Comptroller's office knew about Burr Oak remains in '03

January 30, 2010 2:18:13 PM PST
Executives of the Burr Oak Cemetery believed more than six years ago that bodies had been improperly buried. And the details of what they knew are in a confidential five-page memo obtained by the ABC7 I-Team.The Burr Oak scandal has been one of the big issues in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Memos and emails obtained by the I-Team reveal that top officials in the Illinois comptroller's office knew in 2003 there was a problem with unearthed human remains at Burr Oak. And according to a confidential five-page report written by Burr Oak's CEO in 2003, cemetery officials had reason to believe the grave-selling scandal had already started.

The public didn't learn about what was happening at the historic black cemetery in southwest suburban Alsip until last May when a groundskeeper found some skeletons where they shouldn't have been.

An investigation then determined that hundreds of corpses had been dug up and moved - many dumped - in an elaborate scheme to re-sell burial plots. Four Burr Oak employees have been charged with felonies.

A five-page memo, marked confidential and obtained by the I-Team, reveals that Burr Oak's chief executive, Slivy Cotton, feared in 2003 that there was a grave selling plot underway.

According to her memo, workers had "discovered bones" and "human remains" and claimed "former owners routinely buried over or cleared out old graves for new business. The memo states executives feared that "old remains were dumped" in a back lot.

Shortly after Ms. Cotton wrote and distributed that memo to company insiders in 2003, she met with a top cemetery official in Comptroller Dan Hynes' office.

On Friday, Mr. Hynes confirmed there had been such a meeting in 2003.

"The cemetery wanted to create a mausoleum and they wanted to know what to do in the event if there was a disruption of remains or burial grounds and we said our office doesn't regulate the burial grounds," said Hynes.

But a six-year-old interoffice email provided late Friday by Hynes' Springfield office states there already were human parts found at Burr Oak in 2003. "The main problem cemetery officials are encountering," it states, "is the discovery of human remains while they were in the process of cleaning and excavating."

According to the memo, it was a situation Hynes' top cemetery official wrote, "sounds complicated, may have some legal implications and needs follow-up and discussion."

The comptroller's official followed up with a February, 2004, letter to the cemetery stating, "I am writing in response to our meeting with you in November regarding the discovery of human remains at Burr Oak," and suggested they contact two outside agencies for help.

On Friday, though, Comptroller Hynes said policing burial grounds isn't his job.

"Our office doesn't have a role. We audit the books of cemeteries," said Hynes. "It's shameful that the families of Burr Oak have to relive this and see this tragedy politicized because Pat Quinn wants to win an election."

Late Friday night the Hynes campaign reiterated its stance in a written statement saying the comptroller's office doesn't inspect cemeteries and believes it would not be unusual for human remains to be discovered while excavating a 100-year-old cemetery. A spokesperson for Comptroller Hynes says that Burr Oak executives didn't reveal many details back in 2003 and what state officials knew couldn't have foretold the grave-selling scandal of 2009.

ABC7 left numerous messages for the former CEO of Perpetua, the company that still owns Burr Oak, and never heard back. ABC7 also tried to contact the current Perpetua executives and the listed phone number didn't work.

Pat Quinn told ABC7 Friday night that Hynes needs to come clean on what he knew about Burr Oaks and when he knew it.

"The Burr Oaks Cemetery scandal is the worst American history. Grave robbing going on and there was information about that in 2003. Why didn't the comptroller know about it? He's in charge of that office and they have a duty, he does, under law to make sure things are done right," said Quinn.

Quinn says the lack of action by the comptroller's office in this scandal is a question of competence.