Chuck and Randy set out down Archie Place, all the way to the corner of Fair Street, by the elementary school. The boys saw a police car go by and realized -- too late -- that they should have stopped it. They headed back home.
By then, Kathy had told her mother about the nice man who called himself Johnny. More details emerged as Maria's mother, Frances, and Kathy's mother, Flora, exchanged several frantic phone calls.
Maria's father was reluctant to summon police because he didn't want to be embarrassed if she had just wandered off. About a year earlier, Maria had strayed several blocks away to Elmwood Cemetery while playing. She turned up just as a search party organized.
But Frances Ridulph let worry overrule her husband. She drove to the Sycamore police station to report her daughter missing. It was 8:10 p.m.
Chuck continued looking for Maria, but the 11-year-old wasn't yet sure how concerned he should be about the little sister he walked to school every morning. He traipsed down a long driveway and through a garden that opened onto a field. Then he circled back to the alley that ran behind their home, where a sense of foreboding overcame him. There, next to Ida Johnson's garage, a searcher spotted Maria's doll.
That evening, men pounded on the door of 227 Center Cross Street, the home of Ralph and Eileen Tessier. Ralph ran the hardware store, and the men wanted him to open up so they could gather up flashlights and lanterns to use in the search.
The Tessiers were a large family crammed into small quarters about two blocks from the Ridulphs. Eileen was Ralph's Irish-born war bride who'd sailed to the United States on the Queen Mary with her son John from an earlier marriage. Together the couple would have six children: Katheran, Jeanne, Mary Pat, Bob, Janet and Nancy.
The girls resented the way their mother seemed to favor John. At 18, he was artistic, a bit of a dreamer. He seemed to get a pass with her even when he screwed up. He was expelled for pushing a teacher and calling her an unsavory name. But in their mother's eyes, he could do no wrong.
Ralph Tessier, who had just arrived home from picking up 12-year-old Katheran at a 4-H social, joined the men in the search that night. Eileen headed to the armory, where the women were making sandwiches and coffee for the searchers. Before they left, the couple locked the front door, even though the key had been lost for years. The back door didn't lock at all, so Ralph jammed it shut with a board.
The girls huddled with Bob inside; they'd have to let their parents back in when they returned.
They said they saw no sign of John.
In the days to come, police would knock on the door and question Eileen Tessier about the events of December 3. The older girls stood back and listened as their mother told the officers something they knew wasn't true: John was home all night.
'I know she is still alive'
The headline on the front page of Sycamore's afternoon paper screamed the bad news that everybody in town already knew: "Missing Girl, 7, Feared Kidnapped."
Foul play was suspected, but there were no clues. When she vanished, the newspaper said, Maria was wearing a brown, three-quarter-length coat, black corduroy slacks, brown socks and freshly polished saddle shoes. She was 43 inches tall, weighed about 55 pounds, and wore her hair in a wavy brown bob with bangs.
The man who called himself Johnny, police said, wore a striped sweater of blue, yellow and green. He had long, blond hair that curled in the front and flopped onto his forehead.
Already, there were conflicting reports about the exact time of Maria's disappearance. Was she snatched closer to 6 p.m.? Or did it happen later, at about 7? Police and FBI reports, as well as news accounts from the time, contain details that support both scenarios.
Sycamore's police chief, William Hindenburg, told FBI agents that Kathy and Maria went out to play at 6:02 p.m., but the DeKalb County sheriff said Maria didn't call Kathy and ask her to come out and play until 6:30. Maria's mother later altered her original estimate, saying the girls could have been outside as early as 10 minutes to 6.
When the case was reopened half a century later, every minute would matter.
As the days passed, Maria's mother pleaded with the kidnapper for her daughter's safe return. "God forgives mistakes. We would, too," Frances Ridulph, 44, said, using the media to send a message to whoever might have her daughter. Maria was "nervous," she said, a nail biter who could quickly become hysterical if things didn't go her way.
Maria would make a noise if something seemed wrong, her mother said. And no kidnapper "would put up with that for long."
"Whoever took her away hit her weak spot. He played with her," the frantic mother added. On television, she delivered a message to her baby: "Don't cry, Maria. Above all, don't cry. Don't make a fuss. We'll be with you soon."
Maria's father, Michael, who earned $80 a week at a wire and cable factory in Sycamore, scolded reporters camped out at the police station: "For God's sake, quit saying she is dead. I know she is still alive. Nobody would have any reason to kill her."
Later, he pulled one reporter aside and explained, "I want fathers to help look for my little girl."
Chuck Ridulph accompanied his dad to the fire station on the morning of December 4 and was assigned to a search team. Hundreds of people fanned out over the fields surrounding Sycamore. Others opened car trunks and cellar doors.