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Former Burr Oak Cemetery Director Admits To Gruesome Scheme

Carolyn Towns Gets 12 Years In Prison
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Carolyn Towns

Carolyn Towns, former manager of the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. (Credit: Cook County Sheriff’s Office)

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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (CBS) — The former director of Burr Oak cemetery has pleaded guilty to charges that she profited from the headline-grabbing scheme that involved digging up human remains from graves for resale, and dumping the remains.

Carolyn Towns, 51, of Blue Island, pleaded guilty Friday to stemming from the 2009 scandal. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison before Bridgeview Judge Frank Castiglione, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Towns admitted to stealing more than $100,000 from the corporation that operated the Alsip cemetery.

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She would accept cash from the families of the recently deceased who sought to secure graves, then pocket the money and have the gravediggers bury the bodies in graves that were already occupied.

To accommodate the new bodies, Towns had the gravediggers exhume the bodies that were already buried, prosecutors said. They would crush the vaults and caskets in the graves and dump the remains in another part of the cemetery, prosecutors said.

Other times, the gravediggers would stack caskets on top of each other, prosecutors said.

Foreman Keith Nicks, and laborers Terrence Nicks and Maurice Dailey, have been charged with doing the dirtywork in the scheme.

The arrests made international headlines in the summer of 2009, and prompted thousands of people to visit the historic African-American cemetery to try to determine if their loved ones were among those graves that were disturbed.

At the time of the investigation, authorities estimated that 300 graves were dug up. But they acknowledged they may never know how many graves were involved, saying that shoddy record-keeping and in some cases records that had literally disintegrated made it impossible to say exactly how many corpses were dug up, or the identities of all those whose remains were moved.

In the 2009 raid, investigators found chunks of burial vaults, pieces of pine boxes that had been used as caskets decades ago, and even a skeleton wearing a suit and tie inside an empty burial vault, with no casket in sight.

After being seized by the Cook County Sheriff’s office and being placed in receivership, the cemetery was taken over by a new firm, Cemecare Inc.

But the scandal is not over. Just this past March, Chicago-based Archaeological Research Inc. found more bodies buried immediately below the surface, and buried deeply in the same area, according to the sheriff’s office.

Bones were also found on the ground, and more bodies are surfacing because of erosion.

Towns on Friday pleaded guilty to her entire indictment, which includes dismembering a human body, theft from a place of worship, damaging 10 or more gravestones, desecration of human remains, removal of human remains of multiple deceased human beings from a burial ground, and conspiracy to dismember human bodies, prosecutors said.

The other three defendants are set to appear in court next week.

Burr Oak is the resting place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and other prominent African-Americans.

(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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