Mark Lemberger was in Madison in 2008 visiting his mother when a woman who helped care for her took him aside and told him an incredible story.
Incredible stories were not new to Mark. He moved to Madison from South Carolina in the late 1980s to investigate the 1911 murder of Annie Lemberger, a 7-year-old Madison girl who would have been Mark's aunt.
The case had never been officially solved, though at various times a neighbor, James "Dogskin" Johnson, and Annie's own father, Martin Lemberger, were accused of the crime, which made headlines across the country. Mark first heard about it in the 1980s when he read a newspaper account published on an anniversary.
"The story picked me up by the lapels and wouldn't let me down," Lemberger recalled this week.
He is back living in South Carolina. But Mark spent several years in Madison researching the case, and in 1993, his book, "Crime of Magnitude," was published. In the book, Lemberger concluded the neighbor, Johnson, murdered Annie.
Among the readers of the book, more than a decade later, was Janet Tessier. Mark knew her as Jan. She was a friend of the Lemberger family and helped take care of Ami Lemberger, Mark's mom, who lives in the Madison area. It was Ami who gave Tessier a copy of "Crime of Magnitude."
On Mark's visit in 2008, Tessier told him she read his book. And then she said there was a story from her own family's past involving the unsolved murder of a young girl.
The story dated to 1957, but it took a turn with a private deathbed confession in 1994. Fourteen years later, Tessier told Lemberger in 2008, she was still haunted by it, and uncertain of what to do.
On Dec. 3, 1957, in Sycamore, Ill., 60 miles west of Chicago, 7-year-old Maria Ridulph was playing on a street corner with a friend when the two girls were approached by a young man calling himself Johnny. He asked if they liked dolls and mentioned giving them a piggyback ride.
Maria's friend went home to get some mittens. When she returned, Maria and the man were gone. It was almost five months later when Maria's decomposed body was discovered in a wooded area east of Galena.
The Ridulph and Tessier families lived in the same neighborhood. Janet Tessier's half-brother, John Tessier, who would have been around 17 years old in 1957, was an early suspect in the crime, according to news accounts.
But he never was charged. A Chicago Tribune story last week said his (and Janet's) mother, Eileen Tessier, told investigators John was home the night Maria disappeared. In another account, he was reported to have taken a train earlier that day to Chicago.
Nearly four decades later, as Eileen lay dying in a hospital in 1994, she took Janet's wrist and whispered, "Those two little girls, the one that disappeared, John did it."
That was the story Janet related to Mark Lemberger in Madison in 2008, after reading his book on Annie's murder.
"It was very stressful for her," Lemberger said this week. "She was very scared of this man," even though by 2008 her half-brother was almost 70, had changed his name to Jack McCullough, and was living in the Seattle area.
Lemberger recalled that Janet asked, "What do you think I should do?"
Mark encouraged her to go to the police with the story. "Find a detective who is a bulldog," Lemberger said.
Janet wound up speaking to a captain with the Illinois State Police. The captain agreed to look into it, and then, unsolicited, said his officers were like "bulldogs."
Janet saw the bulldog reference as an omen, and investigators began to turn up more evidence. Kathy Chapman, the girl who was playing with Maria when they were approached, picked John Tessier out of a lineup of photos from that era. An old girlfriend produced Tessier's Chicago train ticket — unused — from the day Maria disappeared.
John Tessier — now Jack McCullough — was arrested in Washington state in July 2011.
Last week, McCullough was tried for murder and kidnapping in front of a judge in DeKalb County. He waived a jury trial. Among the witnesses testifying was Janet Tessier, who related her mother's deathbed words.
McCullough was found guilty on Friday.
The next day Mark Lemberger sent Janet a note of congratulations. She wrote back thanking him for encouraging her to come forward.
It was hard not to think of Annie, dead a century now, and how her story helped find justice for another 7-year-old who disappeared.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or email@example.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.