Cemetery owner scammed by employee before

July 15, 2009 (CHICAGO) Perpetua Holdings, Inc, the company that owns Burr Oak Cemetery, has been scammed by an employee before.

ABC7 has learned about another four-year-long deception in which a cemetery worker recently admitted to stealing nearly $200,000 from the company.

Then, like now, many are asking how these things could go on for so long without the cemetery owner finding out. As it's become clear in the last week, and the sheriff alleged again Tuesday, they appear to have a hands-off management style.

Carolyn Towns and three grave diggers have been characterized as cemetery workers betraying the public's trust, out for personal profit instead of showing sensitivity to the sacred ground they maintain.

However, these are not entirely new allegations to the owners of Burr Oak.

Two months ago, another Perpetua employee pled guilty to embezzling funds from the company at a Perpetua-owned funeral home in St. Louis.

Between 2004 and 2008, funeral home manager Debora Kellom admits she embezzled more than $200,000 from Perpetua.

She pled guilty to diverting customers' cash payments to herself, among other things.

Adding the amount allegedly looted from Burr Oak, all-together Perpetua's employees are accused of stealing at least $500,000 in less than five years.

"My only surmise is they sat back and let her run everything. They never came into town to see with their own eyes what was going down at their own cemetery. They were just collecting the money," former Burr Oak employee Rosetta Hill said.

Hill sold gravesites at Burr Oak until a disagreement with cemetery manager Carolyn Towns led her to quit.

Hill says she suspected Towns of stealing, but never suspected there were double burials and dumped bodies at her worksite.

"Never in my wildest imagination could I have ever imagined anyone -- all I can say -- is being evil greedy. Greed would go that far," Hill said.

Hill does say other oddities and awkward moments were common Burr Oak, including a time the wrong burial vault was being lowered into the ground.

"Amid all the crying one of the sisters happened to look down and said 'wait a minute! Hell no! Wrong name is on there!'" Hill said.

Late Wednesday, a Cook County judge stripped Perpetua of operational control of the cemetery. The man who oversees graveyards for the Archdiocese of Chicago will take over with the goal of accounting for all 100,000 burials at Burr Oak.

What would this former Burr Oak worker, who told so many families that their loved ones would be safe here, tell them now?

"There are no words. What could you say to anyone about that? I'm sorry? That wouldn't begin to address their grief, frustration and rage," Hill said.

No one from Perpetua showed-up in court Tuesday or Wednesday to argue that the company should continue to run Burr Oak.

A spokesman for Perpetua says they weren't informed of the hearings, and a call from ABC7 was the first the company heard that it no longer controls the historic cemetery.

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