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Bodies dug up at historic cemetery

Friday, July 10, 2009

More than 100 graves were dug up in the historic Burr Oak Cemetery, according to the Cook County sheriff's office.

Five people, including a cemetery manager, have been arrested for allegedly digging up the graves and then dumping the remains to make room for new bodies.

Heaps of cement - cracked open burial vaults - lie in the cemetery. In the weeds behind them, sheriff's police found bones, headstones and other evidence that the dead were dug up and discarded like trash.

"What we found was beyond startling and revolting," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon at the gates of the cemetery in south suburban Alsip, Ill.

Investigators say in recent years at least five Burr Oak Cemetery workers took part in a scheme to turn the final resting place of corpses into cash

Police say as many 100 graves may have been dug up in recent years in an off-the-books operation where occupied burial plots were resold to unsuspecting families. The workers then allegedly pocketed the money without the cemetery owner's knowledge.

"We're finding bones and pieces of skull and things of that nature," said Dewayne Holdbook, Cook County sheriff's police.

Sheriff's police can't say with certainty that any specific area of the cemetery was protected from the grave robbers, let alone whether they'll be able to find all of the removed remains.

"One of the things they attempted to do was to pick graves where individuals were buried for awhile, where individuals had not visited in quite a while, those were primarily the ones targeted but we do not want to mislead people because this keeps expanding," said Dart.

Burr Oak has a long but troubled history. Over the years, the cemetery has been scolded by state regulators for poor conditions including flooding, unkempt grounds and sunken headstones.

Edward Boone took Burr Oak to court after he said ground crews buried his mother just one foot below the ground.

"Something needs to be done here and I'm glad it's happening today," said Boone.

Burr Oak is the final resting place of many famous African-Americans, including lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington. The sheriff said on Wednesday they had found no evidence that Till's grave in particular had been dug up.

The sherriff has set up a hotline for families needing information on loved ones buried at Burr Oak: 800-942-1950.

FBI forensic teams will be brought in to help identify the remains that have been found and to determine which graves were disturbed.

The company that owns the cemetery did not return ABC7's calls for comment on Wednesday night.

Family members react

The response from families who have loved ones buried at Burr Oak has been overwhelming. Many went to the cemetery to try to find out which graves were dug up.

Some family members say they noticed something was wrong when they spotted helicopters flying over the cemetery on Wednesday afternoon. Once they learned what happened they felt betrayal and anger for entrusting their relatives' remains only to learn they may have been tampered with.

On Wednesday night, family members gathered at the site where they had said goodbye to their loved ones.

"I don't think they should be disrupting the peace," said Tiffany Robinson.

Robinson says she thought there was something illegal going on for the past two years, but she had no evidence so no one took her concerns seriously. Her cousin, Willie Robinson III, a U.S. marine, was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in March of 1998 and now she can't find his gravesite.

"I think that for sure they should definitely go to jail because this cemetery has been here for years and I think that they owe all the families answers...because we deserve the right to know what's going on here," said Robinson.

Some prominent Chicagoans are buried at Burr Oak including Emmett Till. His murder in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement. The 'Queen of Blues,' R&B singer Dinah Washington is also there along with Ezzard Charles, a former heavy weight champion. Musician Willie Dixon, credited with shaping the sound of modern blues in Chicago, was also laid to rest there. It is unclear if their graves have been disturbed, but people learning about the investigation can't confirm if their relatives' remains have been affected.

"I'm floored that there is a possibility that my grandparents' gravesite may be touched in any way," said Curly Boo Johnson.

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