"People were even carrying guns," he recalled.
In a neighborhood called Johnson's Greenhouse, where new streets were going in, Chuck was asked to climb down a manhole because he was the only one in the search party small enough to fit. Later, searchers joined hands as they walked in a line through the frozen cornfields where Sycamore High School now stands. They found a gunnysack of abandoned kittens, and that unnerved Chuck. Other searchers discovered a torn, bloody petticoat in a farm field, but it was not Maria's.
Two FBI agents took up residence in the Ridulphs' parlor. A half dozen crop-dusters and military planes circled the sky, searching. The J-11 Roping Club sent riders out on horseback.
Local police with bullhorns urged residents to keep their porch lights on and report anything suspicious. The Illinois State Police set up half a dozen roadblocks; railroad cars, motel rooms and the bus station were searched -- as was every house in Sycamore.
Maria's doll and blue hairbrush were shipped off to the FBI lab near Washington for analysis. So were her schoolbooks, a toy oven, a tin saxophone and records of songs such as "Three Little Kittens" and "The Farmer in the Dell." They bore witness to a childhood interrupted.
Her little friend, Kathy Sigman, found herself under 24-hour police guard. The family doctor checked her for signs of sexual molestation. The newspapers ran a picture of Kathy showing off her mittens and pointing to the corner where Maria was snatched.
Kathy spent hours poring over mug shots of ex-cons and what police called "known perverts," but she didn't see Johnny. She remembers the shouting reporters and flashing camera bulbs that appeared every time she was escorted to a police lineup. At first, she enjoyed the attention, but as the case dragged on she felt exposed, like she was being put on display.
She recalls her mother bending down, placing her hands on her shoulders and looking her square in the eye.
Remember his face, Kathy, she said. You have to remember his face because you are the only one who can catch him. You are the only one who knows what he looks like.
'We have found exactly nothing'
There was no ransom note. No phone call from the kidnapper. Authorities believed Maria's abductor had a twisted motive: He was a sexual predator.
The police chief was certain nobody from Sycamore would do such a thing. It had to be the work of a trucker or someone else passing through. The FBI wasn't so sure. As its investigation revealed, there was no shortage of potential suspects in town.
Hindenburg, the police chief, told reporters his men had rounded up and questioned "all known sexual deviates." They looked into a local Peeping Tom and followed tips about men nicknamed "Commando" and "Mr. X."
Investigators dug up a collapsed grave at Elmwood Cemetery. They traced freight cars that passed through Sycamore the night Maria went missing. They scoured lovers' lanes, drained a lake, set off dynamite in a quarry. And still they came up empty.
"We have chased down countless clues, and we have found exactly nothing," said a frustrated Carl A. Swanson, the state's attorney. FBI agents came and went, according to a writer for one of the Chicago papers, "checking into everything with the quiet persistence of bulldogs."
Three days after Maria vanished, an anonymous female caller alerted the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office to a boy named "Treschner" who lived in the neighborhood and fit the suspect's description. A pair of FBI agents showed up at the Tessier home on December 8.
Ralph and Eileen Tessier acknowledged that they had talked about how their son, John, fit the general description, but they insisted he was not in Sycamore when Maria was taken: He was 40 miles away, in Rockford, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.
Phone records seemed to verify their story. Someone had made a collect call from Rockford to the Tessier home at about 7 p.m. John Tessier and his parents said he called for a ride home. This was the second alibi Eileen Tessier had given for her son. Earlier, as her daughters listened, she'd told Sycamore police that John was home all night.
Nobody questioned the young Tessier sisters, and they kept silent.
After a week of fruitless searching, authorities alerted residents to look out for scavengers: "It is entirely possible that her body has been discarded in a field or a nearby farm. Be alert to large gatherings of buzzards and crows, and if a body is located make sure nothing is touched."
The FBI was running out of steam.
"Our temporary office at Sycamore has been functioning for two weeks. Per diem cost for 29 agents is $3,600," Chicago's supervisor wrote in a December 15 memo to Hoover. They'd tracked down 250 leads and processed 200 suspects -- "all with negative results."
Agents still had about 125 leads to go.
The Chicago G-man found it "most peculiar" that such a rigorous investigation had not turned up a suspect. The locals were passing on tips about "all of their homosexuals, queers and fairies, etc." when the FBI was looking for "sex deviants of a different kind," the supervisor wrote in the pejorative and politically incorrect language of 1957.