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.

Continue reading “Airtight Bridge Murder Part 3 of 3: Mystery Solved?”

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.

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.”

Continue reading “Airtight Bridge Murder Part 2 of 3: The Mystery Deepens”

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.

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.

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Tales of Coles County: Innocence

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.

As Halloween neared that October of 1980, the typical orange and black decorations appeared in store windows, and pumpkins began to be displayed on porches adorned with fake spider webs. For the students of Eastern Illinois University, it meant a Vincent Price film festival, haunted houses, and of course, renewed interest in the ghost that haunted Pemberton Hall.

There was nothing out of the ordinary going on for one university student and Mattoon resident who found herself in her usual hiding spot, doing what she usually did: writing in her journal. As she sat on her bed reflecting on the past week, only one thing came to her mind: the question her professor had posed before they left class on Friday.

He asked us what the first conscious thought was, Natalie wrote. When our long-gone ancestors were crawling around the underbrush. She paused for a moment to brush a hair off the page. Was it a primitive feeling of love between two of these walking apes? The realization that they desired each other and no one else? She thought for a moment. No, she wrote. Some birds do the same thing. She turned the page.

Was it the first person who realized that they could use a stick to get food? she wrote. No, there are animals who use crude tools too. Natalie looked up at her reflection in the long mirror on her bedroom wall. Was it the first person who looked down into a calm pool of water, and instead of thinking that there was an animal staring back, thought: “is that me?”

Her mother’s voice echoed up the stairs, interrupting her thoughts. “Natalie, honey?”

“Yes?” she yelled back.

“Do you need a ride to school?” her mother asked. “I’m going to be leaving soon.”

It’s about time,” Natalie muttered under her breath. She slammed her journal closed and stuffed it in her book bag. Natalie was a sophomore at Eastern Illinois University, but she had lived in the town of Mattoon for as long as she could remember.

She decided to go on to college to find a way to get away from her parents, who had asserted an overbearing influence on her ever since she was a baby. They are so afraid of me getting hurt because I’m their only child, she thought. She had also chosen to go to college because she had seen too many of the kids with whom she went to high school graduate and then remain in their hometown, getting married and working minimum-wage jobs.

Her mother and she were exact opposites. Her mother, whose name was Kate, was the “popular girl” when she was younger, and she still enjoyed a large group of friends. Natalie’s parents always invited friends and neighbors over to their two-story ranch house, but Natalie preferred the sanctity of her bedroom. She was not the social type. She had never believed she was very attractive. She lacked any feminine curves, and her reddish hair was always messy and dry. She had given up trying to do anything about her appearance a long time ago.

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Tales of Coles County: In These Shallow Walls

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.

The year was 1934, and the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were ravaging the United States. Illinois had been hit particularly hard, and between 1929 and 1933, 412 banks failed in downstate Illinois. Crops wilted or simply blew away throughout the Great Plains, and communities that relied heavily on farming, like those of central Illinois, suffered immensely.

For those families hardest hit by the Depression, there were only two places to go: the unforgiving streets, or the county poor farm. Poor farms had been set up in the 1800s to support those without homes, the elderly and infirm, or those who couldn’t take care of themselves. The population of the farms declined during the boom years after the turn of the century, but swelled again once the stock market crashed.

The Coles County Poor Farm, located on 260 acres between the towns of Charleston and Ashmore, was no exception, and it opened its doors to the many destitute caused by the Great Depression.

Darby Adar and his daughter Shirley were lucky enough to find their way to the doors of the almshouse on this particular county farm before the superintendent turned others away due to overcrowding. For the first few days after arrival and being assigned a room, Darby wouldn’t let his daughter, almost seven years old, wander the imposing brick building on her own. It was, after all, a new place with new people, and their experience with day-to-day survival on the open road had made him cautious to the point of paranoia.

After about two weeks of living on the farm, however, Shirley made friends with some of the other kids in the building, particularly a girl about the same age named Elva Skinner. Darby had never met any of these other children, but that wasn’t unusual at the time; adults and children inhabited different worlds.

Darby had also developed an interest in a woman named Rose who lived and worked in the building. Her family had died of Influenza when she was a young girl, leaving her in the care of the state for many years. After she became old enough to go out on her own, she chose to stay at the county farm as a nurse’s aide. Darby had lost his wife to childbirth, and the rigors of raising a child on his own had him constantly looking for a new Mrs. Adar. He, like the other able-bodied men and women living there, also helped out around the farm. All of this kept him preoccupied during the day, and so he had less and less time to pay attention to everything his daughter was doing.

At night, Shirley would come back to their room, which they shared with an elderly woman who had been living in the asylum for most of her life. The woman was somewhat feeble minded, but she was very pleasant to be around and could, for the most part, tend to her own needs. Every day, Rose came to their room and administered the old lady’s medication, played cards, or had idle conversation with Darby about where he was from, the weather, or anything else the two thought of.

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Tales of Coles County: The Charleston Riot

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.

The year was 1864, and the month of March was just coming to a close. The battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg had long passed, and it looked as though the tide of the Civil War was finally turning in the Union’s favor. The presidential election was still over seven months away, but many believed it would decide the course of war.

Illinois had always been divided on the issue of slavery, and there were many people living in the southern half of the state that still had strong ties to their neighbors in the South. They didn’t want Abraham Lincoln reelected, because they knew he would never make peace with the Confederacy. These supporters of the movement for “peace without victory” were called “butternuts” or “copperheads.” Each faction—Unionists and copperheads—equally despised each other, and these divisions were exacerbated along political party lines.

On that mild spring day of March 28, Oliver Thomas stepped outside of Huron’s Bookstore on the west side of Charleston’s town square, engrossed in that week’s issue of the Plaindealer. The newspaper headlines were still fresh with news of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest’s daring and profitable raid on Paducah, Kentucky the previous week. Oliver was afraid a Confederate attack that far north would inflame the passions of the copperheads, who had been raising a stink over the recent arrival of the 54th Illinois Infantry Regiment in Mattoon. Many of the soldiers were local boys from the county, however, so he couldn’t imagine anything coming of these idle threats.

The din of an unusually robust number of people chatting near the courthouse tore his attention away from his newspaper. He looked up to see several clusters of men gathered around the square. He recognized many familiar faces, but some, who sat on horses near a couple of hay-filled wagons, appeared to be from the countryside. Additionally, there were a little more than a dozen Union soldiers dressed in blue uniforms that ducked in and out of the storefronts or talked with each other on the street. Only a few were armed. Finally, Oliver recognized his friend Daniel, who was standing against a tree near the courthouse, and strode over to him.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Daniel shouted even before Oliver could reach him.

“Isn’t what exciting?” Oliver asked in reply. “What are all these people doing here?” He finally reached the tree, which was in earshot of a small group of four men who stood on the courthouse steps. The quartet included James O’Hair, who was the father of the county sheriff, and his friend Nelson Wells.

“Judge Eden is goin’ to give a speech to the soldiers,” Oliver’s friend replied with excitement.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” he whispered under his breath. Everyone in the county knew that Eden, along with Sheriff John O’Hair, were leaders of the local Peace Democrat faction—Northern Democrats who wanted to make peace with the Confederacy. Eden giving a speech to the soldiers was only asking for trouble. Oliver took note of a Union soldier who walked up to the elder O’Hair. He appeared slightly drunk.

Continue reading “Tales of Coles County: The Charleston Riot”

Tales of Coles County: The Second Battle of the Ambraw

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.

The summer sun beamed down through the treetops and illuminated the forest floor below, while hidden cicadas buzzed incessantly from their branches. A column of men clad in buckskin slowly coiled its way along a well-worn deer path. Most of the men sat on horseback, but some rode in a small supply wagon in the middle of the formation. The year was 1818, six years before the first white settlers would arrive in the area that became Coles County, and a few remaining Native Americans, most notably the Kickapoo, refused to leave their lands and join the tribal relocation beyond the Mississippi.

Most of the westward-bound pioneers avoided the wild region of east-central Illinois, but some, like John Parker, would eventually stop and erect cabins near large groves or adjacent to rivers and streams. John Parker and his four sons, Benjamin, Daniel, Silas, and James, would, in a few years hence, build a mill (later known as Blakeman’s Mill) on the banks of the Embarras River to service the handful of local farms.

It was near the site of this mill that the legendary Indian fighter General Samuel Whiteside and his Illinois Rangers camped while in pursuit of a Kickapoo, Pottawatomie, and Winnebago raiding party that had stolen some horses and terrorized a group of settlers a week earlier.

The river sparkled as it flowed around a bend in the trees, and it provided a quick drink for the horses of the men as they crossed. The animal’s hooves splashed and clopped on the smooth stones below. General Whiteside rode at the head of the column, with two men at his flanks. He raised his arm and the company halted. “I see a good campsite down yonder,” he announced. “This will be a fine place to stay for the night. These ridges will hide our fires. Have a couple of men search the woods for some grub for supper.”

“Isn’t this whereabouts those surveyors got into that scrap with the redskins last year?” the man to his right inquired.

Whiteside paused a moment. “I do believe so,” he replied, and turned toward the man on his left. “Colonel, have the men set up camp.”

“Yes sir, General Whiteside,” the man, whose name was Robert Forester, replied as he wheeled his horse and headed down the column of men. A bird chirped loudly in the distance as he headed off, and the horses grew uneasy.

Farther up the river, two scouts, Thomas Adams and Douglas Fervor, crawled to the peak of a ridge, one of several that had been carved out of the landscape by small streams flowing towards the river. The southern half of what would become Coles County had been spared from the last great glacial period, and the terrain was much more like that of Kentucky or Tennessee. It was comforting to the settlers who would eventually venture to that part of Illinois, because it reminded them of home.

Thomas peaked his head over a thick log. “That’s a raiding party out there,” he whispered, referring to the group of six American Indian braves that rested about fifty yards from them on the side of a ridge. One of the Indians, near a tree, bent down and seemed to be digging something out of the weeds. A tall man wearing two feathers whistled over to him. The Indian that had been digging pulled up a medium sized turtle and whistled back, the pitch of the whistle varying in different degrees.

“Those are Kickapoo,” Douglas whispered. “You can tell by the whistling. They’re the only tribe around these parts that does that.”

“What do you think they’re up to?” Thomas asked with concern.

“Looks like they’re finding dinner,” his companion replied as he angled himself to get a look, “just like us.” Then, he added when he could see the whole group, “This is a little party. The fact we can’t see the rest of ‘em worries me.”

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