Today, police would call him a "person of interest," someone they want to question. But in 1957, long before televised murder trials and the threat of litigation from people mistakenly tied to crimes, 18-year-old John Tessier was a suspect, pure and simple. Then again, so were 100 other people.
A woman who would not give her name called the sheriff's office with a tip on December 6, three days after the kidnapping. She told deputies to check out a boy named "Treschner," who lived not far from Maria and fit the description of the kidnapper who called himself "Johnny." The FBI found no one named Treschner but zeroed in on John Tessier.
The story of the early investigation is contained in thousands of pages of FBI reports, but most of them remain sealed because of an ongoing investigation the Justice Department would not discuss. CNN obtained about 15 pages from the public court file in Sycamore, and another 200 pages from the National Archives through a public records request. They spell out Tessier's alibi.
He said then, and he says now, that he was in Rockford, Illinois, some 40 miles northwest of Sycamore, when Maria was kidnapped and that he called home for a ride. His parents backed up his story, and it was supported by a single, indisputable fact: Somebody placed a collect call from Rockford to the Tessier home at 6:57 p.m. on December 3, 1957. The caller gave his name as "John Tassier," the operator noted.
But almost from the beginning, the timing of Maria's disappearance was in dispute.
If she was taken around 7, then Tessier seemed to have an ironclad alibi. But if she was grabbed closer to 6:15, then his alibi didn't cover him. He could have driven from Sycamore to Rockford by 7 p.m. before dumping her body.
Nobody disputes that John traveled December 2 to Chicago to take a physical examination at the military recruiting station on Van Buren Street.
A chest X-ray found a spot, and he failed. He spent the night at a YMCA and returned the next morning for another physical, which he again failed because of the spot, a scar from a childhood bout of tuberculosis.
Tessier said he walked around Chicago the afternoon of December 3, stopping in at a couple of burlesque shows, and then took the 5:15 p.m. train to Rockford, about a 90-minute trip, to drop off paperwork at the recruiting station there.
Recruiters verify that he showed up at their office between 7:15 and 7:30 that evening, after they had closed. He talked with at least two recruiters about getting a note from his doctor to address the spot on his lung. One recruiter told the FBI he thought the nervous young man was a "narcotic," a drug addict. The other remembered him as "a lost sheep."
A third recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jon Oswald, met with Tessier the morning of December 4 at the Rockford office. The recruit had a fresh cut on his lip and made small talk, saying it was a good thing that he was not in Sycamore the previous night because of "the disappearance of the girl," Oswald recalled for the FBI.
Tessier also told the recruiter he'd never be considered a suspect because his girlfriend's father was a deputy sheriff. And then he showed Oswald his "little black book." It contained the names and addresses of girls in Sycamore, as well as their bust and hip measurements.
The FBI questioned Tessier on December 8, and two days later gave him a lie-detector test. Asked whether he ever had sex with children, Tessier admitted being "involved in some sex play" with a younger girl but said it happened years earlier. He said he'd outgrown it and had no relationship with Maria, although he acknowledged he knew her from the neighborhood.
Those details and his peculiar behavior with the recruiters didn't seem to raise suspicions at the time. Nor did his mother's contradictory stories: She'd told local police her son John was home all night December 3, and FBI agents that he was in Rockford that evening.
The more precise question was: Where was John Tessier between noon and 7 p.m. on December 3? Records placed him at the Chicago recruiting station that morning, but his whereabouts remained unaccounted for until he turned up at the Rockford recruiting station at about 7:15.
The FBI had only his uncorroborated version of what he did that afternoon.
Did he pass the time in Chicago and take a 5:15 train to Rockford, as he said? Or did he somehow make his way back to Sycamore?
An acquaintance recalled decades later that he spotted Tessier's car in Sycamore that afternoon, before Maria vanished. The Pontiac was hard to miss -- it had flames painted on the sides -- but the man didn't see who was behind the wheel.
'No evidence of guilty knowledge'
Tessier remembers that his mother was crying as he went off to talk to the FBI on December 8. He says he comforted her, telling her everything was going to be all right.
He told the FBI that after he made the collect call from Rockford he killed time at a restaurant, waiting for his stepfather to pick him up. He remembered having to run back to the recruiting office to pick up a shaving kit he'd left behind.
Ralph and Eileen Tessier told the FBI that Ralph drove to Rockford to fetch John at about 8. Years later, John's half sister, Katheran, would come forward to dispute the timeline her parents gave, saying her father was in DeKalb, the town next to Sycamore, taking her to a 4-H social that lasted from 5 to 8 p.m. She recalled coming home to find the street lined with police cars, and soon after that, her father was opening up the hardware store to supply flashlights for the search.
But back in 1957, the Tessiers' story seemed to check out. John passed the lie detector test; the FBI's expert concluded that a teenager wouldn't have been able to conceal his involvement in the crime.
"The recorded reactions on the polygraph did not reflect evidence of guilty knowledge or implication by Tessier in this matter," the polygraph examiner concluded. An FBI agent closed out his report on December 10 by noting: "No further investigation is being conducted regarding the above suspect."
John Tessier's name was scratched off the list. He left Sycamore the next day.