CHICAGO (CBS) — Officials have unveiled a monument at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, to pay tribute to the families whose loved ones’ last remains were affected by the notorious grave reselling scandal in 2009.
WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports, after touring the now pristine cemetery, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said the change there over the past five years has been remarkable.
Dart led the 2009 investigation into a burial scandal at Burr Oak, which found employees dug up hundreds of bodies and dumped them in mass graves in order to resell the burial plots.
“I mean, literally, it was. I mean, there were body parts laying everywhere. There was caskets that were laying everywhere. There were burial vaults that were broken open,” he said. “There was devastation everywhere. There was thousands of people flowing in here wondering what happened to their loved ones, and now we have this beautiful cemetery.”
A new stone monument to the victims of the scandal was unveiled Friday on the grounds of Burr Oak, an historic and largely African-American cemetery which is the final resting place for jazz singer Dinah Washington, blues musician Willie Dixon, and Emmett Till, whose brutal murder in Mississippi helped fuel the civil rights movement.
In 2009, A Burr Oak manager and three workers were charged in a scheme to resell scores of burial plots, and stack caskets on top of each other.
The manager, Carolyn Towns, has pleaded guilty to six criminal charges – including desecration of human remains, dismembering a human body, damaging gravestones, and removing human remains – and in 2011 began serving a 12-year prison sentence. She admitted to stealing more than $100,000 from the company that operated the cemetery as part of a plot to resell occupied gravesites.
Foreman Keith Nicks, and laborers Terrence Nicks and Maurice Dailey, have been charged with doing the dirty work in the scheme. Their cases are pending.
The Burr Oak 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.