”
McCullough’s girlfriend in the 1950s also called his alibi into question. She had found his unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago for the day Maria disappeared.