Families Converge on Desecrated Ill. Cemetery

"It's like they didn't have a heart"

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Alsip (Published Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009)

    Families of those buried in Burr Oak Cemetery are at a loss for words.

    Hundreds of families flocked to the historic cemetery in Alsip Thursday to find out what has happened to their loved ones' remains, but authorities don't have many answers.

    BROLL: Families Converge on Desecrated Cemetery

    [CHI] BROLL:  Families Converge on Desecrated Cemetery
    Alsip (Published Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009)

    "What makes my heart sink is when they said they found bones, and I hope it's not my husband or none of my relatives," said Mrs. Samuel Rogers, who also went to the cemetery Thursday morning. "When they did this, it's like they didn't have a heart or no conscience. Like they didn't care."

    Some people were turned away from the graveyard in the early morning hours, but by midday, the Sheriff's Department was trying to help families in any way it could.  They have investigators at the graveyard trying to sort through its shoddy record books, while they run shuttles to different parts of the property to help people look for their loved ones.

    Families Converge on Desecrated Ill. Cemetery

    [CHI] Families Converge on Desecrated Ill. Cemetery
    Hundreds filed into Burr Oak on Thursday, hoping to find grave sites in tact, but many left without answers. (Published Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009)

    The Sheriff's Department said 346 families showed up so far, and of those, 20 have reported a problem at the grave site.

    Sheriff Tom Dart said 30 to 40 FBI experts who have worked on identifying remains around the world are coming in to help sort things out, but it won't be easy. 

    "They're telling us that this is a 4- to 5-week process. And at the end of it, is there going to be certainty that specific remains match up? That's going to be very difficult," Dart said.

    As many as 300 graves were desecrated, with bodies unceremoniously dug up and dumped so the plots could be resold, the prosecutor's office said.  Dart said that other graves were simply pounded down so that another casket could be put on top of them.

    Dart: State Should Keep Cemetery Records

    [CHI] Dart: State Should Keep Cemetery Records
    Sheriff Dart says he finds it hard to believe that cemeteries aren't required to send any records to the state -- which is making it hard for investigators to sort out what happened at Burr Oak. (Published Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009)

    "They just dug them up and they just laying around somewhere. It's horrible," said Aurelia Lovettbey, who showed up at Burr Oak on Thursday to find out if her sister's grave had been disturbed. Lovettbey has six family members buried at the cemetery, but she most fears for her sister's grave because it was unmarked. The family couldn't afford the marker at the time of the burial.

    Dart said the cemetery workers involved in the scheme targeted unmarked or older graves that hadn't been visited in a while.

    "Someone's Going to Hell for This One"

    [CHI] "Someone's Going to Hell for This One"
    Investigators at Burr Oak Cemetery are shocked by what they found -- headstones piled up and bones littering the ground -- in a scheme to make cash by reselling the plots. (Published Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009)

    Red and orange flags scattered throughout Burr Oaks Cemetery were not placed by the Cook County Sheriff's Department and are not part of any investigation, a spokesman for the department said Thursday, presumably after fielding questions from family members.

    A manager and three gravediggers were charged Thursday morning with dismembering bodies -- a felony -- because of the manner in which they dug up the old graves. Dart said many of the grave markers and remains were just piled up in an unused portion of the cemetery.

    History of Burr Oak Cemetery

    [CHI] History of Burr Oak Cemetery
    The Burr Oak Cemetery was for a time the only cemetery where Black people could be buried in Chicago. Keiana Barrett, with the DuSable Museum of African American History, talks about what the desecration means to the community. (Published Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009)

    Dart also alleged that the mastermind of the scheme, Carolyn Towns, accepted and then pocketed money given to her for an Emmett Till Memorial Fund that she had created on her own.

    Notable names in the African-American community were laid to rest at the historic cemetery, including Emmett Till, boxing great Ezzard Charles and blues legends Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington. Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson and several Negro League players are also there, the Sun-Times reported. Dart said they're confident Till's grave was not disturbed, but they're not yet sure about the others.

    Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell aptly called it "every family's nightmare."  The Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking at Thursday's news conference, said "there's a special place in hell" for the people who did this. 

    For years, Burr Oak Cemetery was the only place near Chicago where African-Americans could be buried, according to the longtime president of Leak and Sons Funeral Home on the South Side.

    Now, the historic grounds are the site of one of the most disturbing crimes imaginable.