Major ID effort underway at Burr Oak Cemetery

July 13, 2009 (ALSIP, Ill.) Federal agents have joined local law enforcement officials in the difficult task of identifying the remains found in thousands graves. 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.

At the same time, 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. Dividing the Burr Oak Cemetery in four grids, 20 FBI agents and 10 Cook County Sheriff investigators began looking for evidence.

Starting Tuesday morning, a team of investigators will take 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.

As lawmakers call for more cemetery oversight, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes is seeking to revoke the licenses of Burr Oak and Cedar Point Cemeteries, which are owned by the same company. Hynes is also freezing the cemeteries' trust funds.

"Nobody is regulating operation, maintenance, proper handling of bodies. That has to change," Illinois Comptroller Dan 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 Monday, 53,000 requests for information about the whereabouts of a loved one's remains have 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."

Some people with relatives buried in Burr Oak still came to the cemetery seek answers. They were not let in but were advised to give any information they could about where their loved ones were buried to the sheriff's department. Investigators there are compiling information in a database. It's a daunting task because many cemetery records were either destroyed or in disarray.

"You thought when you buried them they could be in peace. No peace now," said Clarice J. Dortch.

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, not sure 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.

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.

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.

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.

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