Chicago African-American Cemetery Ravaged

Bones strewn about after graves dug up and resold

By BJ Lutz and Phil Rogers
|  Tuesday, Jul 21, 2009  |  Updated 3:19 PM CDT
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Police raid a cemetery in Alsip to investigate reports of digging up bodies.

Police raid a cemetery in Alsip to investigate reports of digging up bodies.

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Sheriff: Charges Involve Dismembering Bodies

Sheriff Tom Dart details charges of dismembering bodies that he's seeking against Burr Oak Cemetery workers, and how it will be hard to identify all the bodies that the crooks dug up.
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A venerable Chicago graveyard was turned into a crime scene by greedy ghouls who dug up the dead to resell their burial plots.

Burr Oak Cemetery, known as the city's first black graveyard and the final resting place for such luminaries as boxing great Ezzard Charles, blues legends Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington and civil rights martyr Emmett Till, was left littered with bones after 300 graves were dug up, said investigators. People whose loved ones were interred there flocked to the cemetery Thursday to survey the scene and check on graves.

"Someone's going to go to hell for this one," one investigator said as he looked in disgust at broken headstones and bleached bones lying in plain sight.

Four people have been charged in the scheme, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said Thursday morning.  Dart said all were charged with dismembering bodies -- a Class X felony -- , because graves were dug up with backhoes and the bodies tossed aside. Police believe the mastermind of the macabre scheme was Carolyn Towns, the 49-year-old office manager of the cemetery. She was being held on $250,000 bond. The other three suspects are all gravedigggers.

Since April, officers with the Cook County Sheriff's Police have been investigating reports that staffers were running an off-the-books operation by digging up bodies, reburying them in a common area of the cemetery and pocketing the money paid to them for new arrivals. 

It was initially an investigation into "financial crimes," tipped off by the owners of the cemetery, but Dart said his department's investigation led to a crime that is "beyond revolting."  And he said it may have been going on for over four years. 

To avoid suspicion, areas of the cemetery where people had been buried for a long time or that had not been visited in a while were used in order to maintain a certain number of plot vacancies and keep new burials off the books.

"We do not have the ability, at this point, to tell people what sections of the cemetery are free and clear," Dart said, adding that it appears the number of plots involved "will exceed 100."

Authorities don't know if some of the bodies were dumped in a mass grave or if bones were reburied in a number of different places around the property, and they're going to have to dig to find out.

"After a grave was disinterred, they basically just dumped the bodies, the bones, the remains," Dart said.

Forensics experts with the Federal Bureau of Investigation are expected to be on site next week as the massive dig begins. 


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