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Manager: Cemetery not littered with bones

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A war of words began Saturday as those who run Burr Oak Cemetery fired back at Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Cemetery authorities say the sheriff has been overstating the size and scope of problems at Burr Oak.

The sheriff has said he thinks as many as 300 graves were violated in a plots-for-profit scheme run by the now-jailed former cemetery manager. Burr Oak's management team spoke to ABC7 Chicago Saturday about what happened there.

The woman who has been handling day-to-day operations at Burr Oak Cemetery since March tells ABC7 a backhoe operator "practicing his skills" Memorial Day weekend unearthed the human bones that sparked the investigation.

"There was not a situation where bones littered the entire cemetery," said Trudi Foushee, an attorney who began overseeing Burr Oak operations for the cemetery ownership group after the firing of Burr Oak manager Carolyn Towns this spring. "When we terminated [Towns], we had no idea anything like this was going on."

Foushee said she, and her clients at Burr Oak owner Perpetua Holdings of Illinois, continue to believe it was largely a financial crime committed against the company.

Foushee contends that police -- not Perpetua Holdings of Illinois -- were the ones slow to respond to reports of problems at the graveyard. Foushee says she flew to Illinois and went to the Alsip Police Department on May 26 to report that a cemetery worker had discovered a partial skull in an unused lot at the rear of the property. Foushee claims eight days later Alsip Police contacted her to say the cemetery was the jurisdiction of the Cook County Sheriff's Department.

Foushee says she believes Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has overstated the size and scope of potential problems at Burr Oak.

"There's a disconnect. I'm not in control of what side they give to the media," she said.

Dart's office disagrees.

"We'd expect the attorney for a firm that has more than a dozen civil suits filed against it so far to try to downplay what's been found," said Steve Patterson, a spokesman for Sheriff Dart. "But the FBI wouldn't have sent in a team of investigators - some of the same investigators who worked on the Flight 93 crash site after 9/11 - to the cemetery if this were just a case of a backhoe operator stirring up dirt."

Perpetua's representatives have waited nearly ten days to respond to accusations about double burials, missing headstones and unearthed graves. At the conclusion of the ABC7 Chicago interview Saturday, the Perpetua team said it's conceivable to them that no graves were dug-up and human remains discarded to make room for an off-the-books burial operation as the Sheriff and prosecutors contend.

"My general sense& [is that] most loved ones have not been disturbed," Foushee said.

On Friday, new court-appointed operator of Burr Oak Roman Szabelski also said he thinks the majority of graves at the cemetery were not tampered with.

Sheriff Dart has said he believes as many 300 graves may have been desecrated.

Former Burr Oak manager Carolyn Towns and three gravediggers were charged earlier in July in a scheme that allegedly embezzled at least $300,000 from the cemetery.

Foushee insists Perpetua has not been an absentee owner. Despite the Sheriff's claim that management is 'nowhere to be found,' Foushee said she has been on-site at Burr Oak nearly everyday since the scandal broke.

"I have sat with, hugged with, and cried with families," Foushee said.

Burr Oak's attorney conceded Friday that the ownership group did not have anyone overseeing the company's four cemeteries and funeral homes on a full-time basis.

(Copyright ©2014 WLS-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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