Buried alive: How I learned about the murder of Stephen B. Small
The Rochester Post Bulletin's connection to one of the most depraved crimes in the Midwest.
ROCHESTER — In 2001, soon after I joined the staff of the Rochester Post Bulletin, I was sent to one of the few journalism conferences that I have ever attended in my life.
This one was held in St. Louis and hosted by the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It was a chance to rub shoulders with other ink-stained wretches (when there was still more ink involved), pick-up reportorial tips from veterans and listen to old-timers even then wheeze about the state of journalism.
But what I remember most vividly from the conference was a story told by a featured speaker at one of the seminars.
It was memorable not only because the crime he described was so depraved, gruesome and really just plain stupid, but because it involved a relative of the Small family, which at the time owned the Rochester Post Bulletin (The paper was sold to Forum Communications in 2019).
It was also memorable, because I had traveled more than 350 miles to learn about one of the darkest chapters in the Small family’s history — one that could have been torn from the pages of an Edgar Allen Poe book — but that I had never heard a peep about since joining the PB’s newsroom.
In 1987, Stephen B. Small, a Kankakee businessman whose name resonated with the commercial and media elite of the area, was abducted and buried alive in a homemade wooden box.
His abductors had sought a $1 million ransom and so had buried him in a wooded area southeast of Kankakee in the hopes of keeping him stashed away while his kidnappers negotiated the payment.
The kidnappers had made provisions for air, water and light, but Small, who was 39 years old, probably suffocated or had a heart attack, the Kankakee County coroner said at the time. The box was buried three feet deep in sand.
According to news reports at the time, Small was lured by the kidnappers to a building he was renovating. He received a call from someone masquerading as a policeman and said the building, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, had been forcibly entered.
Small’s wife was called and told that she would find her husband in a box if the ransom was not paid.
According to a New York Times article written then, the family members were willing to comply with the kidnappers’ demands, but they couldn’t understand the tape-recorded message they received over the telephone about where the ransom was to be left. The sound quality was poor and the abductors didn’t stay on the phone long enough to understand what was being said.
The coroner said that Small had been dead several hours when he was found. How long he had been alive in the box was not speculated upon.
Stephen Small was the cousin of Len (Rob) Small, leader of the Small Newspaper Group that owned the Post Bulletin and six other daily newspapers and three weeklies in five states.
The Smalls are a prominent family in Illinois. The victim’s great-grandfather was Len Small, governor of Illinois from 1921 to 1929. His father was president and chairman of a broadcasting company that owned 11 radio stations and two cable television stations.
Remarkably, the Post Bulletin has one other connection to the crime. James Fisher, grandfather of Erich Fisher, a Post Bulletin digital content producer, was a police detective investigating the crime. He was the first to climb in the hole and find out if Small was still alive.
In the book “Small Justice,” author Jim Ridings describes how Danny Edwards, one of the kidnappers, led local police and the FBI to where they had buried Small.
“The men started digging as fast as they could. Edwards fell to his knees and helped dig with his hands. The men dug about two to three feet down. (FBI Agent Alan) Medina saw a piece of plywood. They cleared more sand from the top.
“It was apparent this was the lid of the box. (A police lieutenant) asked Edwards if the top was nailed shut. Edwards said no. (The lieutenant) knocked on the lid and heard nothing. (A patrol officer) used the point of a scoop shovel to pry a corner of the lid open. He lifted the lid enough to get a hand under it.
“The officers could see the body and it was not moving. They saw a white male who appeared to be dead.
“Police recognized the man as Stephen Small. He was lying on his left side, still wearing the red shirt and blue jeans he wore when he left his house. His leather loafers were off his feet, but inside the box. He had handcuffs on his wrist, but the link between them was cut. He wore a gold watch on his wrist. His light jacket was wadded under his head, as a pillow. In the wooden box was a jug of water, candy bars, gum and a light hooked up to a car battery.”
Fisher, described as the smallest officer among law enforcement officers at the scene, got into the box and picked up Small’s left wrist. He couldn’t detect a pulse. He told the officers that rigor mortis had set in.
“What is rigor mortis?” Edwards reportedly asked.
The infamous crime still generates headlines. Last summer, it was reported that Nancy Rish, who is serving a life prison term for her role in the kidnapping and live burial of Small, is challenging her sentence.
Rish, who is now 59, says she was forced to participate with Edwards, who was her boyfriend at the time, in the crime because Edwards abused and threatened her.
She argues that a 2015 change in state law allows people convicted of felonies to challenge their sentences if they can prove their crimes were linked to domestic abuse.
After a Kankakee County judge threw out Rish’s request for a new sentencing hearing, an Illinois appeals court reinstated it last summer.