Airtight Bridge is 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. The location is isolated, and most people do not come upon 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 really ignited the local imagination. Since that time, 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 encountered while crossing it. Designed by Claude L. James, Airtight Bridge was built in 1914 by the Decatur Bridge Company. Thanks to its remote location, it became known as a drinking spot for local teens and students from Eastern Illinois University. Otherwise, the bridge, which even 30 years ago was described as “old” and “creaky,” had a pretty mundane existence. In 1981, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on account 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.” Although many details of the case have been forgotten, the event itself has not.
It was a pleasant Sunday morning on October 19, 1980. 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 assist his son in digging a well. Seeing both the men and the partially decomposed 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. Recalling his first impression of the crime scene, Mr. Cox, now the county sheriff, 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.”
As police cordoned off the crime scene and word spread of the discovery, reporters and television crews descended on the remote location. Police worked into the evening using scuba divers to scour the river for clues, but the missing body parts, which had been severed “fairly cleanly,” were never found. 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 she had been killed somewhere other than at the bridge. Her remains were immediately shipped to Springfield to be examined by pathologist Dr. Grant Johnson at Memorial Medical Center, but he was unable to uncover anything conclusive.
In Dr. Johnson’s initial examination, he determined that the woman had an uncommon “A-positive” blood type. She did not have any major scars, birthmarks, or tattoos that might have given a clue as to her identity, nor was it easy to determine the time of death. 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 determine if a struggle preceded death.
Investigators heralded the determination of 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.” By Thursday, October 23, the Sheriff’s Department suspended the search for clues in and around the river.
Nearly a year after her discovery, the unidentified body was laid 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. Finally, in 1992, 12-years after the discovery of the body, there was a break in the case. On November 20, the Sheriff’s Department held a press conference in Charleston, this time to announce that the identity of the Airtight victim had been ascertained. Her name was Diana Marie Riordan-Small, a resident of Bradley, Illinois, who disappeared from her home a short time before her remains were found 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 but surely, a picture of what happened to Diana Small began to emerge.
The reason that no one who matched the description of the body found at Airtight turned up in the missing persons reports was that Diana was never reported missing. “Her husband… told police he wasn’t all that concerned because Small had left home on occasions before,” the Journal Gazette reported. Furthermore, 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.
In October 2008, the anonymous headstone that had marked the grave of Diana Small was replaced with one bearing her name. With the laying of a new monument, this chapter of the Airtight Bridge murder came to an end, but the family of the victim and the few who refuse to give up the pursuit of justice will never forget. Those rusted, burgundy trestles that span the Embarras along that winding road in rural Coles County will always elicit a tingle along the spines of visitors, as well as a supernatural sense that something very wrong happened there.