Justice in a cold case

Some of my favorite mysteries and other novels feature “cold cases” – those unsolved cases that haunt detectives and the families of the victims. Two that come to mind are Stephen White’s Cold Case (2000) and Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing (2011).

This story from the Seattle Times about an ex-cop from Seattle convicted of a long-ago murder in Illinois has all the elements of a good cold-case crime novel – except that it’s all too real, and the families affected will never forget.

Short version: In 1957, in a small town in Illinois, 7 year old Maria Ridulph vanished, her body found five months later after a national search. Those things didn’t happen then — at least, we didn’t think they did. Police investigated intensely–and even questioned a 17 year old neighbor boy, whose mother gave him an alibi. In 1994, on her death bed, the mother confessed to her daughter that she had lied to protect her son. (The two were half-siblings.) In 2008, the daughter finally told police, who opened the cold case, and in 2011, arrested the man in Seattle. He had changed his name and moved west shortly after the murder, working as police officer south of Seattle. At the time of his arrest, he was married, retired, and working as a security guard. He denied any involvement in the crime.

Not an easy case to prosecute, but helped enormously by testimony of an eye-witness–8 at the time of the crime–identifying the defendant’s teenage photo as the boy she’d seen the victim with shortly before the disappearance. The jury convicted him in September 2012. His sister cried and apologized that it took so long. In December, he was sentenced to life in prison. At 73, it won’t be a long sentence. (Illinois abolished the death penalty in March 2011, after a long history of abuses.)

Illinois papers say it’s probably the the oldest solved cold case in American history.

Cold cases are truly chilling. How can your characters do them justice?

4 thoughts on “Justice in a cold case

  1. Fascinating. One can only wonder if he ever committed another similar crime and/or if he ever felt guilt about the first one. Did he ever have children – a little girl? So many questions.

    • All good questions, Gloria — not answered in the news accounts I read. I also wonder why the half-sister waited so long to speak up. The knowledge has to have been terrible, for her and her mother, who gave him the false alibi.

  2. Thanks Leslie for this amazing story.

    Nice to see justice prevail even if it’s takes a long time. I can’t imagine what the sister felt all these years knowing the truth. I wonder about the mom, did she know that her son had committed the crime or did she came to the realization over the years? And the family of the little girl!! I hope they can find some solace that the murderer was finally caught. I have a cold case in a story I’m working on now and this supports my premise that they can be solved, especially if people speak out.

    • This story also illustrates the impact on others — the little girl who’d been playing with the victim just before she disappeared is in her 60s now, and had always been haunted. Unfortunately the original detectives are probably long gone, and not able to see that justice was ultimately served. Lots of stakes for a writer to work with — good luck with your story, Helen!

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