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Coles County Sheriff's Office lieutenants Christina Stephen and Tyler Heleine look over records from their interview of Thomas Small that led to his confession in what's known as the Airtight Bridge murder.

DAVE FOPAY, THE SOUTHERN NEWS SERVICES

CHARLESTON — Christina Stephen described it as "historical."

It was a crime that happened years ago but something she always heard about, almost legendary, with ghost stories going along with the grisly truth.

Stephen helped finally solve it, but she credited her colleagues, her predecessor and, largely, a sister of the victim for finally ending a nearly four-decade-old mystery.

In Coles County, it's always been called the Airtight Bridge murder because of the bridge where, on Oct. 19, 1980, the body of a nude woman with her head, hands and feet missing was found in the Embarras River.

A dozen years later, with the advent of DNA testing and the sister's concern, the body was identified as that of a woman from Bradley in Kankakee County, Diane Marie Riordan Small.

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Diane Small is shown in a family photo.

Now a lieutenant and the chief detective with the Coles County Sheriff's Office, Stephen said several "dynamics" of the case led to its reopening and, ultimately, solving.

"There were a lot of things that put up red flags for me," she said.

Years ago, now-retired sheriff's Detective Art Beier "put so much time and effort into that case," Stephen said.

After Small was identified as the victim, Beier's investigation included interviews with her husband, Thomas Small, who came close to confessing before asking for an attorney.

Five years ago, then-Sheriff Darrell Cox — who was a patrol officer in 1980 and the first at the scene of the body's discovery — thought there was a need and the time for reopening old cases, Stephen said.

Stephen said after the body was identified, Kankakee County authorities didn't search the home where Thomas and Diane Small had lived. Thomas Small's story was that they fought and "she probably ran off with another guy," so he didn't file a formal missing person's report.

"As a loved one, why would you not be concerned about that?" Stephen said.

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Thomas Small

Thomas Small no longer lived in the house in 2012 when Illinois State Police agreed to do a crime scene investigation. Blood was found, but ultimately not enough for conclusive tests, and Stephen said Bradley police wanted to wait on the results before questioning Thomas Small.

All the time, Stephen said, she spent "hours on the phone" with Ginger Williams, Diane Small's sister. It was Williams who filed a formal missing person's report in 1992, providing a description of her sister that resembled that of the Airtight Bridge body and leading to the DNA testing.

Stephen called Williams "the key" to the entire investigation, as she told stories of the family's background and related how Thomas Small "always took care of people," but his life declined after Diane's death.

Late last year, Stephen said, she got the go-head from current Sheriff Jimmy Rankin to travel to Kankakee County and try to question Thomas Small, 70 years old by then.

"We just did not feel that we had a lot of time left to have that conversation with Tom," Stephen said.

She said she wanted Tyler Heleine, a sheriff's office lieutenant and head of its patrol division, to go with her for the questioning.

She praised his interviewing skills and said she thought it would help to have a man who, like Small, had a military background take part. It was a decision that eventually paid off.

They went to Kankakee County on March 1. Stephen said Bradley police didn't join them but officers with Kankakee police did, and they located Small at the apartment building where he lived.

"He wasn't overly excited to see us," Stephen said. "We told him we'd reopened the case and we thought he might fill in some blanks."

As it ended up, Small and Heleine shared not only a military background but also a love for the Chicago Cubs. Heleine said Small was "standoffish at first" but they soon built a rapport.

Stephen said that day's conversation ended with them telling Small they'd return the next day and talk more. She said they wanted to try to find another relative, though he couldn't be located, and talk with Small again to check consistencies.

On that next day, Stephen said, she brought up things such as how Ginger Williams told them of the odor in Thomas Small's car, which he owned at the time of Diane's death but sold once her body was identified.

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Ginger Williams, sister of Diane Small, stands at Small's grave in Mound Cemetery near Charleston with lieutenants Tyler Heleine and Christina Stephen of the Coles Sheriff's Office.

"I finally just threw it out there," Stephen said, and asked Small if he would take a computer voice stress test. She said he was "very hesitant at first" but eventually agreed and "failed it, miserably."

During the questioning that followed, Stephen said they told Small they "knew he was a good guy and it had to be eating him alive." Heleine noted Small's sparsely furnished apartment and other signs of self neglect.

"You could tell he hadn't put it in his past," Heleine said. "He finally gave it up."

It was then that Small told about problems with the marriage and how he took Diane back after, he claimed, she cheated on him. She "started acting weird" and at one point "started swinging at me," Small said.

During the interview, Small said he got a coal poker from an old furnace in the house and kept it handy in case Diane tried to hit him again. That's what happened, and "I swung back and hit her in the head," he said.

"I might have hit her more than once," Small told Stephen and Heleine. He said he almost called for help, but his first thought was how his young daughter, asleep in another room at the time, would react, "so the lies started."

Small said he first took Diane's body to the house's attic and left it there for a few days until until the smell became too much. He put the body in his car and took his daughter along, as she was too young to leave alone.

"I didn't know where I was going to take her," Small said.

There's some indication that Small might have been to Coles County before. But he said he drove randomly until finally turning onto the dirt road to the bridge about four miles northeast of Charleston, one of the most remote areas in the county.

"I tried to find a place where nobody was at," Small said during the questioning. "I could have dropped her any place between Kankakee and there."

Though Heleine said he had "a hard time believing" Small "just stumbled onto the place," he also said Small "stuck to" that story.

The bank of the river is where Small said he dismembered the body. While Stephen said she has a "hard time" believing that, she said photos of the scene taken in 1980 did show something like tool marks on the ground.

Small then said he continued to "make it hard to identify her" and took the body parts back to his home, later burning them and throwing the remains in the Vermilion River. He said the ax he used to dismember the body went into a park lake; it and the body parts were never found.

Small's concern for his daughter's feelings eventually included a trip with her to Mound Cemetery near Charleston where Diane Small is buried, Stephen said.

"He really showed no emotion about Diane's murder," she said. "The only time he showed emotion was when he thought about his daughter."

Small said he didn't want his daughter to know who killed her mother while he was alive. He said his only thought about confessing earlier was to write a letter telling what he did and have it kept in a safe deposit box until he died.

Stephen also said they asked Small if he became worried after the body was identified in 1992. He replied that "in the back of my mind I was worried all the time."

After the interview, Bradley police were notified and arrested Small. Eight months later, he pleaded guilty to a first-degree murder charge and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Stephen and Heleine said they were willing to talk about their investigation once Small's court case concluded but wanted to wait until after the 30-day deadline for post-conviction motions.

Now, Stephen said she's grateful for all the circumstances that help lead to the case being solved.

She noted that the pathologist who did the autopsy removed and saved a bruised area on Diane Small's body, which ended up being the only source of her DNA for testing.

And when Beier learned about what was then a new investigation tool, he worked to help locate Diane's parents to get DNA samples for comparison.

In September, Stephen and Heleine visited Diane's grave along with her sister, Ginger Williams, who Stephen said "always knew in her heart who was responsible."

After the body was identified, there was a local effort to replace the "Jane Doe" headstone at Diane's grave with one bearing her real name. Noting the interest in the case, Heleine said it was good to have "closure for this area."

The Smalls' daughter, Vanessa LaGesse, recently told the Kankakee Daily Journal newspaper that she loves Thomas Small for raising her but "I hate him for taking my mom."

Still, it might be a small comfort for LaGesse to finally know what happened, Stephen said.

"At least she got her answer — maybe not the answer she wanted to hear."

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