Police and prosecutors gathered at Sycamore's historic Elmwood Cemetery as dawn broke on a glorious summer morning. The Ridulph family plot was tucked in a back corner, in the shade of a majestic elm tree much like the one Maria once played under.
A backhoe stood at the ready. State police investigator Brion Hanley waited on the sidelines with prosecutors Clay Campbell and Julie Trevarthen, watching in awed silence. All felt a powerful connection to Maria.
Trevarthen, who had gotten the Ridulph family's blessing to exhume Maria so her remains could be searched for traces of DNA, saw an overwhelming irony in the timing of events: Maria would rise up on "the same day the S.O.B came back to Sycamore."
Hanley felt it, too. The slain second-grader had been the central focus of his life for three years as his own children circled their 7th birthdays. He would leave the news conferences and photo ops to others as he remained by Maria's side. They could handle the living. He stood vigil for the dead.
An unearthly stench accompanied Maria out of her grave. She had not been embalmed in 1958 because her body had been exposed to the elements for so long before it was found. Instead, the funeral home sprinkled lime on her remains. Her little white coffin was taken from the cemetery to the coroner's office in the basement of the building that also houses the jail.
Prosecutors, investigators and forensics experts filled every inch of the small room. Campbell, a short man, climbed on top of a table in the back corner to get a better view. Trevarthen pushed her way toward the front, and when they opened the casket she thought at first that she was looking at a doll.
One foot was mummified, and they could see Maria's hair and wizened muscles. In a corner of the coffin, a jar held her jaw and teeth; Maria had been identified through her dental records.
No DNA was recovered. But at last, they would learn the cause of death -- something the crude autopsy and coroner's inquest had not accomplished in 1958. Maria was stabbed to death.
Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Indianapolis, pointed out nicks made by a sharp blade in the child's sternum and the vertebrae of her neck. Someone had plunged a long, sharp knife into Maria's throat and slashed downward -- at least three times.
The man police and prosecutors held responsible was on his way to the Sycamore jail. As he was driven through town, Jack McCullough pointed out his childhood home -- and Maria's. He said nothing as they passed through the intersection at Archie Place and Center Cross Street, the place where "Johnny" grabbed Maria.
While the grim work in the morgue continued, Campbell stepped outside for a break. A fierce storm approached from the west, complete with glowering clouds and wind gusts strong enough to knock a man down. He watched it arrive with breathtaking fury in a moment that felt epic to Campbell, perhaps even biblical.
Trevarthen likes to think that Maria had a special greeting for McCullough as he arrived at the jail.
Though the air-conditioned morgue is in the basement, the stench of Maria's corpse traveled through the air ducts and permeated the building for days. The prosecutor hopes it haunted McCullough in his cell.
'All I need is one juror'
The suspect seemed anything but haunted during his extradition from Seattle to Sycamore. He acted more like a kid on a field trip.
McCullough got the window seat in the last row of the early morning United Airlines flight to Chicago. He talked a blue streak, and it didn't take long for other passengers to realize a murder suspect was onboard.
By then, he had read the affidavit police submitted for his arrest, and learned some details of the case against him. He altered his claims about his movements on December 3, 1957, the night Maria was snatched.
He knew they had an unused train ticket to Chicago, so now he said he hadn't taken the train. He'd hitchhiked. He no longer said his father picked him up in Rockford, either; he thumbed his way home.
Was McCullough changing his story so his alibi would match the facts unearthed in the investigation? Or had reading the affidavit genuinely refreshed his memory?
The Seattle cops escorting McCullough had seen it all before. Cloyd Steiger had 32 years on the force. His former partner on homicide, Mike Ciesynski, was now the department's one-man cold-case squad.
Ciesynski had the center seat, next to their prisoner. At one point, McCullough pointed his finger in the detective's face. "All I need to do to beat this case is convince one juror," he said, "like Casey Anthony did. All I need is one juror."
He talked about Maria's beauty, as he had during his interrogation, comparing her to "a little Barbie doll." His voice took on an almost sensual quality. It gave Steiger the creeps.
When their plane touched down in Chicago, local cops and Illinois State Police took McCullough off the plane and loaded him into an SUV. Ciesynski and Steiger rode with him as the motorcade pulled out of O'Hare International Airport and headed toward Sycamore.
McCullough kept up his rant about how he could beat this rap. "Pay attention to the timeline, pay attention to how long it takes to get from Chicago to Sycamore because it's very important," he told the cops. He believed the timeline would prove his innocence.
With decades of experience interviewing murder suspects, Steiger felt like he was being hustled by a sociopath with a constantly shifting story. The detective stroked McCullough's ego, hoping for the big reveal, but it never came.