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updated: 9/12/2012 6:22 PM

Inmate: Suspect admitted killing girl in 1957

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  • Jack McCullough

    Jack McCullough

Associated Press

An inmate testified Wednesday that he overheard a man accused of the 1957 slaying of a 7-year-old Sycamore girl recently tell another cellmate that he choked the child to death with a wire.

The testimony came on the third day in the DeKalb County case -- one of the oldest cold-case murders to go to trial. Jack McCullough, 72 and a former Washington state police officer, has pleaded not guilty to abducting and murdering Maria Ridulph.

Christopher Diaz, who was locked up at the same jail as McCullough while McCullough awaited trial, told the court he also heard McCullough boast that he had brushed aside an offer from the state to cut a plea deal.

Diaz, charged in a separate case, insisted prosecutors did not offer him anything for his testimony.

Maria's disappearance on Dec. 3, 1957, put a national spotlight on the northeastern Illinois town in the late 1950s. Even then-President Dwight Eisenhower asked to be kept up-to-date on the search.

Maria's badly decomposed body was found in the spring of 1958 about 120 miles from Sycamore.

Also Wednesday, forensic anthropologist Krista Latham testified that an examination of the girl's exhumed remains last year suggested she was stabbed in her chest and throat area.

The girl's bones had cut marks consistent with a large-bladed knife, Latham said. They did not appear to have come from an autopsy scalpel or saw, Latham said, though she conceded it was at least possible the marks were made in the initial autopsy.

In testimony Tuesday afternoon, McCullough's half-sister testified that their mother, Eileen Tessier, said on her death bed that McCullough had killed Maria.

"She grabbed my wrist and said, 'Those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it,"' said Janet Tessier, who added under cross-examination that her mother did not explain why she believed that.

Also Tuesday, Kathy Chapman, the friend Maria was playing with the night she disappeared, identified McCullough in an old photograph as the young man who approached them offering the girls piggyback rides. Chapman went home to grab mittens and returned to find her friend and the man gone, she told the court.

McCullough lived a few blocks 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 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 a few 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.

The defense opted for a bench trial, meaning a judge will decide the verdict.

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