Families whose loved ones were buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip are flocking to the grounds to find out if their plots are safe after investigators said as many as 300 graves were dug up so they could be resold in a money-making scheme.
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 haphazardly discarded. Those charged are: Carolyn Towns, the 49-year-old officer manager who is suspected of being the mastermind of the scheme; and Maurice Dailey, 49, Terrence Nicks, 39, and Keith Nicks, 45, all gravediggers at Burr Oak. Towns is being held on $250,000 bond. The other three are being held on bonds of $200,000 each.
Often called the first African-American cemetery in Chicago, Alsip's Burr Oak Cemetery has a storied past and is the final resting place for several notables, including boxing great Ezzard Charles and blues legends Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington. Emmett Till, whose murder in the south was a touchstone moment in the American Civil Rights Movement, is also buried there. Authorities said they feel "very confident" his grave was not disturbed.
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.
Even grizzled investigators were shocked by what they found at the cemetery -- a pile of broken grave markers in one corner of the grounds, and bones littering the ground for anyone to see. One investigator told NBC Chicago, "Someone's going to go to hell for this one."
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.
Over three months into the investigation, neighbors said they had a feeling last week that it was ramping up.
"There would be like three to four to five undercover cars over here, and they had the videotapes pointed at the cemetery and just videotaping, and we couldn't tell what they were doing," one neighbor said.
Officers finally raided the cemetery, at 4400 W. 127th St., when the gates opened up at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday because they knew the media had gotten wind of the story and they didn't want that to impede the investigation or alarm loved ones.
"The company was informed earlier this year that there might be unearthed human remains on the property," said Trudy Foushee, a spokesperson for Perpetua, the company that's owned the cemetery since 2001. "This information was immediately reported to authorities. The company has fully cooperated with authorities. We have few specifics on the scope or the magnitude."
The sheriff's department has erected an enormous fence to cordon off a large portion of the cemetery where they intend to search for reburied human remains.
A human bone found on the ground of the property last month was sent to the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office for possible indentification.
Forensics experts with the Federal Bureau of Investigation are expected to be on site next week as the massive dig begins.
Loved ones with family members buried in the cemetery, or people with information on the case, should call 800-942-1950 to speak with authorities.
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