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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. Read the rest of this entry

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Airtight Bridge Murder Part 2 of 3: The Mystery Deepens

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.

Article from the Mattoon Journal Gazette – Oct. 22, 1980

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.” Read the rest of this entry

Airtight Bridge Murder Part 1 of 3: A Gruesome Discovery

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.

Airtight Bridge in fall. Photo by Michael Kleen

Airtight Bridge in fall. Photo by Michael Kleen

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.

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Haunted Rockford, Illinois

Haunted Rockford, Illinois, Kathi Kresol’s latest offering from The History Press, is a spine-tingling look at the history and folklore of the Forest City. Kathi also wrote Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Illinois, and originally those were going to be a single book. Though related subjects (many traumatic events are believed to spawn hauntings), splitting them up was ultimately a good decision thematically.

Like Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Haunted Rockford delves into the history and personalities behind the stories. Kathi created the popular Haunted Rockford Tours, but this is no recitation of a tour script. These stories are painstakingly researched and documented, relying primarily on interviews and newspaper articles. The chapters are divided into two parts: Ghostly Encounters and Legends, Curses and Other Curiosities.

The two most interesting chapters are “The Terrible Tragedy of Geraldine Bourbon” and “The Witch of McGregor Road.” In the first, Kathi tells a personal story of how she came to live in a haunted house in Rockford, and the horrible events that precipitated it. Imagine finding out your home was the scene of a double murder after a number of bizarre experiences. Kathi told me about her experience several times over the years and it doesn’t lose its impact in print.

In “The Witch of McGregor Road,” Kathi uncovered a possible origin for Rockford’s infamous “Witch Beulah” legend. The legend involves a school teacher who was blamed for a fire at her schoolhouse out on Meridian or McGregor Road. Or, perhaps, Beulah was a witch who cursed Arthur Blood’s family and caused the mysterious events along Blood’s Point Road.

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New Interview with Bobbie Ashley on WIKK 103.5

In this latest interview with Bobbie Ashley, I talk about my new book, Witchcraft in Illinois, on WIKK 103.5 The Eagle in Newton, Illinois.

Witchcraft in Illinois, 1818-1885

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Early historians claimed witch beliefs vanished from Illinois along with its earliest pioneers, but in this chapter I discuss incidents involving witchcraft that occurred even after the Civil War. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

The end of the Revolutionary War opened the vast Northwest Territory to settlement, and Scotch-Irish pioneers began to cross the Appalachian Mountains and travel down the Ohio River looking for new land. Many settled in the bottomlands between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in what would become southern Illinois.

Following close behind, Yankees from New England spread out across northern Illinois and down the Illinois River Valley. Rapid growth transformed the state from a sparsely populated wilderness to a thriving agricultural region. Between 1800 and 1840, Illinois’ population grew from 2,458 to 476,183 residents.

Southern Illinois was called “Egypt” or “Little Egypt” for its proximity to a vital river trade route (like the Nile delta in Egypt) and the presence of towns with names like Cairo, Thebes, Dongola, and Karnak. New Englanders who immigrated to Illinois in the early half of the nineteenth century also called it “Dark Egypt.” They viewed the Scotch-Irish pioneers who preceded them as uneducated, boorish, and backwards.

For their part, the Scotch-Irish, who emigrated from Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, viewed these Yankees, in the colorful words of one historian, as “a skinning, tricky, penurious race of peddlers, filling the country with tinware, brass clocks, and wooden nutmegs.”

According to cultural historian David Hackett Fischer, Scotch-Irish pioneers were obsessed with magic and sorcery, and they brought those beliefs with them into Illinois. One early account of witchcraft in Little Egypt comes from the History of Williamson County Illinois (1876). “From 1818 to 1835,” its author claimed, “there were a great many witches in this county.” On a place called Davis’ Prairie (also known as David’s Prairie), there lived a woman named Eva Locker, who was widely reputed to be a witch.

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