Continued from Part 1, “A Gruesome Discovery”…
As police cordoned off the bridge and word spread of the discovery, reporters and television crews descended on the remote location. The gruesome nature of the crime caused a sensation, and the story remained in the headlines for three days. It was the second time in three years someone had found a body at a popular hangout along the Embarras River in rural Coles County. In 1977, a local man named Andy Lanman died of a massive drug overdose at a spot south of Charleston known as “The Cellar.” He was missing for 25 days before hunters stumbled on his morphine-saturated body near the river.
Back at Airtight Bridge, police worked into the evening using scuba divers to scour the river for clues. But police never found the missing body parts, which the murderer had cut “fairly cleanly.” The cause of death was also never determined. Coles County Coroner Dick Lynch described the woman as being in her 20s, “rather flat-chested,” “not in the habit of shaving,” about 5 feet 9 inches, weighing around 130 pounds, with dark auburn hair. He deduced that she had not been dead more than a day or so, and that the murderer killed her somewhere other than at the bridge.
Coles County Sheriff Chuck Lister agreed. He believed the perpetrator(s) murdered the woman, dismembered her, and drove to Airtight with her body and “rolled [it] down the bridge embankment.” Police shipped her remains to Springfield for examination by pathologist Dr. Grant Johnson at Memorial Medical Center. He could not uncover anything definite because of the advanced state of decomposition and lack of vital extremities.
In Dr. Johnson’s first examination, he determined the woman had an uncommon “A-positive” blood type. This may have helped the pathologist identify her remains, had any immediate family come forward to report a missing person. She did not have any major scars, birthmarks, or tattoos that might have given a clue to her identity, nor was it easy to find out the time of death. “Observers seem to be fairly certain that the body was not on the riverbank early the preceding evening,” Dr. Johnson wrote in his final report. “The lack of rigidity and the early decomposition changes would certainly suggest that the body had been dead longer than the preceding evening and had been brought from some other location to the bank of the river.”
He estimated that the victim had not been dead for more than 48 hours at the time of discovery. Aside from trace amounts of aspirin, there were no drugs, poisons, or alcohol in her bloodstream, and no evidence of rape or abuse. Without the head or hands, and without any abrasions on the body, it was impossible for the coroner to even decide if a struggle preceded death. Tragically, it did appear, however, that the victim may at one time have been pregnant.
Investigators heralded the blood type as an important clue in a case that was rapidly going cold. Sheriff Lister told the Journal Gazette that it “could narrow things down significantly.” Unfortunately, he also revealed that checks of missing persons reports “failed to produce any substantial leads.” There were several missing persons called in around the time of discovery, but they all concerned much younger individuals. Passersby found a sack of clothes north of Charleston, but investigators quickly concluded it had no relevance to the case. By Thursday, October 23, the Sheriff’s Department suspended the search for clues in and around the river.
Reporters examined the story from every conceivable angle, but as the evidence remained thin, it quietly faded from the headlines. Nearly a year after her discovery, police laid the unidentified body to rest in Charleston’s Mound Cemetery under the name “Jane Doe.” Those who remembered the case occasionally traveled to her grave and left flowers or other tokens of their sympathy.
The Airtight case lay dormant until the mid-1980s, when a convict named Henry Lee Lucas briefly confessed to the murder. Lucas, who died in prison in 2001, was either an unabashed liar or one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. Between 1975 and his arrest in 1983, Lucas and a man named Ottis Toole roamed the heartland, killing at least 11 victims. Police arrested them in Texas.
While in prison, Lucas confessed to a staggering 600 homicides. Investigators from around the country brought him their cold cases, and he expressed complicity in one after the other. The task force set up to examine his claims was all too eager to accept them at face value. Inevitably, Lucas confessed to the Airtight Bridge murder, and the Coles County Sheriff’s Department excitedly announced the news.
Mark Temples was a reporter in Charleston at the time, and he was close to many of the detectives working on the case. “I had just done a seven part [radio] series on the Airtight murder, a more extensive series than anyone had ever done on it,” he told me. “We were all enjoying the day off one day, and I got a phone call here from Chuck Lister, the sheriff, who wanted me to be at the courthouse for a press conference. I said, ‘well, about what?’ and he said, ‘believe me, you’ll want to be there.’”
Sheriff Lister announced that he had found the culprit in the Airtight case and that an indictment would be forthcoming. “The way he put it, it was going to be a formality, that it was a slam dunk,” Mark Temples explained. Henry Lee Lucas had made a deal with ABC News to tell his story, a sensational tale filled with mayhem and murder. “So everybody in the nation who had a murder on the books went to see this man,” Mark said.
“In the Airtight case, he told them he couldn’t remember [the victim’s] name, which was unusual, but he did remember Airtight Bridge and he did remember picking her up in east Texas. [He brought her to] Missouri where he killed her and dismembered her, and he dumped off the body at Airtight, the hands at another location, and the head at another location.” The Illinois State Police conducted an extensive search for the missing parts, but found nothing. “The grand jury blew up in Lister’s face and they never returned an indictment,” Mark added. Lucas recanted everything when he felt the network had not held up its end of the bargain.
Still, there was compelling evidence to link Henry Lee Lucas to the crime. “He drew a map directly from Danville, Illinois to Airtight,” Mr. Temples explained. “And I know locals who can’t even do that… I don’t think [Sheriff Lister] would have convened a press conference to that extent unless he thought he had it in the bag.” At one point, Mark spoke directly over the phone to Lucas, who changed his story and firmly denied any role in the Airtight murder. “He was just confessing to anything and everything he could to keep talking,” Sheriff Cox told the Times-Courier.
Was Henry Lee Lucas responsible for the Airtight Bridge Murder? Would the victim ever be identified? Would we ever find out what happened in her final hours? Continued in Part 3…
Grant C. Johnson, Report of Coroner’s Physician to the Coroner of Coles County, Illinois (Springfield: Sangamon County Coroner’s Office, 1980), 2-3.
Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 21 October 1980; Times-Courier (Charleston) 22 October 1980.
Houston Chronicle (Houston) 28 June 1998.
Mark Temples, interview by author, 12 September 2006.
Times-Courier (Charleston) 5 December 2008.