"We Are Declaring This Area a Crime Scene"

Historic Burr Oak Cemetery closed to public after gruesome discoveries

By BJ Lutz
|  Friday, Aug 7, 2009  |  Updated 3:01 PM CDT
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"We Are Declaring This Area a Crime Scene"

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ALSIP, IL - JULY 09: A sign sits above the front gate at Burr Oak Cemetery July 9, 2009 in Alsip, Illinois.

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"We Are Declaring This Area a Crime Scene"

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says the investigation at Burr Oak continues to expand exponentially and closes access to the cemetery.
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Distraught families hoping to determine whether loved ones' final resting places at a historic black cemetery near Chicago were desecrated in a gravedigging scandal were met with more gruesome discoveries: additional human bones strewn about the grounds.

Thousands have flooded Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, the burial place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singer Dinah Washington, since four former employees -- including the cemetery's office manager -- were accused of dumping hundreds of unearthed corpses in a scheme to resell plots and charged with dismembering bodies.  Authorities said Friday the four may have made about $300,000 during the four years the scheme is believed to have operated.

After law enforcement and visitors came across more remains while seeking answers, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Friday evening declared the historic cemetery a crime scene and closed off public access to it immediately.

"While we understand the demand for information, we just can't jeopardize a crime scene, and it's becoming clear there are potential crime scenes littered throughout this cemetery," Dart said, the enormity of the situation apparent in his face.

He offered a number of examples: telling how a family went out looking for 10 family members on Friday and couldn't find a single one; how a headstone for a military veteran was apparently paid-in-full 17 years ago but never seen; how entire portions of gravesites were completely missing from a section of the cemetery; and how the company had no record of people buried there when their family members were certain they were.

Earlier in the day, Dart had sought a temporary restraining order to stop new burials, but later dropped that effort.  Two burials that had been scheduled tried to go on but were stopped when authorities discovered the bodies would have been interred in the wrong plots.

"There is so much evidence.  In good conscience, I can't continue to sit here and let it work itself out," Dart said.

Of the roughly 700 families that were processed on Friday, nearly 50 percent of them reported a missing headstone.  Between 20 and 30 percent of them found their loved ones relocated, he said.

He said the investigation has expanded to include as many as 5,000 gravesites and a secondary crime scene includes a portion of the cemetery near Cicero Avenue.

"This has been horribly, horribly difficult," Dart said.  "I can't tell you how many women I've talked to today who can't find their children."

The department will allow visitors to stop by the cemetery, at 4400 W. 127th St., in Alsip, in the coming days to drop off requests for information.  The department will then follow-up with them as information is obtained.

"We are trying to help people, but the records have been destroyed or altered, been found in people's houses.  It's making an already difficult task even more difficult, if not impossible," he said.

Ideally, Dart hopes to reopen certain sections of the cemetery shortly.

"We're hoping within five days or so, we're going to be able to have our hands around this better, better to where that we can identify certain sections where we don't believe that there is a crime scene, and we're going to be allowing people in."

It was Wednesday morning when officers with the Cook County Sheriff's Police raided the historically-significant cemetery to advance an investigation into claims that human bodies had been removed from their resting places, dug up by backhoes, and haphazardly discarded in another part of the cemetery so the plots could be resold in an off-the-books money-making scheme.  In some cases, caskets were smashed further into the ground so another body could simply be placed on top.

Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes has launched a license revocation effort against the company that owns the cemetery, which would prevent it from taking in some forms of revenue.

When asked if he thought the investigation at Burr Oak could be the largest crime scene in Cook County history, Dart simply replied," I don't know of a bigger one."

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