The keys to a historic cemetery were handed back Wednesday to the owners who were in charge when several workers allegedly dug up hundreds of graves to resell burial plots -- a transfer of control that angered some people with relatives buried there.
A court-appointed receiver who had been cleaning up Burr Oak Cemetery in suburban Chicago had to relinquish control to Perpetua Holdings after it filed for Chapter 11 protection this week, Cook County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Patterson said, according to common bankruptcy procedure.
That said, Patterson says the handover is disturbing in light of the charges four former Burr Oak employees face for allegedly unearthing graves, double-stacking bodies or dumping remains, then reselling plots in an elaborate moneymaking scheme.
"And now Perpetua is being given control again,'' Patterson said. "It's incredible that could happen."
Some people with relatives buried at Burr Oak -- the resting place of many prominent African-Americans, including lynching victim Emmett Till -- also expressed dismay.
"Why would they give control back to the people who created the mess? It doesn't make sense," said Gregory Mannie, who has several relatives buried at Burr Oak, including his father, grandfather and grandmother. "The more I think about it, the more upset I get."
The sheriff's office is looking at possible legal options of its own to get the keys out of Perpetua's hands, Patterson said. He also hoped Illinois regulators might have the legal means to wrest control away from the company.
A woman who answered the phone at Burr Oak on Wednesday said a Perpetua representative was at the cemetery, but a message left seeking comment wasn't returned. There was no answer at a number for the Tucson, Ariz.,-based parent company, Perpetua Inc.
The transfer of control came a day after a state-appointed task force criticized Illinois' regulatory setup for cemeteries as a hodgepodge of often toothless rules. It called for laws establishing tougher regulation and oversight of cemeteries.
But the absence of any new laws yet, Patterson said, made the situation all the more troubling.
"You are handing the keys back to the guys who were in charge when it happened with nothing to stop it from happening again," he said.
Burr Oak remains closed. The appointed receiver, Roman Szabelski, had previously said it wouldn't open until all the graves are well marked and cleaned.
Four former Burr Oak employees have been charged. Keith Nicks, 45, and Terrence Nicks, 39, both of Chicago, posted bail Tuesday and were released from jail. Maurice Dailey, 59, of Robbins, previously posted bail. Carolyn Towns remains in custody. All four have pleaded not guilty.
Full Coverage: Desecration at Burr Oak Cemetery