Cemetery owner speaks out about investigation

July 14, 2009 8:33:49 PM PDT
A judge has agreed to transfer control of Burr Oak Cemetery to a neutral third party.Tuesday, near his suburban Dallas home, Melvin Bryant said he also has family members buried in Burr Oak, and understands the historical importance of the cemetery. Also Tuesday, a judge agreed to transfer control of Burr Oak Cemetery to an unidentified, neutral third party, who presumably will work with investigators, who continue the process of inspecting all 100,000 graves. The Sheriff's department made the case to the judge.

"There is nobody running the cemetery right now other than me," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.

A spokesman for the owners said that's not the case, but that they are simply trying to stay out of detectives' way, reiterating that they were the ones that brought up the case.

Tuesday, for the first time, cemetery owner Melvin Bryant spoke out about the investigation.

Perpetua Holdings, Inc. of Illinois runs the cemetery, and today the company president said Perpetua was as much a victim of the plots for profit scheme as relatives of those buried there.

"Criminal conduct is despicable. Neither I, nor Perpetua's investors, have benefited from the criminal conduct. We understand the historical importance and the legacy of Burr Oak and want to build upon it, not see it destroyed by criminal wrongdoing," company president Melvin Bryant said.

Bryant says he was the one who uncovered financial irregularities when he was performing an audit of the books that led to the discovery of the plots for profit scandal, and he said he personally contacted sheriff's investigators to let them know of suspicions.

He did not say in the statement how it was that this alleged plot was able to go on for so long with nobody in the ownership catching wind

Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes has frozen the funds of Perpetua Holdings, Inc.

As the investigation intensifies, however, for loved ones of those buried at the cemetery, it doesn't look like they're going to be getting any definitive information on the status of their relatives' graves any time soon.

At the cemetery, the search is slow and methodical. Police cadets were brought in as extra eyes for investigators intent on scouring every inch of the 150-acre cemetery looking for more human remains.

They're also pushing poles into the ground to see if burial vaults are where they should be.

"We've had quite a few instances already where it's only gone down a foot, two feet. It's supposed to be nine feet. Could that be double burials? Possibly. Could be also that somebody was just lazy and didn't dig down enough," Dart said.

"We're conducting a grid search of the cemetery. We have more personnel out here. They will go shoulder to shoulder to comb every inch of the cemetery," said Lisa Gordon, Cook Co. sheriff's Office spokesperson.

Officers were tackling the northeast side of Burr Oak Tuesday. They were searching headstones, taking photographs, making sure there are coffins buried beneath those headstones and marking areas that have been covered or need to be rechecked.

Dart is also on the scene and actively participating in the activities.

The FBI is also continuing their grid search of the cemetery, but they are working in a different area from the sheriff's office.

Tuesday, authorities provided a snapshot of the 55,000 inquiries made by relatives of those buried at Burr Oak. It is a mountain of paperwork detectives are only beginning to climb.

Obstacles in their way include the cemetery's record keeping operation which makes the Dewey Decimal system look state of the art.

"The file cards with info about where people are buried have been left in this condition for a long time. Most of the file cards are covered in mold and have rotted together," Dart said.

The Illinois Comptroller's office moved today to freeze nearly $6 million in trust funds maintained by the cemetery. That's money paid by families to ensure their loved-one's final resting place would be properly maintained for generations. Hynes also filed a bill proposing several reforms, including requiring the licensing of all cemeteries and their staffs and requiring cemeteries to keep detailed records and maps that would have to be filed with a county's recorder of deeds.

Lutia Payne has nine relatives buried at Burr Oak, including her father. She was there Monday as well and says she will be there every day until she gets some answers.

"I keep on coming, hoping I can find some kind of closure because I'm not finding anything," Payne said. "I can't get nothing over the phone. And hopefully, every time I come, maybe it will be something different, but I see it's not."

In addition to freezing the trust funds for the owners of Burr Oak, the Illinois comptroller's office is also expanding its efforts to revoke the cemetery's license. A hearing on the license revocation will take place July 24.

Four workers at Burr Oak Cemetery have been charged in connection to a scheme to resell burial plots after digging up the bodies that were already in the grave.

The cemetery is a crime scene. Remains found will be treated as evidence. The FBI must carefully process and catalog all information so prosecutors can use it in court. It's a huge job, one the FBI admits they may not be able to complete to give closure to thousands of families.

A team of investigators is taking pictures of every headstone. The department is considering putting those pictures on a Web site as a resource for families looking for help in finding loved ones.

Hynes is also seeking to revoke the license of Cedar Point Cemetery, which is owned by the same company.

"Nobody is regulating operation, maintenance, proper handling of bodies. That has to change," Hynes said.

The FBI would like to identify all the bodies so as to bring closure to families, but agents say it's too early to tell how many remains they will be able to ID. As of Tuesday, 55,000 requests for information about the whereabouts of a loved one's remains had been received.

"Friday, I walked through the grounds of the Burr Oak Cemetery. One of the saddest sights that I have ever seen," said Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. "It's more than just the bodies were moved. Even after this, there may have been records destroyed, and even if people are still in certain spots, we may not be able to tell them."

The cemetery -- now called the largest crime scene in Illinois -- is closed to the public. The investigators have divided the area into large grids and begun the task of identifying remains by removing weeds and cataloging discoveries.

"We have people charged with mapping out the area, mapping it on a computer, photographing the remains as they are recovered and people doing the actual searching of the crime scene," said Ross Rice, FBI. "In a perfect world, yes, we would like to identify every remain and bring closure to every family member here, but we're just not sure that's going to be possible."

Meanwhile, families still waiting to find out if their loved ones are among the 300 desecrated graves packed PUSH headquarters Tuesday night, where attorneys offered advice on any legal recourse.

Felix Williams was in the audience. He buried his granddaughter in Babyland in 1990, and says during a visit shortly after her funeral nearly 20 years ago, he couldn't track down her grave. "I always had hope that some kind of way, the paperwork was messed up the marker was moved and when I saw this, I couldn't believe it," Williams said.

Some people with relatives buried in Burr Oak still came to the cemetery to seek answers. They were not let in but were advised to give any information they could about where their loved ones to the sheriff's department.

The cost of the investigation is expected to be high -- at least $200,000 in overtime hours alone. But there's also the emotional cost. Many families with relatives in Burr Oak are grieving again, unsure if their loved one is one of the 300 bodies dug up in an alleged scheme to resell their plots.

"I don't know any family, African American family in Chicago that is not affected by this, that does not have a loved one there," said Steve Jones, Cook County chaplain.

Stroger suggested that lawmakers in Springfield take up the issue of regulating cemeteries. He also said all 28 cemeteries in unincorporated Cook County will be inspected quarterly for irregularities. Currently, they are inspected only once a year.

Funeral home directors affected

Missing records do not come as a surprise to funeral home directors. Augustus Cage, of Cage Funeral Home, says most cemeteries send families plot location information. Cage say Burr Oak rarely did. Hundreds of Cage's customers have loved ones buried at Burr Oak.

"The cemetery showed a real lack in the upkeep and care of the grounds. Numbers of us over the years had expressed our concerns to the office, to the management, but seemingly it kind of fell on deaf ears over the years." Cage said.

Cage says once a body enters cemetery grounds, the funeral home is no longer in charge of the body.

With Burr Oak Cemetery closed, there are growing concerns among funeral home directors about a backlog of bodies that are ready for burial.

They joined with the Reverend Jesse Jackson Tuesday to call attention to what they say could become a major problem.

"There are people who are going to want to inter their loved ones by their other loved ones at that location, and we know we can't continue to use Burr Oak right now so we know that in the interim we're going to have to do something," funeral home director Charles Childs said. Funeral home directors say they have been providing information to families from their records about the exact locations of where their loved ones should be buried at Burr Oak.

Two phone numbers are available for information about anyone buried at Burr Oak.

The first is 1-800 942-1950.

The second number is 1-708-865-6070.

And an email address has also been set up.

burroakcemeteryinvestigation@gmail.com.


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