Four held on bond in alleged cemetery scheme
July 9, 2009 (ALSIP, Ill.) (WLS) -- Hundreds of bodies were dug up and thrown into a mass grave or stacked into plots already in use at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
For at least four years, investigators said cemetery employees dug up bodies and the reused the same plots for new burials. In some cases, bodies were stacked on top of each other in plots.
Between 200 and 300 bodies were disturbed with 100 of them being throw into a mass grave in the back of the 150-acre property at Burr Oak Cemetery, Dart said.
Sheriff Tom Dart spoke to the relatives of those buried at Burr Oak who came by the hundreds on Thursday to meet with investigators and search for gravesites, reporting whether they appeared to be disturbed.
"Family members have definitely come to us with gravesites in areas we hadn't reached yet where we then went out there and it's clear something has occurred," said Dart.
"This was not done in a very, very delicate way, folks. When the digs occurs, they would excavate a grave. They'd excavate the entire site and then they would proceed to dump the remains wherever they found a place to do it in the back of the cemetery."
Four charged with dismembering human body
Carolyn Towns, 49, of Chicago is the former general manager at the historic cemetery. She has been identified as the key player in the scheme. Authorities said she accepted cash payments- believed to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; permitted new burials to proceed; and then destroyed records of them.
Towns and three other employees -- Keith Nicks, 45, of Chicago; Terrence Nicks, 39, of Chicago; and Maurice S. Dailey, 59, of Robbins-- are charged with dismembering a human body, which is a Class X felony. More charges are expected.
During a court appearance on Thursday, Towns was ordered held on a $250,000 bond. The others received $200,000 bonds. If convicted, they face six to 30 years in prison.
Towns is also accused of setting up a fake memorial fund in the name of Civil Rights icon Emmett Till, likely the most well-known person buried in the cemetery. Towns allegedly told donors the fund, set up in 2005, would help establish an Emmett Till museum. Authorities said Till's grave was not disturbed. Anyone who may have donated to the fund is asked to call the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
Towns was interviewed by ABC 7 in 2004 as she tried to raise funds to honor Negro League Baseball players buried at Burr Oak. At that time, police say she was already orchestrating body dumping and double burials.
Funeral directors told ABC7 the cheapest graves at Burr Oak, called the "select single" sold for $1200. Top of the line burials cost close to $3700.
Prosecutors think the grave-robbers netted at least $300,000.
"We're waiting for the facts and the allegations to come forward as you are. Again, we are maintaining our innocence on behalf of Ms. Towns and believe she will be acquitted of the charges," said Steven Watkins, Towns' attorney.
"How could this go on and nobody say anything for such a long period?" asked Thelam Smith, sister of deceased.
Patricia Smith's family won a lawsuit against Burr Oak in 2007 after they found a stranger's body buried in their family plot.
"We went to bury my mother and the day she was going to buried we received a phone call saying that there was an unknown unidentified body in the grave," said Terri Blanchard, daughter of deceased.
A former Burr Oak worker says she sounded the alarm about cemetery manager Carolyn Towns four years ago whom she suspected of simply stealing money.
"When I looked up headstones I see they sold for $200-300. When I asked about 'em I was told 'don't come over here starting trouble,'" said Rosetta Hill, former Burr Oak Cemetery employee.
Manager Carolyn Towns is being held in the psychiatric unit of the Cook County Jail. And while the on-scene investigation is just beginning, it's already sparking calls for stricter state monitoring of what is now the relatively unregulated business of burials.
Families search for graves
At least 600 families went to Burr Oak Cemetery on Thursday to try to find out if the graves of their relatives were dug up. But it may take months to get answers.
At one time, Burr Oak Cemetery was the only place where African-Americans in Chicago could be buried. So there was a sense of pride when their loved ones were laid to rest there. But now that feeling has turned to disgust.
"This is unreal. I get out here and I can't bury my aunt," said Diane Eewbru.
Eewbru attended her aunt's funeral on Thursday morning along with family members. And on Thursday afternoon they came to Burr Oak Cemetery to bury her only to be told the site that had been purchased was not available because someone else was already buried there.
"When we first arrived here at 2 o'clock this afternoon we were taken to a backup cemetery to a different plot and I immediately jumped out of the car and said this is not the spot and they told me about the situation and they wanted to bury her there and I said no," said Eewbru.
Ray Davis' sister, Hazel Ford, died in 1938 but the family didn't purchase a headstone until 1997. When they went to visit her grave that same year, they say they found her head stone lying on the side of the road and they also made another gruesome discovery.
"About four feet from the gravesite there was a lot of rubbish and in that rubbish there was a skull, a human skull with four teeth in it. I had my camera and I took pictures," said Davis. "I called Cook County sheriffs and they said there are a lot of skulls there and laughed."
Davis, a former police officer, says he also talked to cemetery management but nothing was done.
Corey Weathersby says he has at least ten relatives buried there. He couldn't find the graves of his uncle and grandfather.
"To remove somebody or to, what I've heared, compact them down further and bury of somebody, you have no real soul," said Weathersby.
Weathersby was told that it could be three days before he gets information about his relatives.
The cemetery opens Friday morning at 8.
FBI involved in identification process
More than 30 FBI agents were coming in to help identify remains and study the grids. The FBI is assisting because the agents have experience from mass grave sites around the world.
"They are experts who worked on cases like this, and they are saying this is a four to five-week process," Dart said. "And at the end of it, is there going to be certainty that specific remains match up with certain names? That will be difficult."
Officials said the work could take months.
"These people were all dumped together and co-mingled. We don't know what we have back there," said Tom Troutman, FBI Special Agent.
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