KANKAKEE — Admitting he killed and dismembered his wife 37 years ago, Thomas Small pleaded guilty Friday in what's known in Coles County as the Airtight Bridge murder.
The 71-year-old Bradley resident entered the plea in Kankakee County to a charge of first-degree murder that accused him of killing Diane Marie Riordan Small on Oct. 15, 1980, according to a report from the Kankakee Daily Journal newspaper.
With the agreement that was reached in his case, Small was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the newspaper's report said.
Diane Small's body was found four days after she was killed, missing its head, feet and hands, in the Embarras River in a remote area about four miles northeast of Charleston. The long-unsolved case was called the Airtight Bridge murder because of the name of the bridge near where the body was found.
Thomas Small was arrested in March after officers with the Coles County Sheriff's Office traveled to Kankakee County and questioned him about his wife's death. During the questioning, Small reportedly confessed.
On Friday, Small's prison term was based on sentencing requirements for first-degree murder under Illinois law at the time of Diane Small's death.
That means he'll be eligible for day-for-day reductions on his prison time and the possible sentencing range was 20 to 40 years.
The Daily Journal's report said Diane Small's daughter, Vanessa LaGesse, attended Friday's hearing but declined to comment.
Contacted Friday, Diane Small's sister, Virginia Williams, said she thought the death weighed on Thomas Small and he was "miserable, which is punishment and well-earned."
Williams, who played a part in what led to the discovery of her sister's body's identity, said Small began drinking and smoking and had trouble sleeping after Diane Small's death.
"His life is evidence of his guilt," she said. "I just feel like that's what you get when you do things like this, which is justice as far as I'm concerned."
The identity of Diane Small's body was unknown for more than a decade after it was found in Coles County.
At first, according to accounts, Thomas Small claimed it wasn't unusual for his 26-year-old wife to leave home for periods of time. He filed only an informational report with police, which is different than a missing person's report.
Then, in 1992, Diane Small's sister, Virginia Williams, began having doubts about her sister's disappearance and filed a missing person's report. The description in the report matched that of the Airtight Bridge victim, leading authorities to conduct DNA testing that confirmed the identity.
At the time of Small's arrest, Coles County Sheriff's Office investigators said the decision to question him was part of an effort to reopen long-unsolved cases.
On Friday, Lt. Christina Stephen of the sheriff's office, who was one of the officers who questioned Small, said she still didn't want to give details on what he said. She said that was based on the fact that Small still has 30 days to file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea or other post-conviction motions.
Stephen did say that an argument led to the killing and Small admitted taking the body to the Coles County, about 130 miles from their home. She said Small had been to Coles County before but she didn't know why he chose the location.
"Sooner or later, everyone has to face their consequences," she said in reaction to the guilty plea. "It's a good thing the chapter is closed for her family."
Lt. Tyler Heleine of the sheriff's office, who also questioned Small, said the investigators didn't learn the reason behind the argument. He added that it appeared to be "somewhat of a relief" for Small when he admitted to the killing.
"It's good for the family to see some peace and justice," Heleine said. "That was the main thing for us, to get the family some closure."
He added that people in Coles County were concerned about the case and the case's conclusion was "good for the whole community."
Former Coles County Sheriff Darrell Cox, who was a patrol officer at the time and was the first to respond to the discovery of the body, said he was "ecstatic" to hear about Small's guilty plea Friday.
"It puts some closure on this thing and hopefully the family can move forward," he said.
Cox also said he was always "99.9 percent sure" Small killed his wife, mostly because he nearly confessed years ago before he stopped answering questions and asked for an attorney.
According to the Daily Journal newspaper, court proceedings revealed that Small admitted arguing with his wife and hitting her in the head with a fireplace tool at least twice.
He kept her body in their home's attic for two days before taking it to Coles County. He first removed the body's head, feet and hands and, according to one report, disposed of them in the Vermilion River southwest of Kankakee.
The account also said Small said he threw the fireplace tool into a quarry in Kankakee, but neither it nor the dismembered body parts were ever found.
Diane Small was buried in Mound Cemetery near Charleston. Her gravestone first bore the name "Jane Doe" until the DNA testing confirmed the identity, and it was then changed to her actual name.