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Burr Oak owners regain cemetery control

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The southwest suburban cemetery that is the target of an investigation into gravesite desecration is back in the hands of its owner.

A bankruptcy court judge ruled Perpetua Holdings can take control of operations at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip. Four of its employees are charged with digging up gravesites, dumping bodies and reselling the plots.

Sometimes the law can seem a little like a donkey, stubborn, perhaps unwilling to listen to common sense. And that seems to be the case here, at least at the first outset, because now that Burr Oak is under the protection of the bankruptcy court, he fact is that the law requires that the keys of the place be handed back to the people who were in charge the when the scandal broke.

The receiver for Burr Oak returned the keys to the property to a lawyer for Perpetua Wednesday morning. It's not how Roman Szabelski thought his quest to clean up this place would end.

"I was surprised. I didn't expect that it was a decision by Perpetua to move that way. I feel bad because I would like to have stayed and finish off what I had," said Roman Szabelski, receiver for Burr Oak Cemetery.

Szabelski was authorized to spend $50,000 in cemetery trust funds to resurrect neglected bookkeeping and maintenance programs across the sprawling operation. The Cook County Sheriff's Department says it was stunned by Perpetua's ability to get back in control.

"The frightening part is, nothing has changed in the state of Illinois since this happened to now that will prevent the same sort of thing from happening again," said Steve Patterson, Cook County Sheriff spokesman.

Wednesday, the Illinois comptroller began proceedings to strip Perpetua of its licenses to run Burr Oak and Cedar Park cemeteries.

Four employees have been charged in the grave reselling scheme -- and as a starting point, the company takes no responsibility for what may have happened.

"We believe that their actions as alleged were actions taken on their own behalf, taken for their own self-interests, and nothing that the company is legally responsible for," said Richard Saldinger, Perpetua attorney.

The license revocation was put over to next week. In the face of Tuesday's report from the governor's task force on cemeteries, which recommended cemetery employees be licensed, and services be paid for in forms other than cash, Perpetua faces some 50 lawsuits over the scandal, and the company's lead bankruptcy lawyer said Chapter 11 will protect his client.

"Eventually someone will acquire that cemetery, and will own it and operate it, and the bankruptcy is just the vehicle to address the financial distress that has caused by all of this trauma," said Robert Fishman, Perpetua attorney.

As far as trauma goes, it was said in Wednesday's hearing that at least $6 million is going to be fought over by the creditors of Burr Oak. That's all part of the proceedings that are going to be happening over the next few weeks.

As far as the emotional trauma goes, all day ABC7 has been in Alsip, and all day has been visited by people coming by wondering when the cemetery gates are going to be open again. The answer to that question, at this point at least, is not anytime soon.

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