4 charged after bodies dug up at Ill. cemetery
Hundreds of graves disturbed at final resting site for many famous blacks
As many as 300 graves were tampered with, Dart said. Some of the graves were dug up and the bodies dumped elsewhere, including in an open area at the back of the 150-acre property, and the plots were resold. In other cases the graves were "pounded down" and another person was buried on top, Dart said.
Cemetery records were destroyed and plot deeds were altered, officials said.
Dart said Towns, the cemetery office manager, was the alleged ringleader of the scam. "She was the one taking the payments, she was the one directing individuals to dig," he said.
"Having prosecuted many, many violent cases throughout my career in the state’s attorney's office, I must say that this crime, it’s a whole new dimension that shows us what lengths that people would go through for financial gain," State's Attorney Anita Alvarez added.
Famous namesThe sheriff's investigation began six weeks ago when the cemetery's owner reported that an employee who began feeling guilty revealed what allegedly had been going on, possibly for as long as four years, Dart said. "All of us who were working on this for the last week were pretty distraught," Dart said. "You start with the premise of your own loved ones and how they are cared for after they are buried, but there is also a true significance to this particular cemetery."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who joined officials at a news conference announcing the arrests, said that he's been besieged by phone calls from worried relatives of those buried at the cemetery. "There should be a special place in hell" for the perpetrators, he said.
Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago whose weighted body was found in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi in 1955, is among the people who were buried at the cemetery.
Chicago native Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching at age 14 added impetus to the civil-rights movement, is buried at Burr Oak. It's also the final resting place of singers Dinah Washington, Willie Dixon, and Otis Spann, as well as former world heavyweight boxing champion Ezzard Charles, Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson, and several Negro League baseball players.
"For many years, this was the only cemetery where African Americans could be buried," said Spencer Leak Sr., president of Leak and Sons Funeral Home, noting that Burr Oak once was owned by Ebony Magazine publisher John Johnson.
Dart said the scheme appears to have targeted older, unmarked graves that had not been visited in a long time. There was no indication the more famous sites were disturbed.
Frantic searchUpon hearing the news, hundreds of people went to the cemetery Thursday looking for their loved ones' graves; many couldn't find them. A couple told WMAQ-TV that they found headstones that apparently had been recently tampered with, and they were not sure who was underneath the headstones.
The sheriff said it will take a while to sort out the mess and urged people with relatives or friends buried in the cemetery to be patient. "We're not necessarily talking weeks, we're talking months," Dart said.
Perpetua Holdings of Illinois Inc., a subsidiary of a Tucson, Ariz.-based funeral home and cemetery development company, has owned the cemetery since 2001. A message seeking comment was not immediately returned.
The Cemetery Care and Burial Trust Department, a division of the Illinois Comptroller's office, has said it has received complaints in recent years about poor upkeep at Burr Oak, including sunken or tilting gravestones, unmanageable roads, drainage problems and weeds.
People are just freaking sick, why would you do this??? They need to be beat.