On a typical autumn evening, Charlie and his girlfriend Megan left the campus of Eastern Illinois University to enjoy a game of miniature golf at Lincoln Springs Resort. They found themselves driving down a rural route somewhere northeast of Charleston. The sun had gone down before the two could find their way back to a main road, and Charlie hadn’t bothered to bring a map. As trees and fields flew past, it was clear they were getting further and further away from their destination.
Tensions were already running high when their headlights fell on two pairs of eyes that shimmered near the mailbox of a white, double-wide trailer. As Charlie’s silver Mitsubishi Outlander drove past, two unleashed dogs jumped at the car and chased it to the edge of the paved road. They disappeared into the dirt and dust kicked up by the Outlander as it ground the chalky gravel under its wheels.
Navigating several sharp curves, Megan and Charlie’s hearts raced as the road pitched downward and the fallow cornfields disappeared behind thick woods and desolate meadows. Charlie slowed down to avoid spinning out, and everything became eerily quiet aside from the sound of tires against the road.
Charlie threw his girlfriend a worried glance as they approached a small, white sign warning of a weight limit of eight tons. Suddenly the trestles of an old, one lane suspension bridge loomed out of the darkness. The branches of two large trees, a sycamore and a bur oak, formed a natural arch over the foreboding entrance. Lurching forward, the Outlander rolled over the broken pavement suspended fifteen and a half feet above the inky waters of the Embarras River. For a moment, the burgundy, steel supports were all the two saw in every direction.
As Charlie and Megan reached the opposite entrance, their headlights revealed an old greeting spray-painted onto the guardrail that cryptically read, “Howdy Grimster.” The sounds of nature returned after the two had crossed the 60-yard distance to the other side.
That night, Charlie and Megan had accidentally stumbled on Airtight Bridge, one of Coles County’s best kept secrets. Located along Airtight Road, it is the only direct route between the village of Ashmore and the unincorporated towns of Bushton and Rardin. Isolated and remote, most people do not come on it by accident. The bridge itself is interesting enough, but it was a gruesome discovery there over 25 years ago on the banks of the Embarras River that ignited the local imagination. Since then, visitors have returned from nightly excursions with many unusual tales to tell.
Locals say the bridge earned the name “Airtight” because of the unnatural stillness while crossing it. If a visitor were to stand in the middle of the bridge, he or she might hear the rumble of some distant tractor, or the wind in the trees, but that would be all. Nancy Shick, a member of the Coles County Historical Society, told the Daily Eastern News the name came about because air settles in the forested valley where the bridge is located. While the origin of its name is uncertain, this much we know: Claude L. James designed the bridge and the Decatur Bridge Company built it in 1914.
Thanks to its remote location, it became known as a drinking spot for local teens and students from Eastern Illinois University. During the 1950s it was a hangout for the Black Knights of the Embarras, a club that ranged up and down east central Illinois. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, an Illinois chapter of the Sons of Silence, a “one-percenter” motorcycle gang, called it a hang out. Otherwise, the bridge, which even 30 years ago visitors described as “old” and “creaky,” had a mundane existence. In 1981, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places because of “event, Architecture/Engineering.”
That “event” was the discovery, one year prior, of the nude body of a woman floating near the bank of the Embarras River a few yards downstream from Airtight Bridge. Because the body was missing its head, hands, and feet, the murder investigation became known as the “Airtight torso case.” It came at the painful end to an unrelated series of murders of young women in Coles County going back nearly a decade.
It was a pleasant Sunday morning on October 19, 1980. The trees were in full autumn colors and in two days Molly Hatchet would perform at nearby Eastern Illinois University. William and Tim Brown, two brothers from rural Urbana, were on a deer hunting trip when they took the road down to Airtight at around 11 o’clock.
As they crossed the bridge, one of the brothers noticed something unusual in the shallow waters of the Embarras, so they pulled over to the side of the road. At the same time, a local farmer named Victor Hargis was on his way to help his son in digging a well. Seeing both the men and the partially decayed remains, he stopped and joined William in going down to the river’s edge to take a closer look. The two could hardly believe their eyes.
Victor sprang into action. He drove home and called the Sheriff’s Department. Darrell Cox, a deputy at the time, was at the firing range when he got the call. It took him nearly 20-minutes to navigate the back roads from Charleston to the bridge, but he was familiar with the route because it was one the Sheriff’s Department routinely patrolled. Cox vividly recalled his first impression of the crime scene. He told the Daily Eastern News, “I could tell from when I got there that [the body] was missing its head and feet… I remember when I first saw it standing on the bridge, it didn’t look like a person.” Cox later became Coles County sheriff.
Who would commit such a heinous crime, and why? Was this a gangland killing reminiscent of Airtight Bridge’s unsavory past, or was it something more sinister? Was a serial killer at large? Continued in part 2…
- Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 27 October 2005.
- National Register of Historic Places, “Illinois – Coles County,” <http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/il/Coles/state.html> (22 May 2009).
- Times-Courier (Charleston) 21 October 1980; Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 27 October 2005.
- Eastern News (Charleston) 28 March 1977; Eastern News (Charleston) 15 April 1977.
- Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 22 October 1980; Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 20 October 1980.