Airtight Bridge Murder Part 3 of 3: Mystery Solved?

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2, “The Mystery Deepens”

In 1992, 12-years after the discovery of the body, there was a real break in the case. On November 20, the Sheriff’s Department held another press conference in Charleston, this time to announce that they had determined the identity of the Airtight victim. Her name was Diana Marie Riordan-Small, a resident of Bradley, Illinois, who disappeared from her home a short time before passersby found her remains over 100 miles away in Coles County.

The revelation was the result of cooperation between Coles County Sheriff’s Detective Art Beier and Detective Steven Coy of the Bradley Police Department. Slowly, a picture of what happened to Diana Small began to emerge.

The reason no one matching the description of the body found at Airtight turned up in the missing persons reports was that no one reported Diana missing. “Her husband… told police he wasn’t all that concerned because Small had left home on occasions before,” the Journal Gazette reported. Diana’s mother and sister had joined a small Christian sect before moving west, where they became disconnected from Diana and her husband.

After nearly a decade, her sister, Virginia, left the church and moved to North Carolina. Virginia decided to get in touch with the rest of her family and learned of her sister’s disappearance, at which point she filed a missing persons report. According to Dave Fopay of the Journal Gazette, “Detective Art Beier saw the report on a national listing, realized Small’s descriptions matched that of the Airtight Bridge victim and contacted Bradley police.” A DNA test confirmed the match.

It turned out investigators early on in the case were right about one thing, the Airtight victim did have a child. Vanessa LaGessa was only two years old when her mother disappeared. She shed light on what happened after her mother’s disappearance, and what her family has gone through dealing with the tragedy. Understandably, her father did not want to discuss the incident. “I believe my dad honestly didn’t know how to tell me that my mother was murdered even as I got older,” she explained to the Times-Courier in 2008.

“I am relieved that someone actually still cares enough about my mother to dig deeper into her murder,” she wrote to me. “I was only two at the time. The case was reopened once in 1995 and once I talked to the detective and my dad refused to talk to him… My dad knows that the spouses are the first suspects in cases like this.” Vanessa has a son, and one day she will have to explain to him what happened to his grandmother.

In October 2008, the monument company replaced the anonymous headstone that had marked the grave of Diana Small with one bearing her name. Mark Temples, who had left a flower on the grave many times over the years, never lived to see the new headstone. He died on June 10, 2007.

“I am grateful for how well her [former] headstone was taken care of and it was finally nice to meet Mr. Cox the Sheriff of Coles County and some of the people who have visited her grave over the years,” Vanessa said. “We have waited a long time to finally get some kind of closure… I am very grateful to you and everyone who has been involved in her case all these years.” Adams Memorials, who had donated the original monument, donated the new one as well.

On Thursday, March 2, 2017, police arrested Diana’s husband, Thomas A. Small, for her murder. Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe told reporters Small had confessed and authorities alleged he disposed of her missing body parts in the Vermilion River. The indictment alleged he killed his wife four days before her body was discovered in Coles County, dismembered it with an ax, and hid the parts in his attic before disposing of them.

A month after the indictment, Thomas Small pleaded not guilty to the charges, but later changed his mind to spare his family the heartache of a trial. Sentencing was scheduled for November 3rd.

The Airtight Bridge murder, as it came to be known, left a permanent stain, and the carefree drinking nights at Airtight were over. Those rusted, burgundy trestles that span the Embarras along that narrow, winding road in rural Coles County will always elicit a tingle along the spines of visitors.


  • Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 10 December 1992.
  • Times-Courier (Charleston) 5 December 2008.
  • Daily Journal (Kankakee) 3 March 2017.
  • Daily Journal (Kankakee) 1 April 2017.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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