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Cemetery shut down, declared a crime scene

August 28, 2009 9:22:56 AM PDT
Burr Oak Cemetery was shut down on Friday night as the Cook County sheriff declares the entire area a crime scene.The action followed the discovery of even more human remains from graves that had been dug up.

Sheriff Tom Dart said Burr Oak may be closed for five to seven days.

Dart told reporters on Friday evening that investigators cannot find any sign of an entire section of the cemetery known as 'babyland' where babies were buried. Authorities said that does not mean the children's bodies are necessarily gone but they cannot find any evidence on the surface, including headstones or grave markers. It is just one more sign, according to Dart, that the size and scope of the investigation is growing by the hour.

Burr Oak Cemetery is now a 150 acre crime scene.

Investigators have found more bones, more missing gravesites. The remains that are supposed to fill entire sections of the cemetery, the sheriff says, are simply gone.

"I found bones out there. I found individuals wandering around aimlessly looking for their loved ones and can't find them," said Sheriff Dart.

Sheriff Tom Dart says nearly half of the 700 people who came on Friday looking for loved ones report their relative's headstones are missing.

Human bones are now being found outside of the small area at the back of the cemetery originally believed to be the dumping ground. On Friday afternoon, investigators found significant amounts of human remains on the cemetery's west side bordering Cicero Avenue.

"It's not that difficult but it has to be done methodically," said John Larsen, former FBI forensics expert.

John Larsen headed the FBI's evidence recovery team until his retirement. He says forensics experts are dissecting the cemetery into grids with the goal putting a name with every bone found.

"You've got to mark everything separately and, at the same time, show some sort of dignity to this whole proceeding which is really, when you think about it, very difficult," said Larsen.

One-thousand seven-hundred miles removed from the grief and anger at Burr Oak, ABC7 picked up the trail of the cemetery's owners. A company called Perpetua lists a home in Tuscon, Arizona as its business address.

But police say the actual owner lives just outside of Dallas, Texas. His name is Melvin Bryant. In a statement issued by a PR firm the company says, "We will make every attempt to maintain the dignity of those who have entrusted Burr Oak Cemetery with the care of their loved ones."

"He or she should be here trying to assist and found out where our people are," said Walonza Lee, relatives buried at Burr Oak.

Walonza Lee and her family spent nine hours at Burr Oak on Friday. By sunset, they were only able to locate the grave of one of nearly two dozen relatives buried there.

"Part of it is their responsibility to make sure this is taken care of. We paid money for these plots?and our families?were here and we don't know anything," said Lee.

Relatives of those buried at Burr Oak will still be allowed to drop off inquiry cards with sheriff deputies at the gate. But they will not be allowed to walk the grounds looking for headstones.

Emmett Till buried at Burr Oak

A family of possums was found living in the casket that once held the body of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery.

Till's murder played a large role in the Civil Rights movement. His body was exhumed in 2005 for forensics tests and then, as is customary, interred in another coffin. His gravesite has not been disturbed, according to Sheriff Tom Dart.

However, the original casket that was supposed to be placed on display at a memorial was found inside a garage, surrounded by discarded headstones and other debris, on cemetery property. When it was opened by police, a family of possums scurried out. His family is shocked.

"Disbelief. How could anybody allow this to happen to something so permanent in history?" said Ollie Gordon, Till's cousin. "It's part of history. It's part of trying to put our family member to rest. When will Emmett finally be allowed to rest?" Till Family Statement

"Greed will take you to the lowest of low," said Simeon Wright, Till's cousin.

The Till family said they hope to preserve the casket, but fear it may be beyond repair.

Officials are trying to close the cemetery while the investigation continues. Two funeral processions arrived at the site on Friday. One group found the gravesite they believed they had purchased was already occupied. That body was returned to the funeral home.

The state's attorney is asking for a temporary restraining order to halt burials, said Sheriff Dart.

"The investigation is ongoing and will continue for quite a while. The amount of people we're talking to and interviewing, I wouldn't be surprised if the evidence takes us in a couple other directions," said Sheriff Dart. "People looking for end dates- it's not there."

Four lawsuits have been filed by families. More are expected.

In a case outlined against four cemetery workers, all of whom are charged with dismembering a body on Thursday, prosecutors said the scheme to resell plots at Burr Oak has gone on for four years. Some people think it's been even longer than that.

Kimberly Hall said she asked for a map to the burial plots of 10 relatives five years ago and was told there was none.

"I went to the office and I asked here where is the rest of my family? She said the office caught on fire and all the records were destroyed," said Hall.

Almost 30 years ago, Diane Matthews said she was told by a cemetery manager that someone else was on top of her mother's casket.

"She wrote on the thing the name of the lady buried with my mother and the year," said Matthews. Mathews found her mother's plot, which appears to be OK, but her father's headstone is missing.

Between Thursday and Friday, some 2,000 people came to the cemetery to walk the grounds in search of loved one's graves.

"Family members have definitely come to us with gravesites in areas we hadn't reached yet where we then went out there and it's clear something has occurred," said Sheriff Tom Dart.

The emotional cost on these families is great- and the financial cost will be substantial. It's possible taxpayers will have to pick up a portion of the cost.

Recovering remains could take weeks

As the investigation at Burr Oak Cemetery continues family members are flocking to the site trying to determine if their loved ones' graves were disturbed. But, one forensic expert says, it will take weeks for authorities to recover the remains dumped on the cemetery's vacant lot.

"You're basically rebuilding a person," said John Larsen, a retired FBI special agent.

Larsen created and led the Chicago Evidence Response Team, the same group of agents working now with the Cook County Sheriff's Department to recover the remains at Burr Oak Cemetery.

"This is like having a really horrendous air crash," said Larsen. "You have a situation...where you have to be so detailed, and it's such a sensitive situation because you're going to have every family involved with that graveyard site, wanting to get their family member back, literally together."

Prosecutors say 200-to-300 bodies are buried in a vacant lot in the rear of Burr Oak Cemetery. Larsen says he thinks the painstaking work of collecting the remains will take three to five weeks.

"You've got to mark everything separately and at the same time show some sort of dignity with this whole proceeding, which is really when you think about it very difficult," said Larsen.

Larsen says agents will grid off the area and mark sites where remains are found. Teams will then mark every piece of evidence with a number and where it was found. After all the remains are collected forensic scientists will try to reassemble and identify them with DNA.

"I just can't imagine trying to put it all together," said Larsen. "This is really very iffy. I hope they're successful and able to develop it and get DNA off this, but there's no guarantee there."

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