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Airtight Bridge murder victim honored by daughter who barely knew her

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A brisk wind blew across the silk flowers and batted at the colorful tail kite that hung over the granite gravestone tucked away at the back of Mound Cemetery in Charleston.

After 28 years, the small marker bearing the words “Jane Doe, found Coles County, Oct. 19, 1980,” had finally been replaced.

A small group of family members gathered around the grave on Nov. 22 for the first and only memorial service for Diana Marie Riordan-Small, who was murdered nearly three decades ago.

She was 26.

Small’s nude, partially submerged body was found by two hunters and a farmer in the Embarras River near the Airtight Bridge about four miles northeast of Charleston.

Her head, hands and feet severed, she remained unidentified for 12 years. Her killer or killers have never been found.

Coles County Sheriff Darrell Cox, who was a patrol officer at the time, was the first responder at the scene.

“At first, looking from the bridge, I thought it was a Halloween prank,” he said. “Her arms were positioned behind her in the water and you couldn’t tell her hands were missing.”

Newspaper accounts from the time said that Small’s disappearance from her home in Bradley near Kankakee wasn’t reported immediately because her husband, Thomas Small, said she had left home before and always returned in a few days.

A sister of Small had filed an informational report with the Bradley police on Nov. 21, 1980, but at that time, both she and Small’s husband said they didn’t believe a missing person report was necessary.

According to the newspaper, a missing person report was filed by Small’s sister in 1992:

“Once Small was identified on a nationwide missing persons report network, Coles County authorities found she matched the general description of the Airtight Bridge victim: in her 20s or 30s, about 5 feet 10 inches tall, about 130 pounds and with auburn hair.”

Tissue taken from the victim and blood samples taken for DNA testing from both of Small’s elderly parents (who were divorced and living in Indiana and California) resulted in “near certain identification,” the newspaper reported.

At that time, DNA testing had been in use in Illinois for about five months.

At one time, local authorities were interested in a man suspected of several murders in Texas, especially when it was revealed he had allegedly decapitated some of his victims.

“He even confessed to the Airtight killing,” Cox said, “but he didn’t know anything about the case. He was just confessing to anything and everything he could to keep talking.”

Cox said the case remains open, but with no physical evidence.

“It will never be closed,” he said, “but the burden lies with the agency where the victim lived.

“Most likely the victim was killed somewhere else and the body brought here,” he said.

Small was one of eight brothers and sisters. At the time of her death, she had a 2-year-old daughter, Vanessa.

Now 30 and married with a son, Jonathon, 6, Small’s daughter, Vanessa LaGesse of Kankakee remembers what it was like growing up without her mother.

“I wasn’t sure how to ask my dad about my mom, so I never did until I got a little older,” she said. “My Aunt Carol and Uncle Robert usually babysat me after school while my dad was at work. I also stayed a year with my Aunt Ginger and a couple years with my Aunt Pat, but my aunts never really told me too much about my mom.”

When she was around 12, her dad was unable to care for her, and she began living in a series of foster homes.

It wasn’t until she was 14, the year her mother’s body was finally identified, that she learned what had happened to her mother.

“I was living in a foster home in Manteno and my dad called me. This part I’ll never forget because it agitated me so much,” LaGesse said.

“He asked me if I had the Kankakee Journal and told me to turn to a certain page. I did, and I didn’t even have to read the article. I just saw the headlines in big, bold print, and busted out crying.

“There was a big picture, too, and I had seen that picture of my mom a hundred times, along with other pictures we had of her.”

That moment, LaGesse said, was one that continues to haunt her to this day.

“I believe my dad honestly

didn’t know how to tell me that my mother was murdered even as I got older, but he’s starting to open up to me a little more now,” she said.

It wasn’t until October of this year that LaGesse saw the grave, and her wish was to provide a headstone with her mother’s name at the site.

Wendell and Carol Adams of Adams Memorials & Monuments in Charleston, who donated the first grave marker 28 years ago, also donated the new granite headstone for Riordan-Small.

According to Linda Uphoff, an employee of the monument company who worked with LaGesse to design the headstone, area residents have continued to put flowers on the grave over the years.

“Vanessa was really touched that there were flowers even though people didn’t know her mother’s name. She wanted to make sure and thank people for doing that,” Uphoff said.

Describing her mother as a free spirit, LaGesse said her mother would often just walk away from her problems.

“Sometimes she’d just leave for a few days, but she always came back,” she said. “But that time she didn’t come back. Sometimes I’d like to walk away, too, but I tell myself: learn from your mother; don’t do what she did.”

LaGesse said as she got older, she “just couldn’t let it go,” and still suffers from occasional bouts of depression.

“I’ve thought about it every freaking day since I was 14,” she said, “and if the person who did this is still alive, I want them to remember that this was a woman who had a life.

“She had a husband and a family and a child and siblings. I want them to know that she never got to see her child grow up or to meet her grandson.

“But, I’m also relieved that now mom has her own headstone with her name on it.

“I’ve been on sort of an emotional tear between depressed and relieved,” she said. “Relieved, because now the family all knows where she’s buried and they can come here if they want to.

“I can still see that picture and headline in my head from 16 years ago, and I try to lock it away somewhere, but it’s still in there.”

Contact Bonnie Clark at or 348-5727.


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