Vigil planned for Burr Oak families

July 11, 2009 (ALSIP, Ill.)

A representative of the cemetery's president and CEO said Burr Oak's owners acted as fast as they could once they were told about a worker discovering a handful of bones.

Left unanswered is how the cemetery's condition was allowed to deteriorate so dramatically for so long.

The Cook County Sheriff says as many 100,000 grave sites will need to be checked at the Alsip cemetery.

"It makes me feel like they died all over again," Tara Johnson said.She buried twins at Burr Oak a decade ago. She came to the cemetery after hearing many graves at the children's section -- called Babyland -- no longer had headstones indicating who was buried where.

"You don't know if they took them and threw them in the yard, threw them off the expressway or threw them in a dumpster. It's like you killed these people all over again," Johnson said.

"The removal of headstones does not necessarily mean something happened to the remains. It could have been incompetence of someone who ran over it, or removed it. I'm trying not to have people panic," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.

New details emerged this weekend about how the burial plot selling scheme came to light.

The sheriff's office says the cemetery's owner realized there were financial irregularities in February. In March, they fired cemetery manager Carolyn Towns. She's accused of being the mastermind of the plot.

Nevertheless, it wasn't until late May that police were informed about a possible crime. It was around that time that Burr Oak staff discovered a total of six human bones scattered on the grounds. They were bagged and turned over to police.

"While they may be cooperating with investigators on the criminal investigation, they're ultimately responsible in my view for what happened on their cemetery grounds and with their employees," Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes said.

The ABC 7 I-Team has also learned new details about the financial circumstances of cemetery manager Carolyn Towns.

Court documents and legal filings show that she and her husband were in financial trouble for five years starting as far back as 2000, when she left a loop parking garage company and took the job at the cemetery.

The problems included foreclosure, credit card debt, three bankruptcies and tens of thousands of dollars in IRS liens.

Back at Burr Oak, there was one bit of good news Saturday.

A previously scheduled exhumation revealed no double-burials took place in one family's gravesite.

For others, the wait for answers continues.

The FBI says its forensics teams ( Watch a forensic expert explain the process ) will be at Burr Oak first thing Monday morning to begin their grid search of the site.

At this point, they say, their plan is to find and catalog remains. The FBI has reportedly not made a decision on whether DNA tests will be conducted to try to identify the human remains.

The cemetery isn't expected to reopen to the public until the end of next week.

RainbowPUSH calling for boycott

The criminal investigation at Burr Oak has RainbowPUSH calling for a boycott of the cemetery.

Reverend Jesse Jackson and other leaders met with families who have loved ones buried at the cemetery.

They want the boycott in effect until all issues surrounding the investigation are resolved. They also plan to hold a vigil for the families Sunday near the cemetery in Alsip.

"The worst new is they've desecrated the remains. The good news is the souls are in the hands of God. They couldn't destroy people's souls, only their bodies," Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

Many gathered Saturday morning to fill out forms that may help investigators determine if their loved one's graves have been tampered with.

"I am a Vietnam vet. I've seen a lot of action but never seen anything like this," Lewis Burton Jr. said.

"When I got there to where my mom was buried it was leveled like a construction site," Elva Stewart-Grove said, holding back tears.

Stewart-Grove's mother was buried at Burr Oak. She says any sign of the section where her grave was is no more.

She's now the lead plaintiff if a class-action lawsuit with 79 families already signed-on.

While the cemetery manager and grave diggers are facing criminal charges, they say Burr Oak's owner also deserves blame.

"To not know they were systematically digging up people and re-selling plots is unconscionable," Attorney Louis Cairo said.

With Burr Oak closed, Reverend Jackson's call for a boycott is symbolic, but it underscores the betrayal felt in the African-American community that this cemetery, which many viewed as hallowed ground, is now the scene of so much pain and deception.

Requests for information

As the cemetery remains closed, during the day Sunday, requests for burial information will be processed at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, located at 12700 Sacramento Avenue, about a mile and a half east of the cemetery.

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