Longtime Seattle resident Jack McCullough, 73, has been sentenced to life in prison in one of the oldest cold cases in U.S. history, the 1957 slaying of a 7-year-old girl in Sycamore, Ill. McCullough's attorney promised an appeal.

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SYCAMORE, Ill. — Friends and family who had all but given up on seeing anyone brought to justice for the murder of a young Illinois girl more than 50 years ago said they were at peace Monday after a former police officer from Washington state was sentenced to life in prison.

Jack McCullough, 73, was arrested July 1, 2011, at a retirement home in Seattle where he worked as a security guard. He was convicted in September in one of the oldest unsolved crimes in the U.S. to make it to trial.

He was sentenced in a small-town courtroom a few blocks from where Maria Ridulph played with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, before she was grabbed, choked and stabbed to death in an alley. The 7-year-old’s body was found months later in woods more than 100 miles away.

The little girl’s friends and relatives didn’t utter a sound or betray the slightest emotion as a silver-haired Jack McCullough stood, turned to them and proclaimed his innocence.

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“I did not, did not, kill Maria Ridulph,” said McCullough, who grew up in Sycamore and was 17 when Ridulph died. “It was a crime I did not, would not, could not have done.”

Judge James Hallock admonished McCullough to face him, not the spectators, and a sheriff’s deputy stood behind McCullough to block his view of relatives and a childhood friend of Maria’s.

“He can say all he wants to say,” Kathy Chapman, now 63, said afterward. “This finally puts this part of my life to a resting point.”

Chapman had been playing with Maria in the snow when she went to get mittens, leaving her friend with a teen who had been giving them piggyback rides. When she returned, both were gone.

Chapman and others had waited 55 years for justice, and they made it clear they weren’t going to let McCullough hurt or affect them again. When the sentencing was over, they simply walked out of court.

“I’m satisfied,” said Charles Ridulph, Maria’s older brother.

“This is all we could expect,” Chapman added, referring to the life sentence. Illinois abolished the death penalty last year. “Now Maria is finally at peace.”

Monday’s hearing was the latest chapter in a case that started during a more trusting and innocent era when people across the country, and particularly in small towns like Sycamore, left doors unlocked and parents didn’t give much thought to their children hopping on bikes and riding off with friends — or playing in their own front yards.

No crime like this had ever happened in Sycamore, and the abduction of a child was rare anywhere. Before the massive search ended with the girl’s body found in a forest the next April, it was said President Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover asked for daily updates on the investigation.

In asking for the longest possible sentence, DeKalb County Assistant State’s Attorney Victor Escarcida tried to capture just what McCullough did to the people in the courtroom, who were children themselves when the girl vanished.

“Jack McCullough left a lifetime of emotional wreckage in his wake,” he said. “Jack McCullough made Sycamore a scary place. Now there was a true boogeyman living among them.”

But nobody knew it was McCullough. Though he was one of more than 100 people who were briefly considered suspects, he had what seemed a solid alibi. On the day Maria vanished, he told investigators, he’d been traveling to Chicago for a medical exam before joining the Air Force.

McCullough spent years in the military, first in the Air Force and then in the Army. He worked as a police officer in Lacey, Thurston County, and Milton, Pierce County, according to a document of probable cause. He eventually settled in Seattle.

McCullough might have lived out his life quietly, but on her deathbed in 1994 his mother told McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, that she’d lied to police when she supported her son’s alibi.

Once a new investigation was launched, authorities went to Chapman, Maria’s childhood friend, and showed her an old photograph of McCullough. A half-century later, she identified him as the teenager who came up to them that snowy day and introduced himself as “Johnny.” McCullough’s name was John Tessier in the 1950s. He changed his name in 1994, according to court documents.

Chapman and Janet Tessier both testified at trial.

McCullough did not. On Monday, he pointed to a white box that he said contained 4,000 pages of FBI documents that he said would prove he was not in Sycamore when Maria disappeared. His attorneys had argued during the trial that the material supported McCullough’s alibi, but Hallock ruled it inadmissible because the people in the documents were dead and could not be cross-examined. On Monday, McCullough’s attorney said there would be an appeal and that the FBI documents would be part of that appeal.

McCullough, who suffers from heart and blood-pressure problems, also was sentenced to five years for kidnapping — the maximum sentence for that crime in 1957. He will be eligible for parole in 20 years, his attorney said.

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